On the Record: Canadian Jewish Musicians of Note

Zara Nelsova – (Dec. 24, 1917 – Oct. 10, 2002): Cellist, Teacher

Aug. 24, 2020 – By DAVID EISENSTADT

World-renowned cellist Zara Nelsova was born Sara Katznelson. Her Jewish parents and two older sisters emigrated from Russia to Winnipeg, lured by the offer of free land in Canada. Classified as a farmer, her professionally-trained flautist father, Gregor Katznelson, (later changed to Nelsov) recognized Sara’s potential at age four, converted a viola into a miniature cello, and as her teacher, helped Sara become an accomplished soloist.

Her father also arranged for young Sara to take lessons from Hungarian-born cellist (also a child prodigy) Dezso Mahalek, who played with a Winnipeg theatre orchestra.

The three Nelsova sisters (Sara was 10 at the time) founded the Canadian Trio in 1927, as The Telegraph reported, “touring the Dominion” and winning first prize at a Manitoba music competition.

One of the judges, Sir Hugh Robertson, conductor of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, urged the family to move to London with the help of a grant from the province’s Ministry of Education. The clan was poor and needed subsidies.

Sara ultimately enrolled at the London Violoncello School, directed by Herbert Walenn. One of his previous students was John Barbirolli, from whom she claimed to learn her sound and who arranged for her to perform for renowned cellist Pablo Casals.

Wrote Sara Margolis in Strings Magazine, “At 12, she was already a great cellist. But seeking improvement long past the beginning of her professional career, she went on to study with the three great cellists of the day: Gregor Piatigorsky, Emmanuel Feuermann, and Pablo Casals. Nelsova’s humility in seeking out further guidance was coupled with confidence and assertiveness, qualities that stood her in good stead both musically and professionally.

“She gained the opportunity to study with Piatigorsky by showing up unannounced to play prior to an early morning departure at his hotel. She caught conductor William Steinberg’s attention by planting her cello directly in front of him after a rehearsal and just started playing. All that plus a name change, and before long, Zara Nelsova had been crowned cello royalty.” 

At 13, she was a guest soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra, appearing with Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Over the next 10 years, Zara Nelsova played as a soloist and with her sisters Ida, a violinist and Anna on piano, travelling throughout Australia, North Africa and South Africa.

Returning to Canada in 1939, Nelsova became principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1940-43. She also formed a new Canadian trio with Ernest MacMillan and Kathleen Parlow.

After the Second World War, The Guardian reported, “Zara was left the use of a Stradivarius cello that belonged to [Portuguese cellist Guilhermina] Suggia. Though perhaps a little small for her very swollen fingers later on, it was a lovely instrument, and the sound she drew from it was exceedingly special.” Her 1726 Stradivarius cello was known as the Marquis de Corberon.

“Further studies with Emanuel Feuermann and Gregor Piatigorsky, and after 1946, with Pablo Casals, opened up solo and concerto engagements for Nelsova,” noted The Canadian Encyclopedia. “She made recordings with Samuel Barber and the cello music of Ernest Bloch, who said ‘Zara Nelsova is my music.’”

She became an American citizen in 1955, performing with many global orchestras as a soloist, including the New York Philharmonic and orchestras in Montreal, Winnipeg and Boston and overseas in Berlin, Amsterdam and Warsaw. She married American pianist Grant Johnannsen with whom she often performed and recorded.

As a soloist, she performed with conductors who became household names: Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim, and Zubin Mehta. She was the first American cellist to tour the Soviet Union in 1966, and taught at New York’s famed Juilliard School of Music from 1962 through 2002.

“For me, playing music is about sharing, sharing my love for music and sharing my love for what we are as human beings,” she told cello.org in 2000. “The minute I start to play, I’m in a different world, and I’m so caught up in the music and in my desire to share it with the audience that all else fades away. The overwhelming feeling I get is a sense of connection with each person in the audience; I want the audience members to know how much I love what I am doing and how much I love them. And how do I do it? I do it by trying to communicate my love through beautiful music.”


David Eisenstadt
David Eisenstadt

David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of tcgpr and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.