Nelsova, Zara (1918—)

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Nelsova, Zara (1918—)

Canadian-American musician who was one of the preeminent cellists of her time. Name variations: Sara Nelson. Born Sara Nelson in Winnipeg, Canada, on December 23, 1918; daughter of Gregor Nelsov, a flautist and graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory; studied with her father; also studied with Dezsö Mahalek, Herbert Walenn, Pablo Casals, Emanuel Feuermann, and Gregor Piatigorsky; married Grant Johannesen (an American pianist).

Was the first North American cellist to tour the Soviet Union (1966); known for her close collaboration with Ernest Bloch, the composer, as well as for concertizing and teaching.

Zara Nelsova was born in 1918 in Winnipeg, Canada, the youngest of three daughters of Gregor Nelsov, a flautist. She began playing the cello at age four-and-a-half, when her father woke her one cold morning and presented her with a full-size cello. Finding the instrument much too large to handle, the child cried bitterly. So Gregor had a viola converted into a small cello for her to play. Nelsova's progress was so rapid, she was playing in public by age five.

Where some fathers might have seen three daughters, he saw a professional musical trio. One was started on the violin, the other on the piano, and Zara continued to learn the cello. The girls' relationship with their father-teacher was loving. Still young, the sisters played throughout Canada and won the Manitoba Festival, while Zara won first place as a soloist as well. Sir Edward Bairstow and Sir Hugh Robertson arranged for a grant from the Ministry of Education so that the sisters might study music abroad. In 1929, the family sailed for England.

Life was not easy in London. The family moved into a tiny two-room flat in a seedy part of town known as Little Venice. Gregor discovered that his daughters were too young to enter the Royal College of Music. Even so, he insisted that they practice, so while Zara played her cello for six hours in one corner of the room, her sister played the violin in the other. In this difficult atmosphere of competing melodies, Zara honed her enormous powers of concentration which would stand her in good stead. Prominent neighbors in the musical world began to look after the girls' future. The eminent critic Alfred Kalisch happened to live in the apartment opposite and arranged for them to meet his sister, Constance Hoster . Hoster served on a committee with Lady Battersea (Constance de Rothschild ), Audrey Melville, Edith Debenham, and Elsa Warren to organize funds for needy musicians. "They were wonderful to our family," said Nelsova. "I don't know what we would have done without their help because we had no money at all."

In the meantime, the family met many prominent musicians. Herbert Walenn had Zara admitted to the London Violoncello School and insisted on teaching her himself. She also met John Barbirolli, one of his students, who worked with her. "I would often go to his house and play to him," said Nelsova, "and he made me aware of an entirely different style of playing—a bigger style—and most important of all was that I attribute my sound to Barbirolli." Mischel Cherniavsky and Laurie Kennedy , principal cellist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, helped as well. When the Canadian Trio debuted at Wigmore Hall, they attracted considerable attention. Soon there were concerts at the Royal College of Music and with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent.

When Zara was 17, her parents decided to move to Australia, leaving her with her older sisters. But her sisters became ill, and Nelsova found herself in the position of having to support the Trio. Though times were difficult, they survived and prospered with the help of many friends. In 1936, Nelsova debuted as a soloist at Wigmore Hall to rave reviews. Engagements increased as the clouds of war rolled over Europe. The sisters decided to return to Canada in 1939, using money left them in the will of Constance Hoster. They tried to book tickets on the Athenia, but there was no room. The Athenia would be torpedoed by German U-boats, with the loss of all on board. A week later, the sisters sailed on the Duchess of Atholl, which narrowly missed being hit as well.

Arriving in Toronto for Christmas of 1939, the sisters took up residence at the YWCA. As refugees, they were well looked after, but they had no place to practice, until someone offered the boiler room, which proved an excellent place in bitter cold weather. One day while Nelsova was practicing, she looked up to find ten faces staring at her through the boiler-room window. Outside were members of the Canadian Broadcasting Orchestra who had been rehearsing in a nearby church when they heard her playing and sought the source. They arranged for Nelsova to meet people of note in the music world; it was in this way that she was engaged by Arthur Fiedler to play with the Boston Pops. The following year, Charles Münch arranged for her to solo with the Boston Symphony. She became the principal cellist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and formed a second Canadian Trio with Kathleen Parlow and Sir Ernest MacMillan.

Nelsova continued to study whenever she could. Emanuel Feuermann, the great cellist, tutored her for several weeks when she was 23. She also studied at Tanglewood and Rockport for several summers with Gregor Piatigorsky, who helped her prepare for a recital debut at the Town Hall in New York in 1942, and with Pablo Casals, an enlightening experience for a cellist. Nelsova's relationship with the composer Ernest Bloch began in the late 1940s. At that time, the 68-year-old was living on a beach in the remote village of Agate Beach, Oregon. Nelsova joined him there, and they played and discussed music. She asked him to compose cello music for her, and eventually he did write three unaccompanied cello works; because performer and composer had worked together, she had opened his mind to the concept of unaccompanied string texture. In 1949, she played his work Shelomo at a festival of his music in London, later recording it under his baton.

Nelsova remained a determined musician. The rigors of childhood practice had made her extremely durable. In 1953, seven weeks after major back surgery, she was scheduled to play at a Wigmore Hall recital. Confined to St. Bartholomew's Hospital, in Smithfield, England, she was determined to get out of bed and practice her cello. She asked the staff if there were somewhere she might practice undisturbed. At that time, the hospital was in the process of renovation, and the division between the surgical and psychiatric wards was nonexistent. So, six days after surgery, the nurses led her to an empty ward which was perfectly quiet. Though Nelsova noted that the walls were lined with leather and that there were no handles on the door, she began playing happily and thought nothing further of it. Soon someone looked in, shut the door, and locked it. No doubt, they assumed that a woman in the psychiatric ward playing a cello in a dressing gown should not be allowed to roam free. She banged on the door for some time before she convinced them that she was, in fact, a cellist, and performed beautifully at her recital a few weeks later.

Though she began teaching at the Juilliard School in 1962, Nelsova continued to tour widely in Europe, and North and South America, and in 1966 was the first North American cellist to play in the Soviet Union. She appeared as a soloist with more than 30 orchestras throughout the world. After her marriage to pianist Grant Johannesen, the two played together many times. Nelsova also recorded frequently, often playing on a 1735 Pietro Guarneriusa or a 1726 Stradivarius (or "Marquis de Corberon," as the instrument was named). This marvelous instrument, too priceless for her ever to purchase, was a bequest of Audrey Melville, one of the women on the committee which helped Nelsova as a child. Zara Nelsova was regarded as the most outstanding cellist of her time; a "player of magnificent presence, grand verve, consummate skill and unflagging strength," wrote critic Kenneth Winters.


Campbell, Margaret. "Independent Achievement," in The Strad. Vol. 99, no. 1179. July 1988, pp. 556–559.

Kallman, Helmut, Gilles Potvin, and Kenneth Winters, eds. Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. 2nd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Uscher, Nancy. "Zara Nelsova and Ernest Bloch. The Story of a Friendship and a Musical Partnership," in Strings. Vol. 2, no. 4, 1988, pp. 20–25.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia