previous chapter
Four— Jeannette Meyer Thurber (1850–1946): Music for a Democracy
next chapter

Jeannette Meyer Thurber (1850–1946):
Music for a Democracy

Emanuel Rubin

Although she was neither performer nor composer, Jeannette Meyer Thurber exerted as great an influence on the musical life of the United States as any other figure of her generation. From her early thirties until the last years of her life, she worked incessantly on behalf of greater public access to good music. She made possible the presentation of innumerable concerts, operas, and musical tours, promoted American musicians with special attention to the careers of minorities and women, and built the first American repertory opera company that traveled the breadth of the country. Admirable as those achievements were, what earned her a unique place in the history of American music was the creation, in 1885, of the National Conservatory of Music of America, one of the most influential music schools the United States has produced. Under her leadership, the school brought the great Bohemian composer Antonín Dvorak[*] to New York, initiated important features of American postsecondary music education, and in 1891 became the only arts institution ever awarded a congressional charter. Nevertheless, Jeannette Thurber, one of America's most far-sighted and influential music patrons, is "all but forgotten today, lost in the obscurity of a once bold enterprise."[1]

It is instructive to speculate why this fascinating woman has been so little recognized in the twentieth century. A glib answer, not entirely without validity, is the assumption that she was ignored simply because she was a woman. In her own day, though, she was too widely respected by people of talent, wealth, and influence to have been ignored; not only that, but Jeannette Thurber was a hard woman to ignore. If she wanted one's attention, she was quite good at getting it. Of the many reasons why such an important figure received so little recognition for her achievements, one stands out: her greatest successes were, from one point of view failures—and America has never been kind to even the appearance of losing.

The fates of her two most ambitious projects illustrate this. The National Conservatory, in spite of its unarguable influence on the history of American

This chapter draws on several earlier articles and papers by the author, with much revision and new material added for this book. Especially relevant are: "Jeannette Meyer Thurber and the National Conservatory of Music," American Music 8 (Fall 1990): 294–325; "American Opera in the Gilded Age" (paper presented to the National Meeting of the Sonneck Society at Hampton, Va., 6 April 1991); "Dvorak at the National Conservatory," in Dvorak[*]in America , ed. John Tibbetts (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1993), 53–81; and "American Opera in the Gilded Age: America's First Professional Touring Opera Company," in Opera and the Golden West , ed. John L. DiGaetani and Josef P. Sirefman (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1994), 78–96. I owe thanks for help with this essay to more people than I could possibly list here, but I must single out my wife, Serene, for her patience, encouragement, and emergency assistance as typist and rescuer of lost data.

Jeannette Meyer Thurber is cited in the notes as JMT.


music, faded and finally disappeared about 1930, an apparent victim of the stock market crash of the previous autumn. Notwithstanding its pioneering curriculum, superior faculty, imaginative programming, and long list of influential graduates, its memory was crowded aside by the excitement of a new generation of private and state-funded music schools that flourished in the ground prepared by Jeannette Thurber's enterprise. Such scant attention was paid to the school after its demise that its institutional records, once relegated to a barn in upstate. New York, have now completely disappeared. Her other grand project, the American Opera Company, foundered in bankruptcy after only two brilliant seasons. Appearances, though, are not the whole story. Her work helped to mold the shape of music in twentieth-century America and to give American music an identity of its own.

Her obsession with the democratization of music flew in the face of most of her peers among America's wealthy, who claimed the concert hall and opera house as symbols of gentility and social status under the tutelage of tastemakers like John Sullivan Dwight.[2] She countered the thrust of New York's Metropolitan Opera Society in an attempt to establish opera that would be more accessible to the American public, and, as we shall see, actively encouraged African-American performers such as Harry T. Burleigh and Sissieretta Jones. Supported by her husband's idealism and capital, she devoted more than forty-five years of her life to wrestling with day-to-day management of the conservatory she lovingly founded and funded. She firmly believed, and demonstrated in her life, that wealth brought not just privilege, but obligation as well.

At the very least, Jeannette Thurber was an example of energy and imagination in arts patronage that few could match. Yet in spite of being constantly in the public eye for more than forty years, she remained an essentially shadowy figure. Although she was forever speaking out in the newspapers and writing articles in support of her projects, she was quiet in respect to her private life and avoided self-promotion. Charles N. Boyd, associate editor of the American Supplement to Grove's Dictionary , wrote across his confidential file card for Mrs. Thurber in 1918, "Averse to personal publicity,"[3] and the entry he finally published in the first American Grove's was a mere six lines.

Jeannette Thurber was a paradox. Simultaneously aristocratic and bohemian, she took pleasure in both country dancing and discussing new compositions with her friend Dvorak[*] . A tough negotiator, she wrested major funding commitments from the industrialists Andrew Carnegie and August Belmont and won contract concessions from the most hardened artists' representatives; yet she loved to spend summers in carefree play at her rustic country home in the Catskills, without indoor plumbing. Although she appeared in New York society in magnificent gowns, her preferred mode of dress was a suit tailored more like her husband's than most women of her day would have dared to wear.

She was strikingly beautiful, with a light, glowing complexion magnificently set off by dark hair and eyes. Years later the pianist and essayist James Gibbons


Huneker, her secretary at one time, wrote, "She was a picturesque woman, Gallic in her 'allures', but more Spanish than French in features. She spoke French like a Parisian, and after thirty years, I confess that her fine, dark eloquent eyes troubled my peace more than once."[4] In the course of her career she trained those "dark eloquent eyes" in professional appraisal on Victor Herbert, Anton Seidl, Theodore Thomas, Emil Paur, Frank van der Stucken, and most of the other great names of American music at the turn of the century.

Upon Thurber's death in 1946 at the venerable age of 95, Olin Downes eulogized her in the New York Times under the headline, "Friend of Music,"[5] crediting her with preparing a national climate for the advanced study of music and with inspiring the emulation of her school and its high standards by other educational institutions. Under her guidance, the National Conservatory enlisted the support of wealthy and powerful patrons, established curricula and procedures now adopted by almost all American postsecondary music schools, attracted a faculty of international renown, and prepared several generations of composers and performers to play a significant role in shaping American musical life.

The Path to Patronage

Jeannette Meyer was born in Delhi, New York, on 29 January 1850 and died at her daughter's home in Bronxville, New York, almost 96 years later, on 2 January 1946. Her father, Henry, had come to the United States from Denmark, where he was born 9 November 1809 to a prominent family in Randers, a suburb of Copenhagen.[6] Henry Meyer was naturalized as an American citizen in November 1837 on the affidavit of Edward Valentine Price, his future brother-in-law. He was a cultured man with a fine library, and was an enthusiastic amateur violinist who participated in a string quartet that met weekly to "play the works of the masters."[7] Jeannette's mother, Annamarie (or Anne Maria) Coffin Price, came from old New England stock, stemming from Benjamin Price, who arrived in Boston about 1630 and was a founding father of both Saybrook, Connecticut, and Elizabeth, New Jersey. John Price, her great-grandfather, had fought in the Revolutionary War, and her grandfather, the Reverend Eliphalet Price, D.D., had been pastor of the Old Presbyterian Church at Wappinger's Creek from 1811 until his death in 1850, the year she was born.

