icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


Thurber, Burleigh and Dvorak Were Key to the Birth of American Orchestral Music

Jeannette Meyer Thurber

‘Had Jeannette Meyers Thurber put her name on the institutions she established, she would be as well-known as Carnegie and Rockefeller.’ That statement piqued my interest while enjoying the lecture series from The Great Courses entitled “Music as a Mirror of History”, taught by the very engaging professor Dr. Robert Greenberg, Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances.

An accomplished but obscure woman? Just my sort of treasure hunt.

Thurber established the National Conservatory of Music of America in 1885 – the first of its kind and an endeavor that some say ushered in the first orchestral music with a distinctively American sound. But in a very radical stance for the day, Thurber championed the rights of women, people of color and the handicapped to attend her school, sometimes on full scholarship. This was 1885—not too long after the Civil War -- and her school was racially integrated, promoted women, and had an inclusive stance toward the handicapped.

“The National Conservatory of Music of America was the outstanding institution for professional musical preparation in the United States for some 25 years or more. At its height in the 1890s it boasted a faculty of international renown…and initiated a course of studies whose features became a basis for the curriculum now taken for granted in the colleges and conservatories of this country. Its achievements resulted from the endeavors of a single visionary: Jeannette M Thurber, a wealthy, idealistic New Yorker who devoted most of her life to the school…Although her innovative design for the Conservatory was influential in shaping the course of American music for the 20th century, Mrs. Thurber and her school have slipped into undeserved obscurity.”(1)

But the conservatory seemed to be her real love, and she grew it from 84 students when it opened to 3,000 students in 1900.(2) Her success was due, in part, to her conviction that her school required an outstanding and publicly-celebrated faculty. Through an assertive campaign that ultimately involved paying him 25 times his current salary,(3) Thurber was able to bring the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak to the United States where he served as the head of her Conservatory from 1892-1895. It was there that he met 26-year-old African-American student Harry Burleigh. Burleigh introduced him to African-American spirituals which was to have a profound effect on Dvorak’s compositions and served as the basis for one of his best-known symphonies, (with a title suggested by Thurber, it’s said), “From the New World.” Dvorak said "In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music."(4)

Burleigh is a fascinating character in his own right: Burleigh’s grandfather, known for his “exceptionally melodious voice” was granted manumission from slavery in 1832 and a certificate of freedom in 1835. Burleigh’s mother graduated from Avery College in Pittsburgh in 1855, and “taught at the Colored School for a number of years” after being denied a teaching position in the Erie Public Schools. His father, a navel veteran in the Civil War, was the first black juror in Erie County. Burleigh gained a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music when he was 26. To support himself, Burleigh worked as a handyman and sang spirituals while cleaning the Conservatory’s halls, which drew the attention of Dvorak (a bit reminiscent of the movie Good Will Hunting, isn’t it?) Soon he was promoted to assisting Dvorak in copying out instrumental parts for the symphony and I can imagine them in private collaboration – Burleigh singing the spirituals and slave songs, the two of them discussing the Pentatonic scale and the varied African, Caribbean, Creole sources of the sound. Burleigh played double bass in the Conservatory’s orchestra and sang Dvorak’s arrangements. After graduating, he became a soloist for St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City – an all-white church – where he experienced some opposition because of his race at a time when other white New York Episcopal churches were forbidding black people to worship at all. Reportedly J.P. Morgan, a member of the church at that time, cast the deciding vote to hire him. In the late 1890s, Burleigh also began to publish his own arrangements and in 1898 he began to compose his own songs – estimates of his musical output range from 200 to 300 songs – and he became known for his arrangements of spirituals for voice and piano. Burleigh ultimately served on the Conservatory’s faculty.(5)

In addition to race and gender issues, Thurber championed the idea of a federally-funded Conservatory and was very pointed about the fact that the United States was the only industrialized nation that did not provide government monies for the arts.(6) Thurber “precipitated public debate over the appropriateness of a federally funded Conservatory of music in a capitalist society.”(7) In fact, the Institute of Musical Art of the City of New York, chartered in 1904 with the backing of Andrew Carnegie, was a privately funded institution and became her chief competition, and there’s no indication in the public record that they accepted blacks, the handicapped or even women. The school ultimately morphed into the Julliard School. (Carnegie also was a founding patron of Thurber’s Conservatory though some research suggests that other than a small amount from L. Horton and Andrew Carnegie, Thurber is the only one who contributed financial backing.)

