A Document-ary Journey into the Washington (D.C.) Conservatory of Music, 1903-1960
by Joellen ElBashir
"Art is the imperishable legacy of a people; its influence, caught up and transmitted to other generations and different lands, is like an unending vibration," wrote Natalie Curtis Burlin, noted early 20th-century ethnomusicologist. That African Americans possessed such a legacy was firmly believed by Harriet Gibbs Marshall [1869-1941] (Item # 1 - photo of Marshall), concert pianist, music educator, author, and founder, in 1903, of the Washington Conservatory of Music, a school for the "special musical development of the colored American." Her dream was to open a music conservatory for African Americans that would inspire and train Black musicians and encourage them to create and embrace their own heritage of concert music. She also wished to uplift the community by preserving the rich African American musical heritage and by increasing the exposure of Black audiences to professional musical performances and other cultural events.
Under her management, and in later years, under that of her cousin, Victoria Muse, the Conservatory represented the nationís most successful Black-owned and -operated music school to have advocated the study and performance of Black music. Throughout its 57-year existence, the schoolís highly trained faculty brought in talented students from all over the United States and produced leaders in the field from among its graduates.
Throughout its existence, and especially in the early years, the Conservatory faculty encouraged the desire for music in the Washington, D.C., community by sponsoring annual concerts featuring nationally famous Black musicians, recitals (item #2 - flier for Hinderas recital) and other cultural events.
The establishment of the Conservatory was only part of Harriet Gibbs Marshallís dream. She envisioned a National Negro Music Center, at which the Conservatory would be the facility used for teaching. The aim of the Center, which opened in 1936, was to foster research and preservation of the rich musical heritage of Black Americans. The actual scope of the Center fell short of her dreams, primarily because of insufficient funding. It did, however, become a repository for published works by African American composers. Thousands of pieces of sheet music of Black composers were collected and preserved under Marshallís direction, thus fulfilling part of her dream of creating a historical reserve for Black music research.