Jeannette was sent to the Paris Conservatory to study music while still in her teens—suitably chaperoned, one would assume. After returning, she married Francis Beattie Thurber, of New York, on 15 September 1869, when she was just nineteen. Her husband was a wealthy wholesale food merchant who shared her love for music and supported her iconoclastic views. He sympathized with the anti-trust movement, hardly a popular position for a man in his circle, and he experimented with the development of a stock ownership scheme for his employees. Not only did Frank Thurber make personal contributions and loans to the National Conservatory, but his firm, Thurber, Whyland & Co., was also a major


Fig. 11.
Jeannette Thurber as a young woman.
Photograph from the Onteora Club archives,
courtesy of E. Davis Gaillard, librarian.

donor. His sister, Candace Wheeler, also a strong personality, made a name for herself as an author, textile designer, and outspoken advocate of women's involvement in the commercial arts and crafts industry.[8]

In the spring of 1883, Candace Wheeler took her brother and his wife Jeannette to the Catskills near Tannersville, New York.[9] The intent of the trip seems to have been to provide a relaxed vacation in the mountains as a curative for Mrs. Thurber, who was suffering from bronchitis. All three fell in love with the area, so


much so that within twenty-four hours of his arrival, Francis Thurber had bought land and signed contracts for construction of two cottages for his own and his sister's families. These would become the nucleus of a summer retreat for a fascinating collection of artists, writers, and people from the business world. It was Mrs. Thurber who dubbed the colony "Onteora": "Hills of the Sky," in the language of the Mohawk Indians who populated the area.[10] Over the next few years the Thurbers, Candace Wheeler, and Samuel Coykendall formed the Catskill Mountains Camp and Cottage Company, which later became the Onteora Club, a private corporation established to sell and rent summer cottages, build and manage a guest inn ("The Bear and Fox"), and maintain the land.

The housewarming for the Thurbers' cottage, "Lotus Land," provides a rare glimpse into their private life. A corn roast with "plenty of root beer and lemonade" was proposed, "But the head carpenter," Candace Wheeler wrote many years later, "changed all that."

"Give us exactly what you would give your friends in New York, Mr. Thurber," he advised. . . . So oysters and boxes and barrels of cake and ice and ice cream, and harmless things to drink, came. . . . [Then] wagons began to arrive . . . a long procession of them full of men and boys, and women and babies, and girl-children of all ages.[11]

Three local fiddlers provided music for dancing, led by Mrs. Thurber. "Occasionally," her sister-in-law chronicled, "she was at fault in some of the rapid changes, then the leading fiddler would shout, 'You there,' pointing his bow at her, 'come back here!' and back she would come laughingly to the point indicated, and begin over again."[12]

Perhaps it was the summer pleasures of Onteora, or perhaps it was that her children, Jeannette, Marianna, and Francis, Jr., were beginning to grow up; but 1883, the same year that she and her husband began their enterprise in the Catskills, was also the year that saw Jeannette Thurber begin to emerge as one of the most important American music patrons of the nineteenth century. In 1883 she underwrote Theodore Thomas's notable concerts for young people in New York City, the first "children's concerts" given in the New World, and the following year she underwrote a cross-country tour by Thomas and his orchestra that introduced the music of Richard Wagner to much of the United States. Deems Taylor noted that the repertoire for those concerts was so heavily weighted with Wagner that some wits referred to them collectively as the "Thomas Wagner Festival."[13] Thurber capped that by providing New York City with a real Wagner Festival later the same year, featuring the Thomas orchestra, increased to 150 players, and the combined forces of three choral organizations.[14] It was an artistic success, but lost money on a heroic scale, reportedly leaving its guarantor owing $1.5 million. Typically, rather than discouraging her, collapse of that project only spurred Thurber to greater efforts. She went on to sponsor a series of popular outdoor concerts and then the New York debut of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1888–89.


As early as 1878 she had noted the lack of opportunity for young American singers and had persuaded a group of interested patrons to underwrite vehicles for them to appear on stage in New York. She carried that idea to its logical conclusion by organizing the American Opera Company and its companion corporation, the National Conservatory of Music, in 1885. Those two enterprises were to become her full-time occupation in the following years. Indeed, the National Conservatory would be the focus of her prodigious energy for the remainder of her life.

A National Opera

The American Opera Company was a professional stock company with the avowedly democratic intent of bringing world-class opera to a broad spectrum of the American public at affordable prices. The company's policies showed Mrs. Thurber's touch in several ways: it eschewed the "star system," championed native singers, and performed all operas in English translation. Its prospectus boasted that it had, among other features:

The largest regularly trained chorus ever employed in grand opera in America. . . . The largest ballet corps ever presented in grand opera in America and as far as possible, American in its composition. . . . Four thousand new and correct costumes for which no expense has been spared. . . . [S]cenery . . . painted by the most eminent scenic artists. . . . The musical guidance of Theodore Thomas . . . [and] the unrivalled Thomas Orchestra.[15]

Mrs. Thurber's goal was larger than the opera company itself, though. It was nothing less than the creation of a national infrastructure that would encourage and support American opera throughout the entire country. The foundation for that organization was to be a network of training schools in metropolitan centers across the country, bound together by a professional ensemble that would tour from one center to another, presenting professional productions of the highest musical quality at reasonable ticket prices. She firmly believed that great music would create its own audience and that opera could prosper without conceding anything to the demands of the business office. Mrs. Thurber entrusted the business end of the venture to Charles Locke, who had managed the tours of the Thomas orchestra, and concentrated her attention on production and promotion.

Another aspect of her plan was the desire to create a company that would, as much as possible, feature American rather than imported European productions and would encompass the artistic aspirations of the entire nation. It was a grand scheme: a national opera company coupled to a national conservatory, housed in New York, but with branches all over the country and a professional touring company to connect them into a single network. The new company proposed to present, as the prospectus breathlessly put it, "Artists . . . of the front rank of American singers . . . supported by an ensemble which has never been equaled in this country." We shall return shortly to the brochure's special emphasis on the word ensemble , a significant feature of Mrs. Thurber's thinking.