Thurber’s continuing difficulties in securing funding for her school – either public or private – and her flagging energy as she grew older, contributed to the demise of the school, but her success did as well: music schools started springing up, competing for faculty and students. On the other hand, her school was written out of the record of musical history well before the doors had even closed. “It is conspicuously absent from Elson’s National Music of America, written in 1899, nor is there any reference to it in Waldo Selden Pratt’s 1909 History of Music, yet the school was still advertising nationally and enrolling hundreds of students.”(8) Could it possibly be because the school had been pigeon-holed as being “specifically successful in helping students of foreign birth and certain special classes, like the blind and those of Negro blood”?(9) Could it be because the orchestra had a “a sprinkling of girls”, as the New York Evening Post reported in 1899? (10)

Thurber lived to be 96, passing away in 1946 as a woman who “combined her love of music with an entrepreneurial imagination, the management skills of the labor negotiator, and a profound dedication to music education – qualities that mark her, even to this day, as one of the most intelligent, effective patrons ever to take a stand for American music.”(11)

Here is a story treatment for a movie on this:

Scene: We open on an ornate room suggesting a hall in the Paris Conservatory with a long table of male judges who face a piano. A 17-year-old Jeanette Myers comes into the hall, curtsies and takes her place at the piano, flawlessly playing a complex piece of music. She is then politely told to sit on the first of six chairs behind the judges. She does so. A boy of about 14 comes in and sits at the piano but makes a mistake during his performance and is shown to the seat next to her. Cut to another student, an 18-year-old young man, who gets halfway through the piece and acknowledges that he hasn’t learned the rest. One by one we cut to five other students who are shown as inferior musicians. Without a word the judges exit through a door at the back of the room and then after an agonizing moment, a man like a footman comes through the small door and, looking at a paper, calls off the names of the boys one at a time until all the students have been called except Jeanette. As they disappear through the small door, Jeanette stands, expectantly, and the footmen-like underling re-examines his paper and says “you are free to go.” We see Jeanette unceremoniously passed over despite her superior qualifications, left alone and crestfallen.

Visual montage: Jeanette getting married to the millionaire grocery store magnet Frances Beatty Thurber (1869), and other scenes that demonstrate her wealth.

Scene: In a beautiful gown, we see Jeanette walk by a banner proclaiming a Wagner Festival then start climbing an elegant staircase as people congratulate her on the success of the festival, establishing her position as the force behind the festival. At the after-party, moneyed women in beautiful gowns sitting with glasses of champagne lament that they will miss their sons and daughters as they must be sent to Europe for a musical education and the dialogue establishes that there is nowhere in America for anyone to go for a musical education; that all the operas are in French, Italian or German, that the English translations are appalling and that there is no such thing as “American music,” especially American orchestral music.

Scene: Jeanette, in an expensive but not revealing nightgown, is pacing through her large, ornate master bedroom with her husband in silk pajamas already in bed. She is brushing her hair and talking animatedly. She challenges him – why shouldn’t there be an American Conservatory for music, based on the Parisian model, financed by the government? Where is the uniquely American orchestral music? Her husband responds supportively.

Visual montage: Jeanette at the head of the table of rich benefactors (Andrew Carnegie, William K. Vanderbilt, Joseph W. Drexel, and August Belmont – according to Rubin) applauding her speech, shaking hands. Jeanette and pianist Adele Margulies, a teacher, in front of the location of the first school examining the front of the building. Jeanette and other teachers scurrying through the building showing its progress in being put together and demonstrating her unflagging energy. Newspaper clipping announcing the signing of Jacques Bouhy, a world-renowned baritone, as its first director. (12)

