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New England Conservatory past to present

March 24, 2015

From New England Conservatory

The life of Eben Tourjée was nothing short of incredible. His father survived religious persecution, his mother was a distant relative of George Washington, and his professional humble beginnings started out in a Rhode Island calico-printing mill at the age of eight. Young Eben walked four miles round trip to work and for his fourteen-hour days, he was paid only one dollar a week. In the spare time the boy had, Eben taught himself organ at his local church. He studied music books that were left behind by the church’s organist. He also sang alto in the church choir.  At the age of 15, Eben went to work at then Rhode Island Governor, Elisha Harris’ cotton mill. One day, Harris heard young Tourjée’s voice and piano skills at church and shortly after, gave him money to take music lessons. Eben walked 13 miles round trip from Providence to study music.

Some years later, Tourjée, now an accomplished music professor, and married with four small children, embarked on a musical tour of Europe. Tragically, the shaft of his steamer ship broke on the return trip and he was lost at sea for a month. In the afterglow of his return, greater devastation struck, when his wife died suddenly. Single parenthood did not stop Eben from achieving his dream, one he and his wife held dear.  In 1867, he rented some space in the Boston Music Hall and started a small music college he called New England Conservatory…the rest is history…

Currently approaching its 150th anniversary in 2017, New England Conservatory is home to 750 students and 225 esteemed faculty members. The Conservatory puts on nearly 600 concerts a year. Ahead of its time from its early beginnings, the school rejected the idea of segregation. It also started the first jazz music education degree in the world. Famous alumni include Coretta Scott King, Rose Kennedy, Cecil Taylor, Vic Firth and many others.

Below you will find a full bio about Mr. Tourjée, as well as detailed information about the Conservatory.

Lisa Helfer Elghazi, Media Relations Consultant

New England Conservatory

Cell: 1-646-373-9946


Eben Tourjée Full Bio

Eben Tourjée was born in North Kingston, Rhode Island on June 1, 1834 to immigrant parents. Tourjée’s father, Peter, was a Huguenot refugee whose family resettled first to the Channel Islands and then to Rhode Island. Eben’s Puritan mother, Angelina, was a distant relative of George Washington. The family was of very humble means.

Eight-year-old Eben was put to work by his parents in a calico-printing mill. He walked four miles round trip, to and from work. For his fourteen-hour days, he was paid only one dollar a week.

Five years later, Eben went to Harrisville, Rhode Island to be a helper in the cotton mills of then Governor, Elisha Harris. A regular at church, Eben began singing in the choir. The Governor took interest in the 13-year-old’s beautiful alto voice.

One day, Eben professed to the Governor that he wanted to be a musician. He recounted that as a small child, after hearing band music for the first time, he was so moved, that he lay awake all night long.

Eben began playing on a little organ in the church and studied the books the organist left behind. He eventually took her post when she left her position. When the organist for the Governor’s daughter’s wedding did not arrive, 15-year-old Eben stepped in and played the Mendelssohn Wedding March so well, that the Governor gave him money to take singing and organ lessons. He walked 13 miles round trip from Providence to take music lessons.

Eventually, he was able to study at East Greenwich Academy where he paid tuition by “making fires, ringing bells and doing other chores.” He continued academic studies and music education and eventually went on to teach music at the Seminary in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.  In 1864, he embarked on a journey to Europe to study how music education could be made universal; he came under the instruction of Schumann, Cramer, Von Bulow, and Richter. He specifically focused on choral singing and chanting. The trip was of great value to him, but the shaft of the steamer ship broke on the way back to Rhode Island and he was lost at sea for a month. Eventually, the ship was picked up in Halifax. When the steamer finally reached New York, Tourjée felt that his life had been spared, so he had to go on and “accomplish great things.”

In 1867, three years after returning from the steamer ship brush with death, Tourjée’s wife, Abbie, died suddenly. Tourjée was left with their four small children. He had always looked to Abbie for inspiration and the two were especially happy, because Tourjée had just leased a few rooms in the Boston Music Hall. He was planning on opening a school called New England Conservatory of Music.

Grief-stricken, Tourjée forged on with the school’s development. He was very successful in his endeavor and later became known as a “missionary-at-large” in the interest of music around the world.

To the first NEC graduating class of 1870 Tourjée said this during his commencement day address:

“In this world the study of music can never be completed, for of all the arts, it alone is to be perpetuated and perfected in eternity. Let your aims be lofty and your lives a perpetual rebuke to this superficial age…look back upon this place (NEC) as your home. Here you will ever be welcome.”