An additional motivation for forming the company, one that was not announced openly, was social. The Academy of Music on East Fourteenth Street had been the socially preferred venue for opera at least since 1878 under the financing of August Belmont. The academy could not accommodate all the wealthy who hoped to take boxes, though, and the "old money"—the Bayards, Cuttings, Lorillards, Van Rensselaers, and their ilk—were not amenable to the influx of the nouveaux riches—the Astors, Vanderbilts, and their crowd. It was rumored that William K. Vanderbilt had offered $30,000 for a box but was politely turned away.

The Metropolitan Opera House, then, was created in 1883 to accommodate the needs of the new wealthy. Boxes, which cost $12,000 to $15,000 a season, sold out immediately. With a capacity of just over three thousand, one might think that there would be other seats in the hall from which to hear the performance; but a box at the opera was a statement of wealth and social position, not merely a listener's chair. "From an artistic and musical point of view," wrote Henry Theophilus Finck the morning after the opening of the Met, "the large number of boxes in the Metropolitan is a decided mistake. But as the house was avowedly built for social purposes rather than artistic, it is useless to complain about this."[16] The Met had been founded as a cathedral for celebrating the gospel of opera; the intent of the American Opera Company, by contrast, was to spread the faith.

The board of the American Opera Company included Andrew Carnegie as president, along with his fellow New York multimillionaires August Belmont, Levi P. Morton, Henry Seligman, Brayton Ives, H. J. Jewett, and Deacon White. With an eye toward the eventual development of "branches" throughout the country, Mrs. Thurber also included a number of westerners: the meat-packing magnate N. K. Fairbank and George M. Pullman, of sleeping-car fame, both from Chicago, D. Washburn, a flour and wheat distributor from Minneapolis, Charles Crocker, the railroad builder from San Francisco, and Nevada's John W. Mackay, who owned the Comstock silver mines and laid the first transatlantic cable.[17]

With the backing of that formidable list of incorporators, Mrs. Thurber approached the conductor Theodore Thomas, with whom she had already worked on projects such as the children's concerts and the Wagner Festival, and with whose ideas she sympathized. Thomas had recently had a bad experience with wealthy backers of the College of Music in Cincinnati, so he was a bit hesitant at first to get mixed up with another such group; but the attraction of a New York base of operations, combined with steady engagements for his orchestra, was irresistible. Besides, the support of all those multimillionaires made the scheme look foolproof. One of Thomas's biographers, filled with the wisdom of hindsight, lamented: "They approached him with this proposal and he accepted it. Despite the warnings of clearer-sighted friends, despite the lesson he had received at Cincinnati, he accepted. He believed with all his heart in the fable about the millionaire and art. God knows why he should have believed it, except for the reason that he wished it to be true."[18]

Thomas threw himself into the company enthusiastically, hiring singers, edit-


ing scores, even making his own English translations for performances. This was to be an opera company that reflected his personality and his "ensemble" approach to production, which was almost certainly one of the reasons why Thurber was attracted to him as musical director. Unlike the symphony orchestra, where ensemble was all, opera from its earliest days had always depended on the personalities and vocal pyrotechnics of its stars. Balance and blend had long been one of Thomas's strongest points as an orchestra conductor, and this was a chance to show that those qualities could play an equally effective role in opera. He advocated opera in which "all the concomitant parts . . . [would be] equally balanced and excellent."[19]

The plan was initiated as announced: twenty-nine lead singers were employed, twenty of whom were Americans, most of whom were relatively unknown, and some of whom, like Emma Juch, would later go on to fame in other operatic enterprises. An astonishing number of productions, eclectically chosen from classic and modern works, were put into rehearsal for the first season. The anglicized titles used at the time are preserved in the repertoire of the American Opera Company's first (1885–86) season, as compiled from clippings in Mrs. Thurber's scrapbooks and elsewhere:

Aida (Verdi)
Faust (Gounod)
Flying Dutchman (Wagner)
The Huguenots (Meyerbeer)
Lakmé (Delibes)
Lohengrin (Wagner)
The Magic Flute (Mozart)
Marriage of Jeannette (Massé)
Martha (von Flotow)
Merry Wives of Windsor (Nicolai)
Nero (Rubinstein)
Orpheus  image Eurydice (Gluck)
Sylvia (ballet) (Delibes)
Taming of the Shrew (Goetz)

The company opened on 4 January 1886, at the Academy of Music, with the American premiere of Hermann Goetz's Taming of the Shrew . "It went without a hitch," wrote Russell, "a fact that caused universal comment and amazement."

The scenery, all specially painted by famous artists, was wonderfully good and beautiful, all the accessories were adequate, the chorus covered itself with glory, the soloists sang adorably. Critics, commentators, skeptics, joined the public in one swelling hymn of laudation. Operas had not been so produced in the memory of living man. What struck everyone was the flawless perfection of the details and their relation to the harmony of the whole.[20]


Performing the best of the standard repertoire and featuring fine young artists in brilliantly staged productions, the company won the admiration of New York music lovers. A handful of deprecators carped at details, but there was a general outpouring of approval. Backers felt that the support warranted continuing with the plan for a national tour, and sure enough, the new company was greeted with popular enthusiasm and critical acclaim in major cities across the country. In view of the Metropolitan's single-minded emphasis on stars and its reputation for poor, if not downright shoddy, staging, there can be little wonder that Thomas's meticulous preparation brought such enthusiastic response. Of course, it also helped that chorus members were full-time employees with regular rehearsals conducted by their own chorus master.

Consistent with Mrs. Thurber's vision of a nationwide musical infrastructure united by a touring opera troupe, the company played with great acclaim in four major cities during its first year: New York in January, Washington, D.C., in February, New York again in March, followed by Philadelphia, and finally, in November, St. Louis. Only one flaw marked that first, brilliant season, but it was a most serious one: an enormous deficit. Many of Mrs. Thurber's co-sponsors, including Andrew Carnegie, whose name had headed the stationery as president, began to back-pedal away from the project. To avoid pending bills and frustrate lawsuits, the American Opera Company was dissolved and reorganized for 1886–87 as "The National Opera Company of New Jersey," a plan that allowed the new company to assume the assets of its predecessor but walk away from most of its debts. At this same time, as we shall shortly see, the name of its companion training institution was changed from "The American School of Opera" to the "National Conservatory of Music," further separating it from the sinking opera corporation.

Thomas, deeply committed to the project, soldiered on, reluctantly taking Carnegie's place as president. The renamed company opened its second season with great success in New York, and quickly became the musical conversation piece of the year. The season was crowned with the National Opera's American premiere of Anton Rubinstein's Nero at the Metropolitan Opera House, a production acclaimed as having been "placed upon the stage on a scale of splendor never before given to opera in this country . . . sung with enthusiasm, intelligence, and artistic devotion."[21] As far away as Chicago, a critic proclaimed, "The National Opera Co. is making a decided success at the Metropolitan Opera House, and notably with Rubinstein's Nero ."[22] In spite of rumored fiscal problems, Charles Locke, the company's manager, announced that the National Opera Company, like its predecessor, would undertake a transcontinental tour.