Scene: Jeanette and Bouhy are at opposite ends of the table with other teachers on the sides. Bouhy is explaining that he wants music history to be taught to all the students, not separated off as a special study; another teacher agrees with him. A teacher breaks in about the importance of having sight reading as a key part of the education. “We want all of the boys to…” Margulies chimes in “and the girls.” The teacher corrects himself. Then the mood settles somewhat and Jeanette makes a plea that the school needs to infuse the students with the love of the music, not continue the harsh practices of the traditional practice room. Another teacher makes a mistake in calling the students boys and is corrected once again when there is a knock at the door. A staff member opens the door from outside and tells Jeanette and Bouhy that there is someone at the door for them. They look at each other and get up from the table and head toward the front door but the staff member says “no, this way” and points them towards the back door. They go through the kitchen and at the back mud-room door, surrounded by crates of vegetables and big barrels, is a young black boy, about 14, standing with a standup bass that is very banged up but well-polished in spots. He timidly asks if he could audition for a spot in the school. Bouhy starts to bluster his disapproval while Jeanette puts her hands on her hips and it immediately says yes, much to Bouhy’s surprise.
“Mrs. Thurber, a word?”
The two step out into the hall and Bouhy gestures back to the boy.
“I understand taking the …modern stance of allowing girls since you are…” he gestures to her and the sentence breaks off “… But Negroes? An integrated school?” He lowers his voice. “We will lose all of our funding.” “Besides, how could he possibly know the classical pieces we will be working with?”
Jeanette looks at him pointedly. “Then his audition will tell us everything we need to know Mr. Bouhy.”

Visual montage: Children auditioning for positions in the school. The young black boy with the base plays beautifully in a string quartet that is comprised of himself and two teachers. He is seen turning the sheet music without pause to demonstrate his ability to read music as well as play. At the conclusion of the piece the teachers look up in astonishment and look back to the table with Jeanette and Bouhy. Some rich white boys, with irate mothers, storm out after being rejected; a mother stands behind her young daughter holding her shoulders and tries not to weep as the child is excited over her acceptance. We see a mother in very dirty and tattered clothing waiting at the edge of the alleyway that goes to the back door, afraid to show herself. Her daughter comes out and announces that she’s been accepted at the school for no tuition and the mother drops to her knees, flings her arms around her child, and cries.

Scene: Bouhy struggles to keep up as Jeanette charges down the hallway. “Tuition free?” He is horrified, gesturing back to the little poor girl. Jeanette looks at him “all children based solely on merit, Mr. Bouhy. On merit.”


84 children line up on the steps of the school to have their photo taken, all the black children in the back row.

Scene: A young black child in dapper clothing with a violin case in hand leaves the school through the front door and as he turns the corner he is jumped and beaten by some white hoodlums who smash the violin. He is shown lying on the sidewalk. The next morning his father, in a carriage with the shades drawn, drives him to the back door and when Jeanette protests that he should use the front, the father – dressed very well and with a very severely proper demeanor – insists on using the back door, though he is tightlipped and angry. He coldly insists on paying for the violin but Jeanette makes it clear that she will not add insult to injury and that she will see that the child has another violin before the day’s end.

Visual montage: The black children come and go through the back door, however, sometimes with heightened security. Angry denunciations around boardroom tables, men storming out of meetings. A woman removes her daughter from the school in fear. People stop inviting Jeanette to social gatherings. Jeanette’s husband takes her arm and holds her close lifting his head proudly and they walk up the stairs of the Opera together as people either look at them disparagingly, whisper behind fans, or avoid them altogether.

Visual montage: Departure of Bouhy; Jeanette speaking in front of the U.S. Congress asking for federal funding and a government charter. (She easily got a government charter but never received any kind of governmental funding so this perhaps is a scene of being denied money)

Scene: The halls are filled with students of both genders and a small number of blacks happily going to class, indicating that the school has grown. Inside the recital hall, Jeanette, Margulies and another teacher sit at a small table having been listening to additions for some time. The door opens and a female teacher escorts a blind child into the room, looks at Jeanette and shrugs her shoulders like ‘what are we going to do’? Then she turns to the child. “Rebecca would like to play Beethoven’s sonata.” “Well by all means my dear,” and she gestures to the piano. The teacher who insists on site reading is at the table and protests but Margulies just throws her hands up to suggest that it is pointless to argue with Jeanette

Scene: The arrival of Harry Burleigh; perhaps his audition and his beautiful voice; some discussion that he has no money and so is mopping the floor.

