Nancy Weir – pianist and spy

Pianist Nancy Weir in 1929, aged 10
Pianist Nancy Weir in 1929, aged 10

This article was inspired by a posting on Hawthorn Historical Society’s Facebook page: “I wondered among some of the oldies out there if anyone took piano lessons from the world renowned pianist Nancy Weir. … Nancy gave lessons from her home when was she wasn’t performing overseas. We would hear Nancy each day playing on her beautiful grand piano. We were privileged to hear her play when others paid …” [Nancy lived at 46 Bowler Street Hawthorn East, 1950s-1960s]

Nancy Mary Weir was born in Kew on 13 July 1915; a child prodigy, she knew the piano keyboard at 18 months and when four sneaked out to a nearby convent for lessons from a nun. At 13, she performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 with the Melbourne Symphony under conductor Fritz Hart following which Melbourne’s lord mayor launched a public subscription for her to study in Europe.

In 1930 she arrived in Berlin to study with pianist and teacher Artur Schnabel. However when Schnabel left Germany in 1933 as the Nazis came to power, Weir went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music. After being set the Bach-Busoni Chaconne in D minor to learn, she returned the next week to play it from memory. She later explained that while a student in Berlin, she had a neighbour who played that piece for several hours each day; she learned it by musical osmosis through the wall!

Weir could hear as many as five independent musical lines simultaneously – most professional musicians have difficulty with three. She was described in London in the 1930s as having “the best musical ear since Mozart”. She made her Proms debut with the Bach Concerto in A minor for pianos, conducted by Sir Henry Wood.

After graduating in 1936, she joined the Bangor Trio at the University College of North Wales. She played solo recitals with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and toured extensively.

When World War II began, Weir joined the WAAF and was transferred to RAF intelligence as she spoke fluent German. Even when secrecy provisions were lifted 50 years after the war, she said little beyond describing her wartime occupation as “a musical spy”. What is known is that she was sent to Egypt and Palestine to entertain the troops with such artists as Paul Robeson. At all times she was listening.

At the end of the war she flew to Italy to attend prisoners-of-war interrogations. London-based Australian pianist Geoffrey Saba said: “[Nancy] … was based in England and night after night she was parachuted into Germany behind the lines and spied for the Allies. And then, to hide all this, she’d be whisked off to Cairo or somewhere to give a concert the next night as a sort of a cover.”

After the war, Weir appeared in Britain with conductors Van Otterloo, Galliera, Goossens and Fiedler. She returned to Melbourne in 1954 to look after her ill father and joined the Melbourne University Conservatorium staff. For the opening ceremonies of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics she played the Beethoven Emperor concerto under Sir Bernard Heinze, and later taught and performed as a member of the Ormond Trio. In 1958 she toured China.

In 1966, she moved to Brisbane to take a position at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. Here her students included Piers Lane who said ‘‘She could be difficult to cope with, but she had a wonderful sense of humour and a high intelligence … I was inspired by her.’’

The German Government awarded her the Beethoven Commemorative Medal in 1970. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Griffith University in 1994 and an Order of Australia (OA) in 1995 for services to music and music education.

A touching personal story involves her much-loved dog Cully who arrived at her home unannounced and, despite Weir’s best efforts to locate the owner, refused to leave. They had happy years together with Cully often appearing on stage with her. At the end of Cully’s life, crippled and very weak, Weir warned her that she “might have to make that special trip to the vet”. That same evening, Cully, who never ventured far from Weir’s side, ran out onto the street and was knocked down by a car.

Weir retired in 1980 and in 1987 moved to Townsville where she restored and lived in a deconsecrated church; then ran a small grocery shop in Mackay before entering a retirement village in Brisbane in 2002. The extraordinary Nancy Weir died on 14 October 2008, aged 93. ♦