Jeanette M. Thurber was perhaps the first major patron of music in America, a founder of institutions and a tremendous influence on the development of American music. The wife of a wealthy New York grocery wholesaler, Thurber took it as her far-sighted mission to foster an American idiom at a time when concert music, if it was known at all in this country, was an entirely German affair.
In the 1880s she founded the American Opera Company and the National Conservatory of Music, both in New York. In 1891, while helping organize the celebration of the Fourth Centennial of Columbus‘ arrival in the New World, Thurber had the singular idea of importing a new kind of European influence. She invited Antonin Dvorak, one of the most lionized composers in Europe and a teacher at Prague Conservatory, to head the National Conservatory, specifically to help engender indigenous American composition. Enticed by the princely salary of $15,000 (including 10 concerts he would direct), Dvorak agreed, and the rest is music history. While in this country, over the next three years, Dvorak composed many of his most popular scores: Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World’, the Cello Concerto in b minor, and the “American” String Quartet in F and String Quintet in Eb –along with his cantata The American Flag.
Thurber’s role was central in Dvorak’s whole experience here. She negotiated and re-negotiated contracts (very difficult when the Panic of 1893 severely curtailed her income), but also urged Dvorak to hear American musics and incorporate them in his works. Her vision of American music was inclusive; she presented concerts of African-American students, both composers and singers. Harry T. Burleigh, the first conservatory-accredited African-American composer, was among Dvorak’s students. The master was completely in tune with Thurber’s musical purpose. In an 1893 letter to the New York Herald, he wrote, “The country is full of melody, original, sympathetic and varying in mood, color, and character to suit every phase of composition. It is a rich field. America can have a great and noble music of her own, growing out of the very soil and partaking of its nature–the natural voice of a free and vigorous race.”
These were radical words at the time, but they sank in. Dvorak’s tremendous appeal in America sparked the New England school of composers: John Knowles Paine and George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, and Amy Beach, who infused European-based music with American character. In the generations to come–those of Charles Ives, Louis Armstrong, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, and every generation since–American composers would prove Thurber’s vision to a greater degree than any could have imagined.
From On the Money: New Music Funding in the United States
by Theodore Wiprud
© 2000 NewMusicBox