Scene: Carnegie speaking with newspaper reporters that he is establishing a similar music school “for young American boys” (subtext that it provides no scholarships and accepts no blacks, no women). He makes a brief statement about the mistaken desire for government funding and reiterates the importance of the market.

Scene: Jeanette ponders the need for a new director, someone with star power. She is in the conference room with pianist Adele Margulies, who she sends to Europe with two packets: one for Dvorak and one for Jan Sibelius, which was Jeanette’s preference. As she’s leaving, Margulies whispers with another teacher that she is only going to deliver the request to Dvorak because the Prague trip is closer to where she will be when she is visiting her mother in Vienna. (13)

Visual montage: Jeanette being told by Margulies that Dvorak has turned her down; her writing letters; finally sending one back, scrawled on his requesting fewer concerts, with the word “No” on it.

Scene: In the Dvorak house, the wife is reading the letter and when she turns to the second page and sees the astounding amount of money that’s being offered, she is surprised and then becomes resolved and walks into lunch with her table full of children. She brings the topic up and Dvorak is dismissive. She glowered and then decides to take a vote amongst the children. He is surprised to be handily outvoted, with everyone in the family agreeing that they want to go to New York except him. Then we see him in his study and the wife walks in, reminds him of the family vote and puts the paper in front of him. He signs it and returns to the lunch table, commenting that it’s not a real contract until it’s in the mail and so she sets down her napkin and we see her striding to the post office.(14)

Visual montage: Newspaper articles announcing Dvorak’s new position; he arrives to great fanfare that highlights Jeanette as well.

Scene: Dvorak is working in a practice room either at the piano or writing on the top of the piano when he hears the deep, melodious voice of Burleigh coming from the hallway. He sees him mopping the floor but calls him in and in his heavy check accent asks him about the song. Dvorak comments that they’re quite unique and Burleigh tells him it’s because they’re in the Pentatonic scale and offers to write them out for him. This clearly demonstrates Burleigh’s abilities. Soon we see the two in intimate collaboration, both wearing similar clothing. Dvorak is very excited. We see him intensely writing his symphony and Burleigh writing out parts. Soon they are joined by a young woman who participates as well, as an equal.

Visual montage: The children are practicing as an orchestra, blacks and whites, girls and boys, many of them in somewhat tattered and heavily mended clothing. Margulies, standing with Jeanette, says “no matter what they sound like they certainly don’t look like opera house apprentices.” Jeanette and Margulies with an entire rack of matching black skirts and white blouses, black pants and white shirts passing them out to the children. “Be sure to take a bath and wash your hair the day of the concert,” Jeanette announces over the chipper din. We see one of the Margulies bathing some of the smallest children in the actual school.

Scene: Dvorak and Jeanette are standing in the back of the hall, the auditorium filled with the parents of the students, segregated voluntarily with the black parents lining the wall, the working class overdressed and huddled in the back together, the upper class in the front three rows. They have just finished playing Dvorak’s complete symphony and he folds his arms over his chest and turns to Jeanette “what shall we call it” he says quietly she looks at him and smiles “from the New World.” Dvorak nods his head in agreement, “Yes, from the New World.”

Visual montage: The same symphony being played in a lavish hall with an all-white orchestra to tremendous applause.

Fade to black.

(1) “Jeanette Meyers Thurber and the National Conservatory of Music”, Emmanuel Rubin, 1990, American Music, Vol. 8, No. 3, Autumn 1990, University of Illinois Press, pg 1
(2) The Music Magazine and National Courtier, July 4, 1898, cited in Rubin op.cit. pg. 308
(3) New York Times, Aug. 23, 2013
(4) Interviewed by James Creelman, New York Herald, May 21, 1893, cited here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Burleigh
(5) Wikipedia on Harry Burleigh
(6) Rubin, op.cit. pg 302
(7) Rubin, pg. 310
(8) Ibid
(9) Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Third Edition, 1920
(10) Rubin, op.cit. pg. 296
(11) Ibid
(12) Rubin, pg. 295
(13) Rubin pg. 307
(14) “The Deal that Brought Dvorak to New York, New York Times, Aug. 23, 2013

Be the first to comment