Turnips and opera may seem an unlikely pairing, but at Otago the former eventually led to the latter! Turnips were one of the specialties of Dunedin seed merchants Nimmo and Blair, regular winners of prizes at agricultural and pastoral shows around Otago in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. John Blair, one of the owners, was a Scotsman drawn to the colonies by the lure of gold. After some years in Victoria he arrived in Otago in 1862, attracted by the new rush to the Dunstan. When he failed to make a fortune on the goldfields, Blair settled in Dunedin, finding work with a seed merchant. Blair proved a better businessman than he was a miner. With partner Robert Nimmo he purchased his late employer’s firm in 1876, and Nimmo and Blair quickly flourished as growers and suppliers of seeds, also branching out to sell fertilisers and agricultural implements. When he died in 1913 Blair was a man of considerable means, leaving money to his family and to various charitable causes, especially those connected with religion and education in the south.
Blair had a great fondness for music and in 1925 the University Council learned from his trustees that he had bequeathed funds to pay for a music lecturer at Otago (the delay after his death was presumably to allow various life interests and annuities in his estate to be completed). With funds for a lecturer’s salary guaranteed, the university was happy to expand its academic offerings to include the study of music; it was already supporting more informal adult education classes in music appreciation through the Workers’ Educational Association.
The council advertised for a lecturer, but did not have to look far to find a perfectly qualified candidate. Victor Galway, who was organist at First Church, conductor of the Dunedin Choral Society and its orchestra, a private music teacher, and the WEA lecturer, started work as the University of Otago’s first music lecturer in 1926. Galway, then in his early thirties, had excellent academic credentials in addition to practical experience, for he was the University of Melbourne’s first doctoral graduate in music (he was born in England but migrated to Australia with his family in his teens).
The music department had small beginnings, with just 12 students in its first year. Early courses on offer included harmony, counterpoint, musical appreciation and history, and – for advanced students – composition and orchestration. The actual performance of music would not become part of the curriculum until much later, though staff and students of the department took part in many musical activities outside their classes.
Otago was late getting off the ground with music – Auckland University College had a music lecturer from 1888 and Canterbury from 1891 – but its programme grew steadily. Victor Galway, who was promoted to professor in 1939, reflected in 1949 on the department’s first 25 years. There were now 185 students, including 45 studying for the specialist Bachelor of Music degree. Galway took pride in the achievements of those he had taught, particularly those who had gone on to influential positions in education: “The Professor of Music in Canterbury University College and both of the lecturers in Music there are students of mine and graduates of this University, as is also the lecturer in Music in Otago [Mary Martin, who had graduated MusB in 1930 and was appointed lecturer in 1939]. The Departments of Music in the Dunedin Technical High School, the Christchurch Technical College, the Papanui Road Technical College as well as in many other post primary schools in New Zealand are staffed by men and women trained at the University of Otago. Others of our graduates hold leading positions in the National Broadcasting Service, as Church Organists, and as performers and teachers throughout New Zealand.”
Recently I had the pleasure of talking with Honor McKellar, who was a student in the department in the early 1940s. She remembers the music staff of two – Galway and Martin – being squeezed into a small office shared with the German department in the clocktower building. Among the half dozen or so other students majoring in music then were John Ritchie (who became Professor of Music at Canterbury and a noted composer) and Walter Metcalf (who studied both science and music and ended up with an academic career in chemistry). Metcalf was a good violinist who led the university orchestra, while McKellar played “about fourteenth violin.” She describes herself as “dispensable” to the orchestra – when somebody in a front row broke a string she passed her violin forward and retired from the concert!
Honor McKellar’s great talent was in singing, and Prof Galway called on her to illustrate the public lectures he often gave. He was a popular lecturer, well-known for swinging his watch chain as he walked from side to side across the stage. He was a good teacher, she recalls, and gave them a thorough technical training; she could “write a fugue backwards”. He was, though, very conservative in his musical tastes, and famously described nineteenth-century opera as “the lowest form of art”. Seventeenth-century composer Purcell was more to his taste, and in 1941 he led the Otago University Musical Society in a concert performance of the Purcell opera Dido and Aeneas. Galway’s successors as Professor of Music, Peter Platt and then John Drummond, were opera enthusiasts who developed this aspect of the department’s work greatly.
The seed merchant’s legacy – still commemorated through the Blair Professorship in Music – clearly had quite an impact on Otago. As well as the lectureship, his bequest funded scholarships for many music and arts students until the 1970s, when the money was redirected into the newly-established Mozart Fellowship for composers. Other music lovers later followed his example and contributed financially to the department’s activities; most notably, a large bequest from Dunedin physician William Evans funded a travelling scholarship and lecturers in music performance. Honor McKellar returned to Otago as its first executant lecturer in 1971; performance was offered as a degree subject from 1966, but tuition was initially contracted out to external teachers.
The Department of Music has offered much to Dunedin, and the wider world, ever since it started in 1926. It’s nice that this is a reciprocal relationship, with those who enjoy music supporting its teaching. And how appropriate it is that money earned from seeds got it started and helped it flourish!