National Conservatory of Music of America

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Facade of the National Conservatory of Music of America (Jeannette Meyers Thurber's) at 47-49 West 25th Street.

The National Conservatory of Music of America was an institution for higher education in music founded in 1885 in New York City by Jeannette Meyers Thurber. The conservatory was officially declared defunct by the state of New York in 1952, although for all practical pedagogical purposes, it had ceased to function much earlier than that; however, between its founding and about 1920 the conservatory played an important part in the education and training of musicians in the United States. A number of prominent names are associated with the institution, including that of Victor Herbert and Antonín Dvořák, director of the conservatory from Sep. 27, 1892 to 1895.[1] (It was at the conservatory that Dvořák composed his famous E minor Symphony and subtitled it, at Thurber's suggestion, From the New World.)[2]

Active years[edit]

The idea of federally funded national conservatory in the United States had been a dream of Thurber's, who had studied at the Paris Conservatory in her teens. In the early 1880s she convinced a number of philanthropists, including Andrew Carnegie. to sponsor the founding of such an institution. The idea was to model the institution after that of Paris in order to create a "national musical spirit." [2] The conservatory (originally the "American School of Opera")[3] was incorporated in the state of New York on September 21, 1885.[4] The first director was Belgian baritone, Jacques Bouhy. Among the faculty was also Emma Fursh-Madi, one of the great sopranos of the day. There were 84 students when the conservatory started operations, operating out of two converted homes near Union Square at 126-128 East 17th St. in New York City.[5][6]

It is not clear from sources exactly how much it cost to attend the conservatory or how scholarships were awarded. Some sources claim that no tuition was charged at all.[7] Henry Finck, an NCMA music history lecturer for decades, wrote "It was not organized as a money-making institution, but as a musical high school ... for a merely nominal sum, or, if talented, without any charge for tuition. ... [It was intended for those seeking a profession but] also for amateurs, for whom there are special courses."[8] Its mission included "seeking out and encouraging female, minority and physically disabled students".[9] In any event, the cost of operations was originally met by Mrs. Thurber and others. After three years of existence, the conservatory petitioned the US congress for $200,000 to support the institution, saying that "... hundreds of candidates have had to be rejected from lack of room to accommodate them and of funds to increase the staff of Professors which would be required by their admittance. ... " [10] The petition failed. Thurber changed strategy and then proposed moving the conservatory to the nation's capital, Washington D.C.. A bill to that effect was passed in congress and signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison in March, 1891.

A site for the new "national conservatory" in the District of Columbia was never selected, much less built. The school continued to function in New York City, existing solely from philanthropy. The school awarded substantial prizes to four composers after their works were judged at a March 30, 1893 concert at Madison Square Garden.[11] In that year Dvořák and Thurber insisted that the Conservatory be "thrown open free of charge" to black students. "In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music," Dvořák wrote.[12]


By 1900, the school had educated about 3,000 students. After that date and after a rapidly changing series of directors, the National Conservatory of Music of America started to fade, not from a single catastrophic failure such as bankruptcy, but more through the declining energies of its driving force, Mrs. Thurber, herself. Additionally, there was increasing competition from other institutions in the area, including The Institute of Musical Art of the City of New York, which was founded in 1904 and became the Juilliard School of Music in 1924. There were also concerns from many private institutions that a federally funded national conservatory on the European model would reduce their own schools to the role of a "feeder system." [2]

In 1913 the school attempted to hire German composer Engelbert Humperdinck as director, but although he signed a contract, the Prussian government refused him permission.[13] By 1916 the school had moved to 126-128 West 79th Street.[5] By the 1920s, Mrs. Thurber's National Conservatory of Music of America had faded to such obscurity that proposals from other quarters to fund a "national conservatory" were made in apparent ignorance that such an institution already existed. As late as 1928, Mrs. Thurber was still making her case that

"At no time more than the present has the necessity for a national conservatory of music been so evident ... the National Conservatory of Music, which was founded in 1885 and has been in existence for over 40 years, is the only institution of its kind which in scope and in organization is in conformity with the old established models ... From its inception the plan ... has been to establish a national conservatory of music in Washington with branches. ... " [14]

The stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression led to loss of funds from many philanthropic sources and effectively the end of the Conservatory. There is no record of operations after 1930.


Musically, the National Conservatory of Music of America was a brief but bright light in the cultural life of the United States. It aimed to provide affordable musical education for all-comers, including the physically handicapped and African Americans. Its prestige was greatly enhanced by the directorship of Dvořák, and it offered a yearly prize in the area of "American music," a competition that led to the recognition of a number of young composers from the United States. Among the musicians associated with the conservatory are:

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Finck, Henry Theophilus (1916). Thirty Years of the National Conservatory of Music of America. NCMA. 34pp. Dvorak was compensated $15,000/year.
  2. ^ a b c Rubin, Emanuel (Autumn 1990). "Jeannette Meyers Thurber and the National Conservatory of Music". American Music. 8 (3): 294–325. doi:10.2307/3052098. JSTOR 3052098.
  3. ^ Rubin 1997, p.142
  4. ^ Finck 1916, p.14
  5. ^ a b Finck 1916, p.5
  6. ^ Rubin (above) indicates that the school was called the National School of Opera when it opened in the fall of 1885. In early 1886, the name was officially changed to the National Conservatory of Music in America. At the same time, a number of newspaper sources from 1886 and 1887 show the birth, short life and demise of another of Jeanette Thurber's projects, the American Opera Company, which was founded in February 1886 in New York, changed its name to the National Opera Company in December, 1886, and finally went into bankruptcy and receivership in February, 1887.
  7. ^ Olmstead, Andrea (1999). Juilliard: a history. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-02487-7.
  8. ^ Finck 1916, p.4-9
  9. ^ Rubin 1997, p. 148
  10. ^ "A Music Subsidy Asked" in The New York Times, Feb. 21, 1888.
  11. ^ Finck 1916, pp. 17-19
  12. ^ Judith Tick, ed. (2008). "Late Nineteenth-Century Cultural Nationalism:The Paradigm of Dvorak". Music in the USA : A Documentary Companion. Oxford University Press. pp. 308–316.
  13. ^ Finck 1916, p.21. NCMA offered Humperdinck $25,000 for 8 months.
  14. ^ Thurber, Jeannette Meyers. Letter to the editor in The New York Times, Jan. 21, 1928.
  • Emmanuel Rubin (1997). "Jeanette Meyer Thurber (1850–1946):Music for a Democracy". In Ralph P. Locke & Cyrilla Barr (ed.). Cultivating Music in America: Women Patrons and Activists Since 1860. University of California Press. pp. 134–163.