With the nearly unanimous acclaim of New York and Boston critics still ringing in the ears of Thomas and his troupe, the National Opera Company sped off across the country. The tour ran into increasing financial problems on its west-ward leg, culminating in a comic-opera-like fiasco in Omaha: unable to pay for the transportation of performers and baggage, the company had to be bailed out from New York before being permitted to leave. Hardly had the train departed Omaha,


however, when it was halted; a mistake, it was now said, had been made and the company would have to pay $7,000 more if it wished to continue its journey. The money was supplied by Mrs. Thurber's Onteora friend Washington Connor, whose son was married to the Thurbers' oldest daughter, Jeannette.

Finally arriving in San Francisco on 17 April 1887, the company performed brilliantly. "Lohengrin by the National Opera Company, was the finest operatic performance ever presented to a San Francisco audience," one paper exclaimed on 23 April. Encouraged by such enthusiasm, the company stayed on for an additional, uncontracted, performance. That last evening in San Francisco was marked by a fiasco of a different kind: steam lines constructed under the stage to provide "smoke" for the final scene of Rubinstein's Nero —the burning of Rome—burst. Thomas whipped the opera through the resulting chaos without losing a beat. "People said it was the best fire scene ever put upon any stage and the newspapers praised Thomas for arranging it."[23]

Leaving San Francisco a day late, but showered with popular praise, the company chartered three trains to race to the next scheduled performance: Lohengrin , in Kansas City. That trip contributed still more stories to the mythology of the company, with breathless tales of hot-box fires and of railroad cars careening wildly as they took turns on one rail at seventy miles per hour to the accompaniment of prayers from the musicians. One member of the orchestra reported of the Kansas City performance, "I have never known it to go better. We were too excited to be tired. Sometimes a performance on bare nerves is the best in the world."[24]

Back in New York, the shell game that had buried the debts of the defunct American Opera Company only to shuffle them furtively to the National Opera Company did not go unchallenged. Thomas had gamely swallowed personal financial loss and continued as director because of his faith in the ideal, but the prima donna, Emma Fursch-Madi, was not of so benevolent a disposition, and she sued the manager, Charles Locke, for $679 in back salary more than a year overdue.[25]

The tour was an artistic triumph conducted against a backdrop of fiscal chaos and internal bickering. In Chicago, after one blowup, the choral director discharged a number of singers for incompetence; however, it was symptomatic that all those discharged were Americans, leaving a chorus of eighty-four, sixty-six of whom were Germans. When one of the fired American singers protested and threatened to sue, he was rehired as an assistant stage director, although he had no experience in stagecraft.

While Syracuse papers were heralding upcoming performances of Flotow's Martha , other, more foreboding newspaper articles were also appearing. "The American Opera Co., Limited, of New York, which started out with such grand prospects and was merged into the National Opera Company of New Jersey, has, in its legal evolutions toward dissolution, fallen into hands of a receiver," the St. Louis Tribune , for example, reported on 24 March. Mrs. Thurber quickly countered with a story that appeared just two days later:


The Opera is Prospering
No Receiver for the National Company
False Report Denied

"There is not a particle of truth in the report that the National Opera Company has gone into the hands of a receiver," said Mr. Jaffre, the cashier of the company, to a Herald reporter who sought an interview with Mr. Locke at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night.[26]

The press played a key role in keeping the story of the National Opera Company in the public eye. There were 84 articles about the National Opera Company in the 1887 New York Times alone, even more remarkable when one considers that the troupe was away on tour that year more than they were in the city. Articles such as "Mrs. Thurber's Triumph" (21 February 1887) supported the endeavor to the city's philanthropists:

Notwithstanding all, one cannot but admire the pluck of Mrs. Thurber, who has now raised for her scheme and spent about a quarter of a million dollars. Everyone hopes that the coming season will be the turning point in the company's career, and that New York capitalists will be found so impressed with the excellence of its performances as to put their hands in their pockets and establish the organization upon a firm footing.

Lawsuits, though, made better press than Mrs. Thurber's protestations or the critical acclaim the company was gathering around the country. On the same dates that the National Opera Company scored so brilliantly in San Francisco and Kansas City, New York papers were full of articles about the company fighting off suits from creditors. The tone often bordered on the salacious, as in the wonderful headline, "Six Poor Deceived Girls" atop the following story:

The American Opera Co. was a defendant in seven separate cases before judge Ehrlich in the city court yesterday. Six of the defendants were described by their lawyer, W. W. Badger, as "poor deceived girls." The other was a poor deceived man, William Parry, the stage manager. The poor deceived girls sat in two rows in the back part of the room, jauntily dressed and trying to look sad. One of them, Alice Richards, a ballet girl, who was engaged for $20 a week now enjoys the distinction of having sued more millionaires in a given time than any girl in New York. She first sued the American Opera Company for $380 or 19 weeks salary, and then, anticipating a failure to collect in that quarter, brought separate suits against C. P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, J. Pierpont Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Seligman, stockholders, each for $146 for damages.[27]

Somehow, the company managed to fulfill performance contracts on its return leg as far as Buffalo, but there Thomas finally threw in the towel, leaving on 15 June. About five days later, the company returned to New York after one last performance in Toronto without him. On 9 July Thomas severed all connection with the National Opera Company in a distressed letter, lamenting, "We have had in ourselves all the elements for good work and prosperity if only the first and vital


condition of success in any undertaking had been observed . . . namely, prompt payment of all employees."[28]

Mrs. Thurber claimed that the company's financial difficulties had arisen because private subscriptions promised in several cities, amounting to $250,000, had not been paid. She engaged District Attorney Winfield to represent her in the Hudson County Civil Court in an attempt to recover at least the amount she had loaned the company. The assets of the company, originally valued at $150,000, were sold for $26,101, or just a little more than 17¢ on the dollar.

