Antonin Dvorak and the National Conservatory of Music

Tali Makell, music director

Chamber Philharmonia of New York


  In the late 19th century, a society matron had an idea and the means to put that idea into action. Jeannette Thurber had been born in Delhi, NY in 1850, the daughter of a Danish violinist who had emigrated to the States some years earlier and married a rather prominent woman. Jeanette Meyers, as she was called at the time, was a very musical person. As was typical in those days, she was sent abroad to study music. She attended the Paris Conservatoire and began composing her own music. Upon her return from Paris, Jeannette was married to a millionaire grocer, Francis Beattie Thurber, who indulged his wife's keen interest in art and music. In the 1880s she sponsored the first Wagner festival in NY and some years later brought the famed Boston Symphony Orchestra to NY for its debut performance in the city. But Mrs. Thurber had an even bolder plan in mind, perhaps influenced by her earlier experiences at the Paris Conservatory and by the deep pride she had for both her country and the city in which she lived. She wanted to set up a school of music whose primary purpose would be the creation of an American music, based on American themes and informed by a peculiarly American sensibility. Her school, which was called The National Conservatory of Music, opened its doors in 1884. Quite extraordinary for the times, it was open to all races, to women and to the handicapped. Mrs. Thurber not only bankrolled this new institution, she financed scholarships for many of the students, though she hoped that eventually there would be support for the enterprise from the Federal government and that branches of the school would spring up throughout the country. Neither of these hopes ever materialized and from the first, it was slow going for her school for an American music. Realizing that she must come up with a strategy to raise the stature of her school, which she still hoped might entice government support, she hit upon the idea of hiring an internationally known star to head the National Conservatory of Music. The choice of Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak, was inspired. Dvorak, the son of a butcher, had risen to the level of a major musical figure largely by virtue of his own talents and the recognition of that talent by Johannes Brahms who, along with Richard Wagner, was widely considered the greatest living composer of the era. Who better to head her school than a man who, as a Czech nationalist, had raised the profile of the music of his people and who longed for the day when there would be a Czech nation freed from domination by Imperial Austria?

After a period of negotiation, Mrs. Thurber succeeded in her quest to get Dvorak to head her conservatory and in 1892, Dvorak arrived in New York to assume directorship of this new enterprise. He was fascinated by every aspect of the country and by the hustle bustle of the city of New York. At the time, there was a well-established Czech and Moravian community on the Lower East Side which, coincidentally, was where the school was located. But most importantly, Dvorak got to hear the music of black Americans, as he had several black students, chief among them, Harry T. Burleigh, who would later become a noted arranger of Negro Spirituals and a composer of some reputation. Another black student of his was the brilliant violinist, William Marion Cooke, who had studied in Germany with Brahms' best friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, but who would later go on to collaborate with Baltimore-born pianist and composer, Eubie Blake, on the first musical comedy based on black music to play on Broadway. Still later, Cooke would be a mentor to a young Duke Ellington. In addition to these two students, Dvorak had as a teaching assistant, the pianist and composer, Rubin Goldmark, a nephew of Karl Goldmark, a well-known composer and teacher.Rubin Goldmark would later be an early piano teacher of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin and later still, head of the Juilliard School of Music. Also on the faculty was the Irish-born, German-trained cellist, composer, and founder of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), Victor Herbert, whose operettas would yield songs which have withstood the test of time and whose Second Cello Concerto would influence Dvorak's own later effort in this genre.

In the company of Mrs. Thurber, Dvorak saw Bill Cody's famed Wild West Show when it came through NY, and here he was exposed to Native American music for the first time, though stories of Native Americans by way of Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans and especially Longfellow's Hiawatha, had long been admired in Europe and were favorites of composers such as Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Dvorak himself.

It became clear to Dvorak that the path to an American art music could be forged through the music of American blacks and Native Americans, and he set out to demonstrate to American composers how this might be accomplished. His Ninth Symphony, the so-called "Symphony From the New World", as well as his 12th String Quartet, known as the "American", and the Quintet for strings he composed while on summer vacation in Spillville, Iowa, which had been settled largely by Bohemians like himself, were all intended as primers on how American folk idioms might inform an American art music. An 1893 interview with Dvorak published under the title "Music in America" in the New York Herald would prove to be most controversial and would prompt a most extraordinary response from other American musicians, most notably from the very Euro-centric "Boston Six" group of composers, now largely forgotten, who represented the pinnacle of American music at that time. Dvorak was quoted as saying the following: "I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called "Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States. When I first came here last year I was impressed by this idea, and it has developed into a settled conviction. I was led to take this view partly by the fact that the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water, but largely by the observation that this seems to be recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans."

While the NY premiere of Dvorak's Ninth was an unqualified success (despite a few rumblings from those unconvinced that what they had heard was in any way authentically "American"), things went quite differently when the piece was premiered in Boston. The negative critical reaction to this piece had been preceded by angry responses from several of the members of the Boston Six to Dvorak's article. Composer, George Chadwick, who was, as well, the director of the New England Conservatory of Music, wrote in the Boston Herald: "Such Negro melodies as I have heard I should be sorry to see become the basis of an American school of composition." Another member of the group, Amy Beach, opined: "The African population of the United States is far too small for its songs to be considered ‘American." Some critics even made the point that being a Slav, Dvorak himself was a member of a semi-barbaric ethnic group that was incapable of producing works on the level of a Germanic composer such as Beethoven, Brahms or Wagner.

So it was that the division between the Euro-centric Bostonians and those composers who would emulate Dvorak's example in NY, was firmly established. In the process, the city of New York gradually emerged as the primary incubator for the development of a distinctly American musical idiom, completely divorced from European artistic hegemony. As it turned out, the emphasis on the folk tradition of American black Americans would have a duo effect. Ragtime and later, Jazz, would develop directly from this source, and several of Dvorak's pupils would be involved in this area, most notably William Cooke. But it was perhaps George Gershwin who, some thirty to forty years after Dvorak had departed from NY and Mrs. Thurber's conservatory, composed the first American art music which partook of the new Jazz idiom and combined it with aspects of the European classical tradition in a way which Dvorak might have recognized. He is one of the most obvious beneficiaries of ideas which had their genesis at the National Conservatory. It is true that a number of American composers would continue to opt for a dialogue with trends which had originated in Europe, while other composers used immigrant European folk traditions as the basis for their own approach to the creation of an American art music. Nevertheless, the majority of the important developments regarding American art music would occur in New York, despite Boston's status as a major center of American arts and letters, owing to its wealth of universities and educational facilities. New York became, from that time to the present, the country's musical hub, and more generally, its first city for the arts and humanities.

Mrs. Thurber's Conservatory did not survive long after Dvorak's departure from it in 1895. Financial problems and the inability to get the government interested in supporting her efforts caused the school to all but cease operations in the early part of the succeeding century, and the stock market crash of 1929 dealt the project the final coup de grace. Dvorak would never compose another symphony and gave himself over to the composition of symphonic poems based on Slavic legends. But his style had been altered by his American experience and he became an even more interesting composer than he had been. He died in 1904. Mrs. Thurber lived until 1946, dying at the age of 96. Her school had failed, but in many ways, her dream of an American music had succeeded. Her obituary in the NY Times reads, in part, as follows:

"The conservatory, of which the New York home was intended as the beginning, never reached Washington. Nor were national branches ever established. An educational plan of the loftiest and best, admirably developed on the artistic side, did not find the full measure of financing necessary, for its permanence. But it was Mrs. Thurber who established a precedent in this field which never will be forgotten, as one of the works which made her life and her vision and invincible spirit so valuable to the musical advancement of America."


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