Praise Everlasting, Rest Eternal

Ken Myers

In 1885, Mrs. Jeannette Meyers Thurber—a New York socialite and wife of a prosperous grocery wholesaler—founded in Manhattan the National Conservatory of Music of America. In her student years, Mrs. Thurber had studied at the Paris Conservatory and came to appreciate the importance of the role of the arts in nurturing national identity. The American Founders, however, and several generations of their practically minded heirs, were significantly less confident about encouraging the pursuit of beauty than their Old World predecessors had been. “Democratic nations,” observed Alexis de Tocqueville, “cultivate the arts which serve to render life easy, in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.”

The daughter of an immigrant violinist from Copenhagen, Jeannette Thurber found this negligence disturbing. She lamented that “America has, so far, done nothing in a National way either to promote the musical education of its people or to develop any musical genius they possess, and that in this, she stands alone among the civilized nations of the world.” Several other philanthropists helped her launch the conservatory, which benefited from the leadership of its first director, the famous baritone Jacques Bouhy, a product of the conservatories of Liège and Paris. When he returned to Europe in 1889, Mrs. Thurber began a quest for a new director, and finally persuaded Antonin Dvořák—after relentless badgering via letters, telegrams, and personal emissaries—to come to America.

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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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