What had happened? Why, in the space of less than two years' time, had Jeannette Thurber's experiment in Americanizing opera gone from a brilliant beginning to such ignominious failure? There is no question about the quality of the company, the artistry of its performers, or the readiness of late-nineteenth-century American audiences to welcome opera enthusiastically. The combination of lavish productions and low prices, though, left the company with a deficit at the end of its first season from which it never recovered. One of Thomas's biographers puts it most succinctly:

The notion that any enterprise taking money from the public must be self-sustaining to justify its existence is bred in the Anglo-Saxon bone. . . . The eminent gentlemen that Mrs. Thurber's eloquence and the popularity of her husband had induced to join in the American Opera Company believed they were starting a business enterprise like any other, and when they heard that it had not paid its way in one whole season of experiment, they called it a failure and scrambled ashore.[29]

The assumption was that only those enterprises that survived in the marketplace could be called successes, and that in good, businesslike fashion, failures should be cut loose as quickly as possible. The robber barons were decisive and far from gentle in their manner. Cornelius Vanderbilt is reputed to have once sent a note to some businessmen who had tried unsuccessfully to best him, saying, "Gentlemen: I will not sue you for the law takes too long. I will ruin you. Sincerely, Cornelius Vanderbilt." Such men did not stand by a failing proposition for long, especially when there were more benefits to be had from a box at the Metropolitan than good reviews from Iowa. "Millionaires from other cities had no interest in financing an institution located in New York; while the millionaires of New York had no interest in financing an institution which was supposed to belong equally to other cities."[30]

With the clarity of hindsight we can readily see instances of the company's reach exceeding its grasp. When the National Opera Company arose in 1886 like a parody of the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of the American Opera Company, it did so with only five signatories on the articles of incorporation, registered with the state of New Jersey: Jeannette M. Thurber, Parke Goodwin, Charles G. Buckley, Washington Connor, and Cleveland Connor. The management of the renewed company announced its good intentions for the National Opera in a newspaper story on New Year's Day 1887. These included cutting expenses, reducing


the performance season by 25 percent to less than thirty weeks, and restricting tours to the six or eight largest cities that could support the opera.[31] Nevertheless, the troupe left the next day on an eight-week tour to Boston, Worcester, Providence, New Haven, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere to be followed by five weeks in New York—with assets of only $1,000 on hand and hopes to sell $500,000 in shares at $100 each. The Times opined:

Through bad management the enterprise lost heavily last season, and there is also a heavy shortage this season. It is said that Mrs. Thurber contributed not less than $100,000 of her private fortune to float the enterprise the first year. . . . She says the promoters of the enterprise are not trying to make money. There is not the least chance of their doing so with a daily expense of several thousand dollars.[32]

Theodore Thomas later attributed the American Opera disaster to "inexperienced and misdirected enthusiasm in business management, and to misapplication of money."[33] Charles Locke, manager of the company, seems to have been caught between Thomas on one side, demanding more rehearsal time, a larger chorus, and fuller instrumentation, and Mrs. Thurber on the other, calling for more elaborate stage effects and richer costumes. Liberal with her own money where artistic standards were concerned, Mrs. Thurber expected others to follow suit. The two complemented each other in their fiscal naïveté and trustingly left business matters which both found distasteful, in Locke's hands. There is no apparent reason to believe that the manager was dishonest, as some have charged; it rather appears that, confronted by two powerful personalities, he tried to please them both, a course of action that only contributed to the downfall of the company.

There were other causes as well. Although the principal singers were fine musicians, they did not engender the awe, adulation, or box-office draw of the international stars brought in by the Met, such as the De Reszke brothers and the brilliant, effervescent Marcella Sembrich. In addition, Thomas's successes had engendered resentment among some of New York's professional musicians, and, with the failure of the National Opera Company, many musicians, as well as patrons, turned against him. To add insult to injury, he was named as a defendant in suits brought by some of the same people whom he had supported out of his own pocket in the last days of the ill-fated tour.

A final factor in the collapse of the National/American Opera Company lay in Mrs. Thurber's failure—it might be better to say refusal—to court New York society sufficiently. Blakely Hall reflected on the results of that in an article that was reprinted across the country:

Society as such does not smile upon the National Opera. It is a pity and it is unfair to the last degree, for there can be no question of the critical excellence of the performances now being given [by the National Opera Company] at the Metropolitan Opera House. But society will not have it, so the great auditorium, which was ablaze with diamonds and showy toilets during the German opera season, is dimmed by the


sober costumes of the poor relations and out-of-town cousins of the millionaire box-owners. It would be difficult to describe in detail the change that has come over the entire opera house, but the effect is palpable. When a small section of society does venture out to one of the performances of the National Opera, it comes late, talks as though bored to death by the performance, and retires early. It is a pity that nothing that is American can become fashionable in New York.[34]

The National Conservatory

The weight of such a failure would have been enough to crush most people. At the same time that all this was going on, though, Jeannette Thurber was also developing her other great project, the National Conservatory. For the formation of that school she persuaded Andrew Carnegie, William K. Vanderbilt, Joseph W. Drexel, and August Belmont to join with her in establishing a school of music whose most important goal would be to foster a "national musical spirit." Mrs. Thurber served as president and the eminent retired jurist William Gardner Choate as vice president. On 21 September 1885, the organizers obtained a certificate of incorporation from the state of New York.

The incorporators on the original petition constituted a select list of New York's most prominent industrialists and musicians, some of whom were also on the board of the American Opera Company:


Mr. & Mrs. August Belmont
Mrs. William T. Blodgett
Andrew Carnegie
William G. Choate
Joseph W. Drexel
Parke Goodwin
William R. Grace

Mr. & Mrs. Richard Irvin, Jr.
Henry G. Marquand
Jesse Seligman
Theodore Thomas
Mr. & Mrs. Francis B. Thurber
Mrs. T. W. Ward
William K. Vanderbilt

Two adjoining houses at 126–128 East Seventeenth Street, near Irving Place, in New York City, were converted for the conservatory's use, and the school opened its doors in the fall of 1885 with 84 pupils. The opera and the conservatory were conceived of as interlocking, mutually supportive, institutions. The opera company, it was felt, would provide professional opportunities for the most gifted of the conservatory's students, as well as a model of artistry, a locus to bring leading performers into contact with students, and a means for recruiting outstanding talent from all over the country to the school in New York. The curricular model was the Paris Conservatory, where Mrs. Thurber had been a student; but its narrowly conceived purpose was originally to provide a venue for training young Americans to take their places in the opera company. It is hardly surprising, then, that the first account books of the conservatory show the name of the school as "The American School of Opera."[35] The school operated under that name for seven months until it was changed by petition of Mrs. Thurber on 15 April 1886 in the flurry of activity detaching assets from the opera company.


The National Conservatory quickly outgrew its original narrow focus to become the outstanding institution for professional musical preparation in the United States, a reputation it would continue to hold for more than a quarter century. Unlike the more glamorous but ill-fated opera company, the National Conservatory achieved and sustained success, and as late as 1955 Victor Herbert's biographer still lauded the institution in the most glowing terms, writing that the National Conservatory "boasted a truly brilliant faculty, offered comprehensive curricula, and proved itself a vital force in this county's musical development. To this day no institute of musical instruction can be said to have surpassed it in potentialities."[36]

Mrs. Thurber initiated the school with a brilliant coup by naming the famous baritone Jacques Bouhy (1848–1929) as its first director, a post in which he served from 1885 to 1889. A product of the conservatories of Liège and Paris, Bouhy had established an outstanding international reputation on the European opera stage, where he had created the role of the fiery Don Escamillo in Bizet's Carmen . At the height of his career at the time of his appointment, he was an enormous asset as a voice coach. Under his direction the conservatory's first curriculum was dominated by sight-singing (solfeggio, or solfège, which was required of instrumentalists and vocalists alike), voice training, and opera. To head the voice department, Bouhy brought in the renowned French soprano Emma Fursch-Madi, who was also a box-office attraction for the American Opera Company.

