Opened in 1901, the Nelson School of Music was designed by the noted architect Frederick de Jersey Clere [1856-1952]. Unique in New Zealand, the building was inspired by and based upon German schools of music. Since its grand opening it has served almost continuously in its dual function as a high quality concert hall and music training school.
For nineteenth century settlers from Britain, classical music was inextricably linked with culture and civilisation. In 1860, the year that Nelson was officially declared a city, the Nelson Harmonic Society was formed. The society flourished, and by 1867 it was able to erect a small concert hall in Trafalgar Street. Support for the society's concerts swelled, although concern was occasionally expressed at the quality of performances given.
In 1893 Michael Balling (1866-1928), an eminent German string player and conductor then visiting Nelson, expressed his opinion that a city should 'resolve to reserve a little for higher things such as music'. He proposed that a school of music similar to those found in Germany should be established in Nelson, and accepted an invitation by the society to serve as the school's full time conductor. By offering instruction in practical and theoretical music, the school would raise the standard of musical entertainment and performances given in the city.
Operating from the hall in Trafalgar Street the school, then unique in New Zealand, thrived under Balling and his inspired German successors Gastav Hanke and Julius Lemmer. By 1899 a need for larger teaching rooms and the desire for superior concert facilities for the city prompted the school trustees to commission Wellington architect Frederick de Jersey Clere to design the present Nelson School of Music building on the corner of Nile and Collingwood Streets.
Built of solid brick masonry with a Marseilles tile roof, the Nelson School of Music was designed by Clere in the Free Classical style then popular in Australia and New Zealand. The building expressed the confidence and prosperity of the Nelson School of Music at the beginning of the twentieth century. Based on a rectangular plan the building features a large, arched window and decorative pediment over the entrance door. An auditorium large enough to seat 500 people dominates the interior of the Nelson School of Music. It features a barrel vaulted ceiling and has exceptionally good acoustic properties. Four studios are located to the eastern side and rear of the auditorium. The financial support of eminent Nelson businessmen Joseph Cock and Thomas Cawthron, together with the proceeds from sale of the old hall, supplied the £4000 required to erect the building. It was built by John Hunter and opened by the wife of the governor, Lady Ranfurly, to a packed audience in 1901.
The Nelson School of Music building was an immediate success both as a school and as a concert venue. The excellent acoustics attracted leading national and international performers. It became a vital part of the cultural life of Nelson and, in 1920, served as the venue for the city's civic reception of the then Prince of Wales.
The prosperity of the Nelson School of Music was affected by anti-German animosity during the First World War, and the Great Depression of the 1930s. This, combined with changing musical tastes and increasing competition from theatres and cinemas, forced the Trustees to consider closing the building. The Second World War and competition from local colleges, who began to teach music in the 1940s, caused the situation to deteriorate. In 1955 the building was gifted to the city and a year later the Nelson Harmonic Society was disestablished. In 1968, following the Inangahua earthquake, the original, decorative pediments above the window and on the sides of the building were removed.
Following extensive repairs and the purchase of the neighbouring Snodgrass House (Beatrice Kidson Block) for classroom facilities, the building was gifted back to the Nelson Music Trust in 1974. Further renovations were undertaken in 1984 and, true to its original purpose, the revitalised building is today used as an independent education institution for music teaching and as a high quality performance venue.
The Nelson School of Music is nationally significant as it is the only New Zealand school of music based on the German model. The building is historically significant for its strong associations with persons of national and international importance. Established by internationally recognised conductor and musician Michael Balling, the Nelson School of Music building is testimony to the success of his vision. The building has played host to royalty and notable musicians from all over the world, illustrating both the quality of the facilities and its importance in Nelson city. The building represents wider historical trends such as the focus of tensions aroused by the First World War and its history reflects the economic impact of the Depression. The Nelson School of Music is culturally important for its role in fostering New Zealand music, training music teachers, performers and providing performances. As the work of Frederick de Jersey Clere and as a fine example of the Free Classical style, the building is of considerable architectural interest. It has high aesthetic value and the excellent acoustics in the auditorium add to the technical importance of the building. Though inspired by German influences, the building has established its own, unique New Zealand identity, and is highly valued by the Nelson community.