Jeanette Thurber (1850–1946)

One of the most important figures in American music circles at the end of the 19th century, she fundamentally influenced the history of music institutions in the United States. She studied at the Paris Conservatoire and in 1869 married the millionaire Francis Thurber, who was able to help fund her activities. She founded the American School of Opera in New York in 1885. In 1891 the school was transformed by Congress into a National Conservatory which prospered over the next thirty years. The guiding principles of the school were strongly democratic and Thurber welcomed all kinds of students, regardless of race, class or sex. The school was open to women, coloured students, the handicapped and those lacking financial means, and it also offered grants. Thurber’s chief aim was to establish an American national school of music following the example set by similar schools in Europe. For the implementation of her plans she needed a distinguished figure whose authority would give weight to the entire project. For this role she chose Antonín Dvořák, who was rapidly becoming a major celebrity at the beginning of the 1890s. 

In the spring of 1891 Thurber offered Dvořák the post of director of the New York Conservatory and, after a period of hesitation, followed by various revisions to his contract with the school, he finally accepted the offer. He headed the institution from the autumn of 1892 to the spring of 1895. Thurber handled the promotion of Dvořák in the local press and also inspired him in specific musical endeavours. She was highly enterprising and keen that the composer write an American national opera based on the epic poem The Song of Hiawatha by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Unfavourable circumstances, however, prevented the opera ever seeing the light of day, and Dvořák ultimately abandoned the idea of writing the work. During the last year of Dvořák’s time in the United States his relationship with Thurber cooled somewhat over her failure to pay the full fee stipulated in their contract. The financial crisis which hit the United States at the time affected the Conservatory’s funding as well and Thurber had difficulty fulfilling her contractual obligations towards Dvořák.