Our History

From small beginnings in the mid 1800’s to a thriving musical hub fit for the 21st century, NCMA has a unique and colourful history.

1842 – Early European settlers

The first European settlers came to Nelson from countries rich in music, both folk and formal, sacred and secular.

1852 – Nelson Philharmonic Society

As routines became established, social music slowly came into its own. By 1852, the small Nelson community, then numbering more than 2000, had formed a short lived Philharmonic Institute. In the following year an Amateur Musical Society was formed and performed some concerts.

1860 – Nelson Harmonic Society

In 1860, better luck was had with a Harmonic Society; it survived for ninety-five years. In 1861 the Society was holding concerts in the newly opened Provincial Council Chamber and in 1868 it could afford to build its own small Practise of Harmonic Hall, sited on what is now the forecourt of the Rutherford Hotel.

1890 – A flourishing music scene

By 1890, the city’s population was around 7000. The Harmonic Society had prospered and was able to support the appointment of a fulltime conductor.

After a two-year tenure by Herr von Zimmerman, Michael Balling, musician and friend of Brahms and Wagner, came across the world from Germany to Nelson.

Balling was totally dedicated to music and a passionate worshipper of Wagner.

At that time the Society’s trustees included J.H. Cock and F.G. Gibbs who, with Balling, were destined to create the Nelson School of Music. Cock and Gibbs were keen amateur musicians and both were men of boundless vision and energy. Gibbs was also the trusted friend of near millionaire bachelor Thomas Cawthron, and singularly adept at wheedling large sums for public benefactions.

1894 – Nelson School of Music established

Balling worked tirelessly for the Harmonic Society and was quick to sum up the music status in New Zealand.

Four months after his arrival he was writing in the Evening Mail:

“As a foreigner I am singularly struck by the prominence given to ´sport´ of all kinds, even to the extent of legal protection and encouragement…And while Colonial youths take prizes in athletics against all comers, our musical students must at great cost proceed to Europe to learn even piano playing efficiently. With so much time and money for sport, we may resolve to reserve a little for higher things such as music.”

His letter goes on to plead for the formation of “a modest school of music” which he would be glad to direct.

Shortly after, the Mayor of Nelson convened a public meeting to debate the idea. By the end of the proceedings over £300 had been promised for the establishment of a music conservatorium to be formed with all speed and to be housed in the Society's Harmonic Hall until its own premises could be provided. On 9th June 1894, only 9 months after Balling's arrival, the Nelson School of Music was declared open.

By 1896, when Balling departed, the School had 52 pupils learning the piano, 37 taking singing lessons, 27 learning strings and a class of 18 taking music theory and history.

1901 – Grand opening of the Nelson School of Music Auditorium and teaching studios

Lady Ranfurly, the wife of the Governor General declared the new building open. The opening ceremony of the Concert Hall (now known as the Nelson School of Music Auditorium) was a total success. J.H. Cock welcoming Their Excellencies, spoke with modest pride of the School's successes to date. Lady Ranfurly's reply ended with a suggestion that the School's next acquisition should be an organ worthy of the new building, to be donated perhaps by some generous patron.

The orchestra, choir and soloists (amounting to some 200 performers) all rose to the occasion and gave the 500 guests a programme that climaxed with a powerful Hallelujah Chorus.

The new School was off to a splendid start.

Over a hundred years of history followed, during which time the School survived two world wars, the great depression and government legislation to include a music syllabus in schools.

2013 – History repeats, school closure

Fast forward 100 years and the School’s heritage auditorium was closed for a second time in its history due to earthquake risk. In the face of this crisis, fundraising began to strengthen, refurbish and reopen the auditorium, and alongside it, to build a new multi-million dollar, multi-use facility with rehearsal and teaching rooms.  This has been the largest development in the 121 year history of our beloved school of music – the oldest institution of its type in New Zealand.

2017 – Redevelopment nears its completion

The School continues to operate with a skeleton staff whilst the School of Music buildings are being strengthened and developed, but tuition, classes and groups continue with enthusiasm.  As the redevelopment reaches its conclusion the Board of Trustees appoint a new Director, James Donaldson to take the lead and manage the School into a new era in its history.

2018 – New beginnings

In January 2018, the Trustees announced a new name for the School, NCMA – Nelson Centre of Musical Arts - heralding a new, fresh start for the organisation.

This is a significant chapter in one of the Southern Hemisphere's most unique musical organisations and recognises the evolution of NCMA from its early foundations as a musical conservatorium in 1894 to the Centre for all music in the Nelson-Tasman region, ready and fully equipped to deliver our vision for today and the future: to be New Zealand's most vibrant, innovative and accessible music community.