Neither race nor gender, both of which placed insurmountable hurdles before applicants at other conservatories, played a part in the selection of students at Mrs. Thurber's school. Minority pupils made up a significant percentage of the conservatory's student body at every level. The African-American composers Will Marion Cook, Edward Bolin,[37] and Maurice Arnold Strothotte were all students there, and the great black soprano Sissieretta Jones was featured with the conservatory's orchestra and chorus. Following one of the school's orchestra concerts, a critic noted in wonder at the participation of female students: "The violins, especially, among whom there is a sprinkling of girls, covered themselves with credit."[38]

While studying in France Mrs. Thurber had been impressed by the French educational system, which provided advanced musical schooling at government expense. She planned to match it by subsidizing talented students from across the country without regard to their backgrounds, meeting the cost from private donations. The National Conservatory was the first such institution in the United States to make a special mission of seeking out and encouraging female, minority, and physically disabled students, and the school soon earned a reputation for being "specially successful in helping students of foreign birth and certain special classes, like the blind and those of negro blood."[39]

Mrs. Thurber's scholarship plan resulted in financial problems from the very beginning. She was reported to have donated $100,000 herself to get the project started.[40] Nevertheless, there were often shortfalls to be met from the Thurbers' own pockets. Mrs. Thurber's report to the trustees during the second year of op-


eration reminded them pointedly that they had an "honorable obligation" to cover the debt of $15,000–20,000 "due to teachers only."[41]

General tuition was not free, as some have thought; it was $100 per semester, as an 1892 advertisement in the Musical Courier indicates. To compare that to tuition costs today, one might think in terms of how much $100 would buy then. In 1892, coal was $3.94/ton, and $100 would have bought over 227 pounds of sugar at 44¢/lb. Bacon was 11¢/lb. and eggs were 22¢/dozen. Free tuition had from the beginning been intended for only the most talented and needy students in the "artist" course. For them, Mrs. Thurber developed what appeared to be an ingenious, self-perpetuating loan scheme, in which a student's education would be underwritten and within a few years that same student would begin to provide funds to continue and enlarge the scholarship program. Gifted students who could not afford to pay signed an agreement that read, in part: "Students are bound, on the completion of their studies, to assist in carrying on the National Educational work of the Conservatory, by contributing, for a specified time in each case, one-fourth of all monies earned professionally by them over and above the sum of one thousand dollars per annum."[42]

Unfortunately, such a clause was not enforceable, because most students were minors at the time they entered into the contract. Furthermore, since many of those students were members of minority groups or women, their earnings after graduation were limited. Indeed, for most young women at that time, marriage meant the end of career aspirations and often abrogated such ephemeral obligations as school loans.

In November 1887, with the National Opera Company in a shambles and Mrs. Thurber beset by lawsuits, advertisements for the National Conservatory began appearing in the New York area, listing a faculty whose areas of specialization clearly reflected the school's original purpose as an opera training institute:

J. Bouhy (voice), director
Frida Ashforth, voice
Mamert Bibeyran, stage deportment, choreography
C. Bournemann, solfeggio
Pietro Cianelli, Italian
Ferdinand Q. Dulcken, repertoire, piano
Alberto Francelli, solfeggio
Christian Fritsch, voice
Gertrude Griswold, voice
F. F. Mackay, elocution
Ilma di Murska, voice
Fred Rumpf, solfeggio
Regio Senac, fencing

Advertisements of 1888 show seven new faculty members, whose addition reflected a philosophical change in the direction of a more comprehensive pro-


gram, since ties to the opera company no longer existed. Other prominent musicians who would later join the faculty included Anton Seidl (opera conductor), Frank van der Stucken (orchestra conductor), Rafael Joseffy (piano), Adele Margulies (piano), James Gibbons Huneker (piano), Rubin Goldmark (piano, harmony, chorus), Horatio Parker (organ), Oscar Klein (piano, organ, and composition), Leopold Lichtenberg (violin), Victor Herbert (cello), and Henry Theophilus Finck (music history). By 1890–91 there were more than forty on the faculty, and the student body had increased proportionately, with some 207 registered in piano classes alone. Various sources mention other distinguished faculty as well.[43]

The school was aggressively advertised. In keeping with the conservatory's aspirations to national scope, marketing was not restricted to greater New York. Besides notices in national journals (Etude, Musical America, Musical Courier , etc.), announcements and paid advertisements of the New York auditions appeared in local newspapers all across the country, and the conservatory's secretary, Charles Inslee Pardee, fired off regular news releases trumpeting each new faculty acquisition. By 1890 the National Conservatory claimed, with some justification, to be "the only musical institute in America in which the ground work of a thorough musical education is laid, and its structure afterward carried to completion."[44] Courses of study were not designed exclusively for the aspiring professional, though. An admiring article in Harper's explained various aspects of the curriculum:

Among the few music schools in this country which really merit the name of conservatory, the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York deserves special attention because it was not organized as a money-making institution, but as a sort of musical high-school where pupils could prepare themselves for the career of concert, church, or opera singers, of solo or orchestral players, or of teachers, for a merely nominal sum, or if talented, without any charge for tuition. . . . The National Conservatory is not, however, intended solely for those who wish to devote themselves to music as a profession, but also for amateurs. . . . Church-choir singers who have passed through the [solfeggio] course will never thereafter experience any difficulty in singing at sight the most difficult harmonic parts of a sacred composition.[45]

As early as the third season of the conservatory's existence, when over 220 students had passed through its doors, Jeannette Thurber sought a federal endowment for the National Conservatory. Had her proposal been passed as submitted, it would have made it a truly national institution, chartered and subsidized by the federal government. "Among the arts the first rank is held by music," Thurber asserted in an 1888 petition to Congress.[46] Noting the near-universal subsidization of music in Europe, she argued that something similar was "inevitable" in the United States and should be instituted at once: "America has, so far, done nothing in a National way either to promote the musical education of its people or to develop any musical genius they possess, and . . . in this, she stands alone among the civilized nations of the world."[47]


The crux of her proposal was to have a line item placed in the federal budget funding the National Conservatory in the amount of $200,000 per year. Each senator and each member of the House of Representatives would have the privilege of nominating one scholarship pupil, in much the same manner as was done at the military academies. Her prose was sweeping, her arguments persuasive, and circumstances seemed propitious: a large and embarrassing tax surplus existed, and Congress was looking for politically expeditious ways to spend it. Political support was weak, though, and the petition failed.[48]

She soon rallied her forces for another attack. The ground was laid with a concert of American music in Washington on 26 March 1890, in a program including music of John Knowles Paine, Dudley Buck, Frank van der Stucken, and Arthur Weld. The following year, 1891, with a new administration in place, she mustered support from the political and legal communities as well as the worlds of finance and the arts, and achieved partial victory in the form of a congressional charter. While there was no grant of funds attached to it, the distinction did provide an enormous boost for the school's prestige.

