Capital city of New Zealand. It was chosen as the seat of government in 1865 on account of its central location. During the early years of settlement, which began in 1840, musical activity was dominated by military bands, which provided music for balls, public events and outdoor promenade concerts. Home music-making was a favourite pastime, and newspaper advertisements for music teachers and music shops appeared regularly from around 1850. Amateur organizations were quickly established, but all, apart from the Wellington Choral Society (founded 1860), proved shortlived. The first professional opera performance, of La sonnambula, was given by a touring troupe in 1863, and from the 1870s onwards travelling professional soloists and ensembles began visiting regularly.
Resident musical activity remained largely amateur until well into the 20th century. As the imperial regiments were withdrawn, military bands gradually gave way to amateur brass ensembles, such as the still flourishing Onslow Brass Band, originally formed as the Wellington Municipal Tramways Band in 1905. An amateur Operatic Society was formed in 1888 and the Choral Society, renamed the Royal Wellington Choral Union in 1904, was joined by new choirs including an all-male Liedertafel (1891) and the Wellington Harmonic Society (1914). The Wellington Orchestral Society, established in 1879 to support choral activities, soon began presenting concerts under a succession of professional conductors, most notably Alfred Hill (director 1892–6). Other amateur orchestras emerged in the early years of the new century, but all struggled for survival. With the emergence of radio, a small professional orchestra was formed to service the local 2YA station in 1928, and the city was also home to the orchestra formed for New Zealand's Centennial Music Festival in 1940.
An upsurge of interest in the arts after World War II paved the way for the creation of a permanent orchestra in 1946. Now known as the New Zealand SO, this is one of many national institutions based in the capital. The Alex Lindsay String Orchestra, founded in 1948, became the city's own professional ensemble. Disbanded in 1973, it was immediately reconstituted as the Wellington Regional Orchestra, later renamed the Wellington Sinfonia. Professional chamber music began with the establishment in 1945 of the Wellington Chamber Music Society, which still promotes concerts and was the catalyst for the formation of a national body, Chamber Music New Zealand. The city became a centre for professional opera during the existence of the New Zealand Opera Company (1954–71). After a period of mainly semi-professional activity, another fully professional company, Wellington City Opera, was founded in 1984. Other important ensembles based in the capital are the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra and the New Zealand String Quartet, both formed in 1987. Annual subscription seasons are given by all these national and local ensembles, and there are numerous other concerts, including regular lunch-time recitals at a city church, St Andrew's-on-the-Terrace, and at the university. Music features prominently at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, which has taken place biennially in Wellington since 1986.
The abundance of professional activity is matched by a high level of amateur music-making, particularly in the choral field. A specialist small choir, the Schola Cantorum, flourished from 1932 to 1950 and was subsequently reborn as the Phoenix Choir. The Orpheus Choir concentrates on large-scale works and often performs with the New Zealand SO. Also of note are the Bach Choir (1968), the Festival Singers (1976), the semi-professional Bel Canto (1988) and two specialist early music choirs: Cantoris (1971) and the Tudor Consort (1986). Opera Technique (established 1954), the Wellington Chamber Orchestra (1972) and the Wellington Youth Orchestra (1979) are other important amateur organizations.
Major performance venues include the 1600-seat St James' Theatre (1912), the State Insurance Opera House (opened in 1914 as the Grand Opera House), the 2500-seat auditorium of the Michael Fowler Centre (1977) and the Wellington Town Hall (1904), with its main auditorium (cap. 2000) and smaller adjacent Ilott Concert Chamber. The Town Hall's Norman & Beard organ, installed in 1906 and restored in 1985, is a fine example of an English symphonic-style concert instrument of the Edwardian era. Equally notable is the Wellington War Memorial Carillon, dedicated in 1932. Its original complement of bells, cast by Gillett & Johnston, has been augmented three times and now totals 74, making it the third largest concert carillon in the world.
The city has two tertiary music institutions. The School of Music at Victoria University of Wellington was founded in 1946, teaches composition, performance, musicology and ethnomusicology, and is home to the Waiteata Music Press. The Wellington Polytechnic Conservatorium (1975) is noted for jazz and vocal studies. Two national research collections – the Alexander Turnbull Library's Archive of New Zealand Music and the Sound and Music Centre of the National Library of New Zealand – are major resources for musical scholarship and jointly house the Brian Salkeld Collection of sound recordings and playing machines, which comprises over 15,000 items.
One of New Zealand's main recording companies, Kiwi-Pacific International, is located in the city. Founded in 1959 as a branch of a publishing house, it became independent in 1978 and is noted for its recordings of New Zealand compositions and Polynesian music. The Arts Council of New Zealand/Toi Aotearoa (originally founded as the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council in 1963) has its headquarters in Wellington, as do the country's music radio network Concert FM (1963), the Composers' Association of New Zealand (1974) and the New Zealand Music Centre (1991).
Cyclopedia of New Zealand, i: Wellington (Wellington, 1897)
L.Ward: Early Wellington (Wellington, 1928)
C.Howe: Schola Cantorum, Wellington, New Zealand, 1936–50 (Wellington, 1951)
C.H.Mitchell: The Arts in Wellington, 1890–1912 (diss., U. of Wellington, 1959)
J.M.Moriarty: Wellington's Music in the First Half-Century of Settlement (diss., U. of Wellington, 1967)
D.S.: ‘The Wellington Town Hall Organ’, Organ News, viii/5 (1972), 15–16
P.Lawlor: ‘The Cult of Stradivarius’, Pat Lawlor's Wellington (Wellington, 1976), 117–28 [personal memories of Wellington c1920–60]
J.Palmer: ‘The Archive of New Zealand Music’, Music in New Zealand, no.16 (1992), 10–11
A.Simpson: ‘Taking Stock: a Personal Reflection’, Le nozze di Figaro (Wellington, 1995), 4–5 [Wellington City Opera; programme book]
A.Simpson and G.Newson: Alex Lindsay: the Man and his Orchestra (Christchurch, 1998)