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Zelman, Samuel Victor Albert (Alberto) (1874–1927)

by Thérèse Radic

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Samuel Victor Albert (Alberto) Zelman (1874-1927), conductor, violinist and teacher, was born on 15 November 1874 in North Melbourne, eldest son of Alberto Zelman, a musician from Austria, and his English wife Harriott Eliza (Emily), née Hodgkinson. Alberto junior was a violin prodigy, making his first public appearance aged 6. His early teachers were his father, Roberto Bima, an Italian viola player with the Lyster Opera Company, and Henry Curtis, a violinist and family friend. Educated at King's College, Fitzroy, and Hawthorn State School, in his adolescence he formed an orchestra which rehearsed in the homes of wealthy patrons; compelled by the need to understand his work as a conductor, he learned to play all the standard orchestral instruments.

At 17 Zelman toured Tasmania and New Zealand with the soprano Amy Sherwin. When several influential Melbourne patrons attempted to raise funds to further his education abroad, his father opposed the move, thereby preventing his son from acquiring a conventional musical education, but encouraging in its place self-help which produced an independence of mind and an original concept of musical values.

A member of the orchestra founded by G. W. L. Marshall-Hall in 1892, Zelman led the second violins from 1900. He left in 1910 to join the rival but short-lived Professional Orchestra, becoming its first conductor. In 1901-10 he taught violin at the Marshall-Hall Conservatorium (later known as the Albert Street and later still as the Melba Conservatorium) and thereafter at the conservatorium of the University of Melbourne. He was a member of the university's board of examiners in music from 1906. Zelman resigned his university post when Marshall-Hall was reinstated as Ormond professor of music in 1915. A long-standing quarrel between the two, of considerable importance to Zelman's career, was left unresolved when Marshall-Hall died that year.

In his early twenties Zelman had directed light opera for George Musgrove, but refused subsequent offers to conduct in the United States of America: the prospect of such a career was unattractive to his nature and temperament. He formed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 1906 which remained a largely amateur body until it was supplemented by professionals following World War I. In 1905 he had founded the Melbourne String Quartette and after 1918 established the British Music Society Quartette. Choirmaster of the Independent Church, Collins Street, he was also conductor (1911-27) of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Society, for which his own orchestra played. He founded the Orchestral League in 1922 and was at various times a member of the executives of the Musical Society of Victoria, the British Music Society and the Savage Club.

On 6 April 1912, at Hawthorn, Zelman had married with Australian Church forms the soprano Maude Harrington Jenkins. They remained childless and lived in a rented flat at Hawthorn. In 1922 they spent several months in Europe where Zelman conducted the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony orchestras, with Maude as soloist. He was enthusiastically received in Berlin and, although London was not impressed by his performances, returned to Australia with an enhanced reputation which increased the demand for his services.

Small, slight and never robust, Zelman rapidly exhausted himself. He died of complicated gastroenteritis on 3 March 1927 at Hawthorn and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. There is a tablet to his memory in St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, and at the Savage Club a light burns in his honour. Ranked at the time of his death as the country's foremost violinist and conductor, he was described by a contemporary Isabelle Moresby as 'an unselfish pioneer' who had 'none of the tricks and eccentricities often associated with genius'. Students and players left lavish testimonials to a teacher and friend who was personally unambitious, but evoked enduring devotion. The Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra was founded by his followers in 1933.

Select Bibliography

  • D. M. Dow, Melbourne Savages (Melb, 1947)
  • I. Moresby, Australia Makes Music (Melb, 1948)
  • W. A. Carne, A Century of Harmony (Melb, 1954)
  • T. Radic, G. W. L. Marshall-Hall (Perth, 1982)
  • D. Fairweather, Your Friend Alberto Zelman (Melb, 1984)
  • M. T. Radic, Some Historical Aspects of Musical Associations in Melbourne, 1888-1915 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1977)
  • letter from E. Rofe, 2 Dec 1974, to author
  • Zelman collection (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Thérèse Radic, 'Zelman, Samuel Victor Albert (Alberto) (1874–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/zelman-samuel-victor-albert-alberto-9226/text16305, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 30 May 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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