The congressional charter did not, however, address the central problem of public funding, a philosophical as well as a practical consideration that would occupy Mrs. Thurber for the rest of her life, and that would have enormous implications for American music. Mrs. Thurber was determined to win that point, and in another attempt to do so, devised a strategy revolving around an appeal to make the nation's capital the home of the National Conservatory. She included in her new proposal a clause reading, "Said corporation is hereby empowered to found, establish and maintain a national conservatory of music within the District of Columbia."[49] The District of Columbia, which was then regarded as something of a provincial outpost, could not help but be attracted by the idea of capturing an institution with the panache of the National Conservatory. Speaking on behalf of the bill, Representative Benton MacMillin told the House, "Mrs. Thurber . . . is engaged in a noble exertion to advance music and art in this country. . . . I hope there will not be a single objection to its passing."[50] There were none: it was approved by both Houses and signed into law within two days.

As might be imagined, passage of the bill was hailed by musicians and patrons of the art as a major step in raising the musical standards of the entire country. The prospect of moving the National Conservatory to Washington, though, seems to have lost its appeal almost immediately, if indeed it had ever been more than a ploy. The New York Post acclaimed the event as a cultural triumph and seemed untroubled about the supposed relocation to Washington: "[This is] the first instance of anything being done by the National Legislature on behalf of music. Hereafter the National Conservatory in New York will be nominally only a branch of the central establishment at Washington, but in reality it will continue, for some time, at least, to be of more importance than the Washington school."[51] The site in the District of Columbia never became a reality, however, nor does there seem ever to have been a serious effort to make it so.


Whatever else the 1891 charter accomplished, it did not solve the continuing financial problems inherent in the very design of the conservatory. The financial burden of the school and its programs fell almost entirely on incorporators and donors, which, for the most part, meant the Thurbers. In addition to an original sum rumored to have been $100,000, gifts of $5,000 were contributed in 1885 and again in 1886 by Francis Thurber. The conservatory's account books also show several loans from F. B. Thurber noted, "to be repaid when in funds": one of $2,000 on 26 February and another on 2 April 1886, just as paychecks had to be written. Mrs. Thurber obtained another such open-ended loan of $5,000 (2 April 1886) from L. Horton, which enabled the conservatory to balance its books. Except for an initial $5,000 check from Andrew Carnegie, though, the books of those first years are silent about the other members of the board. Within a few years, as the conservatory's fame grew, the picture began to change, but little of the money generated by the school's success came from other incorporators. As an example, following the highly visible concert of American music in Washington, the account books for May and June of 1890 showed over $14,000 in gifts, mostly in checks for $100 or less.

Mrs. Thurber was well aware that the key to the school's quality and prestige lay in its faculty, and she herself made the principal appointments on the basis of prospective teachers' professional reputations rather than open advertisements or auditions. Her own trips abroad were often invested in identifying and interviewing prospective teachers, and it was not uncommon for her to press current faculty into that service as well when they were on tour.

She ruled the faculty graciously but firmly. Her strong personality and idealism inspired them to feel individually responsible for the success of her endeavors. An example of that can be seen in an exchange of letters from December 1889, made public by Charles Inslee Pardee, dean and secretary of the conservatory. Seven of the best-known members of the faculty submitted a letter with the proposal that "[recognizing] how hard and successfully you are laboring to establish a United States Conservatory which shall be truly national in character," they would volunteer their services for a scholarship fund-raising concert. The offer was quickly accepted.[52] Normally, Mrs. Thurber included the faculty as allies rather than employees, and members of the staff were made to feel privileged to have been chosen for their posts.

With the academic year of 1889–90, when the focus of the school had clearly shifted away from opera, Bouhy returned to Paris. For three years the school operated without a nominal director. It was hardly a fallow period though, for these were the same years in which Mrs. Thurber successfully petitioned the government for a congressional charter, involved the National Conservatory in plans for a concert in Washington to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, and announced a long-range plan to select the best young musicians from communities all across the country for their final stages of professional training in New York. Of that last, Harper's wrote enthusiastically: "It is the intention of Mrs. Thurber to follow the example of the [Paris] Conservatoire . . .


in establishing branches of the National Conservatory, and tributary to it, in other large American cities. . . . These need not necessarily be newly founded schools, but of the already existing schools the best might be brought into connection with the National Conservatory, sending their advanced pupils to receive their 'finishing touches' in the centre of American musical activity."[53]

Dvorak[*] and the Years of Eminence

At the time, Mrs. Thurber was also busy searching for a new director whose prestige would be irresistible on the floor of Congress. Her choice finally fell on the Bohemian composer Antonín Dvorak. In the late spring of 1891, following some preliminary negotiations, Mrs. Thurber cabled Dvorak an offer of $15,000 a year for a two-year contract[54] with the stipulation that he was to conduct ten concerts of his own works. Dvorak, who had little inclination to travel to America, declined; but the composer was no match for Mrs. Thurber when it came to persistence. After several months of negotiations by post and personal emissaries, he succumbed to her entreaties, gently inquiring whether it might be possible to reduce the number of concerts he would have to conduct. Mrs. Thurber answered with a firm "No" and enclosed a completed contract for his signature.[55]

Dvorak arrived in New York on 27 September 1892, to become the second director of the National Conservatory. He served in that post until 1895, during which period the school undoubtedly reached its highest point. While there he developed a superb working relationship with Mrs. Thurber, who never exceeded, or even demanded in full, the terms of his contract. Mrs. Thurber also saw to it that "only the most talented students" were allowed into his composition class, as he had requested. In fact, Dvorak seems to have only conducted one concert of the conservatory's orchestra. A memo written by Mrs. Thurber says, in part: "[Dvorak] gave one concert, which was not a success financially. Fearing that he might not wish to return [out of disappointment], it was decided to give up the other concerts."[56]

The concert to which that memo refers was given at the Madison Square Garden Concert Hall on Tuesday evening, 23 January 1894, as a benefit for the New York Herald 's Free Clothing Fund. The African-American baritone Henry Thacker Burleigh and the soprano Sissieretta Jones (the "Black Patti") were featured in Rossini's Stabat Mater with "the colored male choir of St. Phillip's church under the direction of Edward H. Kinney." Dvorak opened the concert with Mendelssohn's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream and introduced his own arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home" for the full forces of the evening: soloists, chorus, and orchestra.[57]

"Long before the hour fixed for the opening the hall was filled with an immense throng,"[58] the co-sponsoring Herald exulted, and described the audience as overflowing into the aisles. Dvorak was presented with a gold-mounted ebony baton, and one of his composition students, the black composer Maurice Arnold


Fig. 12.
Dvorak's[*]  concert for the Herald  clothing fund, 23 January 1894,
featuring African-American musicians from Thurber's National Conservatory.
From a drawing in the next day's  New York Herald .