The New England Conservatory outgrew the Boston Music Hall in 1882. Now known as Dr. Tourjée, Eben bought the St. James Hotel at Franklin Square to be the new home of his music college. He always kept the prime interest of his music students in mind. Ten years later, he died at fifty-seven.

Eben Tourjée Biographical Highlights:

  • Two years after he opened the New England Conservatory of Music, famous bandleader, Patrick Gilmore (he penned “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) conceived the idea of a “Great Peace Jubilee.” He asked Tourjée to organize and train 20,000 chorus members and an orchestra of 2,000. Singers and musicians from all over the United States and Europe participated. The coliseum built in 1872 for the Jubilee was situated on what is now the Copley Plaza Hotel. It covered four and a half acres, seated 50,000 people and contained the world’s largest organ.
  • Tourjée once chartered a steamer and took three hundred and fifty music students on a Music and Educational Tour of Europe.
  • Tourjée was well known for his love of life and tried to remove musicians from the stigma of knowing nothing but music. He frequently chartered cars, boats and buses for picnics and other events. These became regular facets of Conservatory life for the music students.

About New England Conservatory (NEC)

A cultural icon approaching its 150th anniversary in 2017, New England Conservatory (NEC) is recognized worldwide as a leader among music schools. Founded in 1867 by Eben Tourjée, an American music educator, choral conductor and organist; NEC is the oldest independent school of music in the United States. Located in Boston, Massachusetts, on the Avenue of the Arts in the Fenway Cultural District, NEC offers rigorous education in an intimate, nurturing community to undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate music students from around the world. Highly regarded for its innovative practices, NEC’s out-of-the-box curriculum yields an expansive range of styles and traditions. NEC’s faculty of 225 boasts internationally esteemed artist-teachers and scholars. Alumni go on to fill orchestra chairs, concert hall stages, jazz clubs, recording studios, and arts management positions worldwide.

About New England Conservatory’s Programs

On the college level, NEC features training in classical, jazz, and Contemporary Improvisation. Graduate and post-graduate programs supplement these core disciplines with orchestral conducting and professional chamber music training. Additional programs, such as the Sistema Fellows, a professional training program for top postgraduate musicians and music educators that creates careers connected to music, youth, and social change, and Entrepreneurial Musicianship, a cutting-edge program integrating professional and personal skills development into the musical training of students to better develop the skills and knowledge needed to create one’s own musical opportunities, also enhance the NEC experience. Through its Preparatory School, School of Continuing Education, and Community Programs and Partnerships Program, the Conservatory provides training and performance opportunities for children, pre-college students, and adults. Through its community engagement projects, it allows young musicians to connect robustly with non-traditional audiences in schools, hospitals, and nursing homes-thereby bringing pleasure to new listeners and enlarging the universe for classical music, jazz, and Contemporary Improvisation. Currently more than 750 young artists from 46 states and 39 foreign countries attend NEC on the college level; 1,600 young students attend on the Preparatory level; and 325 adults participate in the Continuing Education program.

About New England Conservatory’s Faculty

NEC’s faculty of 225 boasts internationally esteemed artist-teachers and scholars, who approach the study of music in a laboratory fashion; multiple genre study is welcome and encouraged.  History and tradition are honored, but personal discovery and expansion through sound is strongly encouraged. NEC features training in classical, jazz, and contemporary improvisation. Graduate and post-graduate programs supplement these core disciplines with orchestral conducting and professional chamber music training. The conservatory’s alumni go on to fill orchestra chairs, concert hall stages, jazz clubs, recording studios, and arts management positions worldwide. Half of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is composed of NEC-trained musicians and faculty.

About New England Conservatory’s Performances

The only conservatory in the United States designated a National Historic Landmark, NEC presents 1000 free concerts each year. Many of these take place in Jordan Hall (which shares National Historic Landmark status with the school), world-renowned for its superb acoustics and beautifully restored interior. In addition to Jordan Hall, more than a dozen performance spaces of various sizes and configurations are utilized to meet the requirements of the unique range of music performed at NEC, from solo recitals to chamber music to orchestral programs to big band jazz, Contemporary Improvisation, and opera scenes. Every year, NEC’s opera studies department also presents two fully staged opera productions at the Cutler Majestic Theatre or Paramount Center in Boston, and a semi-staged performance in Jordan Hall. This past 2013-2014 season, the operas produced were Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, and Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. NEC is co-founder and educational partner of From the Top, a weekly radio program that celebrates outstanding young classical musicians from the entire country. With its broadcast home in Jordan Hall, the show is now carried by National Public Radio and is heard on 250 stations throughout the United States.

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