Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Dvořák in America

Antonin Dvořák photographed in New York City circa 1893
Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904), photographed in New York City circa 1893

We mark the arrival on September 27, 1892 – 129 years ago today – of the Bohemian-born Czech composer Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) to the United States, here to take up the Directorship of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. He retained the directorship for 2½ years – until March of 1895 – at which time he and his family returned to Prague.

Antonin Dvořák in 1891

By 1891 – at the age of fifty – Dvořák was that rarest of living composers: successful, appreciated by a worldwide public, and relatively wealthy. Regarded by many as the second-greatest living composer after Brahms, the nationalist Czech-accent with which Dvořák’s music spoke made it, in reality, much more “popular” than Brahms’ music.

Jeanette Meyers Thurber in 1894
Jeanette Meyers Thurber (1850-1946) in 1894

It was Dvořák’s fame as a “nationalist” composer that brought him to the attention of a rich American woman by the name of Jeanette Meyers Thurber (1850-1946). Mrs. Thurber was the wife of a wholesale grocer and was, herself, a musician of talent, having been educated at the Paris Conservatoire. 

Jeanette Thurber was one of the greatest patrons of music the United States has ever known. I would suggest that had she given her name to any of the projects with which she was involved during her 96 years, she would be as well remembered today as Andrew Carnegie, Augustus D. Juilliard, George Eastman, and Avery Fischer, to name but a few.

In 1885, Thurber personally founded The National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. It was modeled on the Paris Conservatoire, and its avowed mission was to create:

 “a national musical spirit”. 

The National Conservatory was the first major conservatory founded in New York City. It shut its doors in 1930 as a result of the stock market crash and the Depression, but it shed a bright light for 45 years, providing an affordable music education to two generations of deserving students, including African Americans and the disabled. …

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