Strothotte, conducted the premiere of his own Plantation Dances ,[59] a composition based on African-American folk rhythms in keeping with Dvorak's continuing exhortation to his students, and for that matter, to Americans generally, to use folk material as the basis for a national music.

Correctly anticipating that Dvorak's presence would attract a group of talented young composers and national attention to the school, Mrs. Thurber established a $500 prize for "American" compositions in 1892. Judges included Dvorak[*] himself and a committee of seven other nationally known musicians.[60] The competition appears to have first been conducted in conjunction with the orchestra's concert for the festival in Washington celebrating the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America, and was offered in at least one additional year as well. Henry Schoenefeld's Rural Symphony won first prize in 1892–93, with second place going to Joshua Phippen for a piano concerto, third to Frederick Field Bullard's Suite for Strings , and fourth place to Horatio Parker for his cantata The Dream King and His Love . Anton Seidl conducted a combined orchestra of students and professionals that joined with the National Conservatory Chorus to present a concert of the winning compositions in 1893. The following year (1893–94) George Whitefield Chadwick's Third Symphony won the prize, and Marguerite Merington received an award for her opera libretto Daphne .

Dvorak expanded the conservatory's composition department and acted as mentor to many young American musicians. His composition students included Laura Sedgewick Collins, William Arms Fisher, Edwin Franko Goldman, Rubin Goldmark, Harry Patterson Hopkins, Edward H. Kinney, Harvey Worthington


Fig. 13.
The soprano Sissieretta Jones, who sang in Dvorak's[*]  concert
of 23 January 1894.
From a drawing in the next day's  New York Herald .

Loomis, Harry Rowe Shelley, Maurice Arnold (Strothotte), Henry Waller, and Camille W. Zeckwer.[61] He also inspired many other young Americans with whom he came into contact at the conservatory, such as Henry Thacker Burleigh, Will Marion Cook, Horatio Parker, and Dudley Buck. Alois Reiser studied with Dvorak[*] in Prague after his return from the United States, and under his influence later came to this country, first as a performer, and after 1929 as a film composer.

During Dvorak's American stay, he wrote a number of his most important works. The first year he completed The American Flag , Op. 102, a patriotic cantata that was part of his contract, and, more important, his Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, which seems to have been written at least partly at Mrs. Thurber's urging. It appears that she might also be credited with suggesting its subtitle, From the New World . He spent an idyllic summer of 1893 in the predominantly Czech settlement of Spillville, Iowa, where he completed the "American" String Quartet in


F Major (Op. 96) and the String Quintet in E-flat Major (Op. 97), and where he orchestrated the "New World" Symphony. "I should never have written these works 'just so' if I hadn't seen America," he wrote to friends in Prague.[62]

As the end of his two-year contract drew near, financial pressures made it necessary for Mrs. Thurber to offer less favorable terms of renewal. Reverses suffered in the panic of 1893 had created problems for Francis Thurber, the conservatory's chief backer. To make matters worse, Congress did not provide the hoped-for budget, and other major contributors drew back in the face of the bleak economic situation. Mrs. Thurber explained the nature of the school's difficulties and promised more dependable payments in the future. In the end, out of regard for this indefatigable woman, Dvorak[*] capitulated once again and returned against his better judgment. In spite of his disgruntlement, he wrote a number of important works that year. The best known of them were the Ten Biblical Songs , Op. 99, and the magnificent Cello Concerto, inspired by the Second Cello Concerto of his faculty colleague Victor Herbert. At the conclusion of the academic year 1894–95, Dvorak returned to Prague, where he accepted the directorship of the Bohemian Conservatory of Music.

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."[63] 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.[64] 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?"[65] 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."[66] 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."[67]

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.[68] 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,"[69] 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."[70] 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."[71] 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.

Success in Failure

The National Conservatory of Music of America, now forgotten by all but a handful of historians, its principals passed away, its records scattered and lost, might seem to be an issue without resonance in the present. Would the absence of Mrs. Thurber's efforts really have made a difference in the history of American music, or is that just a biographer's conceit? To weigh the answer, pick just one name from the list of the conservatory's students: Rubin Goldmark, for example, an accom-


plished composer who went on to become head of the composition department at Juilliard from 1924 until his death in 1936. Among his students there were Henry Brant, Aaron Copland, Abram Chasins, Arthur Cohn, Lehman Engel, George Gershwin, Vittorio Giannini, Frederick Jacobi, Bernard Wagenaar, and many others who played leading roles in twentieth-century American music.

There are few instances in the history of American music, or indeed, the music of any country, where a single person influenced the musical life of an entire country as Jeannette Thurber did with her National Opera Company and National Conservatory. Her vision of music for a young democracy fused artistic excellence and popular participation. To that end she gathered some of the greatest names in music for her opera company and took world-class performances to cities all across the country; she built a music school for all Americans without the distinctions of class, race, and gender that marred many other institutions at the time. Her crowning achievement, unquestionably, was to bring Antonín Dvorak[*] to New York, where his own life and creative work were altered and where, as a composer, teacher, and thinker, he influenced the musical life of an entire nation.

And yet, as one looks over her life's work, it is hard to escape the fact that many of her projects came to be perceived as failures that miscarried financially and passed out of the public eye. It was all too easy for the vigorous musical establishment that grew up in twentieth-century America to neglect them as dead ends in American music, for as Charles Francis Adams, Jr., described the American ethos of that period, "Failure seems to be regarded as the one unpardonable crime, success as the one redeeming virtue." In the final summing-up, her "failures" took on importance, though, because they set the stage and created the standards to which all similar enterprises would later aspire. James Gibbons Huneker, that gifted coiner of epigrams from the National Conservatory faculty, once mused that Jeannette Thurber "had accomplished more by her failures than had most others by their successes."[72]

previous chapter
Four— Jeannette Meyer Thurber (1850–1946): Music for a Democracy
next chapter