The Years of Decline
The National Conservatory continued to be an important voice in American music for another 35 years or so, although it never recaptured the dominant position it had held during Dvorak's[*] directorship. His departure was followed by another period in which there was no director, until the appointment of Emil Paur in 1898–99. By then, the school's graduates populated the American musical scene at every level, and Mrs. Thurber could boast that "nearly 3,000 music students have received their sole tuition at the National Conservatory." Paur continued as director of the conservatory until 1902, later becoming director of the Pittsburgh Symphony (1904–10). In the following years, the conservatory's orchestra was led by Leo Schulz, principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic. Paur was followed as director by Vassily Safonov, but not until after a four-year hiatus. Safonov headed the conservatory from 1906 to 1909, during which time its address changed to 47–49 West Twenty-Fifth Street. Shortly after that, mention of the institution begins to grow increasingly sparse.
In 1913 Engelbert Humperdinck accepted the directorship but could not obtain release from his duties in Berlin. After that date, no one can be identified with the National Conservatory in the capacity of director, and daily management decisions must have been relegated entirely to Mrs. Thurber. In spite of a succession of celebrated directors, she had always been the real energy source of the conservatory; but trying to maintain that posture as she neared seventy must have become increasingly difficult. The end did not come suddenly, as in a bankruptcy or fire; rather, the school simply petered out as Mrs. Thurber's own strength began to wane and income from donors fell. New and vigorous schools of music with ener-
getic young directors began to siphon students, faculty, and resources away from the National Conservatory.
Mrs. Thurber's forays into Congress had precipitated useful public debate over the appropriateness of a federally funded music conservatory in a capitalist society. Ranged on one side with Mrs. Thurber and her backers was the notable figure of Oscar Sonneck, who had virtually created the Music Division of the Library of Congress and was its first head. His position was summarized in a front-page article of 1909 in Musical America , "Should Our Government Establish a National Conservatory of Music?" Sonneck's answer was a strong affirmative.
Directors of private music schools and conservatories across the country, on the other hand, did not find such a prospect attractive in the least. They were, in fact, appalled by the specter of federally funded competition, resented the downgrading of their schools to "feeder" status, and had legitimate concerns about entrusting the nation's advanced musical education to a single institution. Nor were they set at ease by Sonneck's characterization of many of them, in the article cited above, as having "tuition quite out of proportion to [their] merits."
Dvorak[*] , as might have been expected from his own background and affiliation with the conservatory, had supported Mrs. Thurber's viewpoint during his tenure. In 1895, when he made some remarks in favor of a national conservatory with a federal subsidy, the New England Conservatory reacted heatedly. Claude M. Girardeau, editorializing in the New England Conservatory Quarterly , sniped, "Indeed, we do not think that a single musical school in America is endowed in the way and to the extent that many in Europe are. Nor do we today think that state aid is the method best suited to the American nation." The debate was eventually resolved in typical American fashion, with a compromise. Public funding of music schools became a reality, but funds came from the states through their growing university systems rather than being centralized in the federal government.
The forward-looking academic program of the National Conservatory played an important but little-acknowledged role in developing the profile of unified professional and humanities-oriented courses that came to typify later college-level music programs in this country. At that time history of music was most often taught, as is still the case in many other countries, in university courses separate from performance or theoretical studies, which take place at a specialized music conservatory. At the National Conservatory, though, Henry Theophilus Finck, music editor of the New York Evening Post (1881–1924), began lecturing on music history in 1888, and he continued to do so until his death in 1926. "The founder's [i.e., Thurber's] cardinal precept," noted one laudatory writer, "is that general culture should go hand in hand with special training."
The introduction of solfeggio as early as 1885 was still another such innovation. Frank Damrosch, who had surveyed the programs of leading European conservatories in planning for the opening of the Institute of Musical Arts in 1905, also became an advocate of its inclusion in the curriculum, and in a 1912 article he spoke forcefully about the need for such study, with justifiable pride in his own institu-
tion's course. It was the National Conservatory under Jacques Bouhy's leadership, though, that had introduced solfeggio into the American musician's preparation. In 1890 Harper's Weekly hailed it as the "first to introduce [solfeggio] in this country in 1885," an approach most certainly influenced by Mrs. Thurber's own experience at the Paris Conservatory. Other features of the National Conservatory curriculum now considered standard in American music schools included required piano study for all students, "for the reason that it gives a solid basis to one's harmonic knowledge," and supervised "practice teaching," described by the same writer: "Teachers are literally made and by beginning their duties in preparatory classes they by a system of logical evolution become the masters of a singularly clear and inevitable method." Those who showed exceptional gifts as teachers were often absorbed into the teaching staff, regardless of gender. Thus Leila LaFetra of Hyde Park, Massachusetts, appeared on a list of students in 1890; but in the next academic year she was shown as a teacher of solfeggio.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing withdrawal of funds that afflicted so many private institutions at that time seem to have been the final blows that brought down the faltering conservatory. While there was no formal announcement of the school's demise, there is no record of its operation after 1930. Continued agitation in musical circles and the press to create, or re-create, such a school attested to the void its disintegration left, but the National Conservatory was no longer capable of filling that role.
Even after the school's demise, Mrs. Thurber never relinquished her dream of a federally funded conservatory. As late as January 1939, at the age of 88, she wrote to Congressman James W. Wadsworth, representative of the Thirty-ninth District of New York, with a plan to once again introduce congressional legislation on behalf of a national conservatory. Wadsworth advised against any attempt to introduce legislation toward that end. "Such an attempt," he wrote, "I am sure, would fail, and through such failure the prospect of its success some time in the future would be diminished." There was no future for such legislation, though. Support from the music world was spotty at best, especially with the wrenching turn from a depression to a war. The National Conservatory of Music was declared officially defunct by the state of New York on 15 October 1952, under section 57 of the Membership Corporations Law, for failure to file mandatory operational reports.