The Conservatoire Américain: a History

This January marks the 11th anniversary of the publication of my first book, The Conservatoire Américain: a History.

I first came into contact with the Conservatoire in 1993 when I attended its famous summer program as a cellist. After retiring from performance and changing my focus to musicology, returning to the school as a scholar to investigate and excavate its history and influence seemed a perfect project. I began doing research on the Conservatoire in 1998 in the United States, gathering materials and locating stateside archives and individuals involved with the school. In 1999,  I was invited by Conservatoire administrators to go to Fontainebleau and conduct research using the materials located there. Bit by bit, the history of the school emerged from local archives, the school’s haphazardly organized music library, boxes stored in attics, papers that had been subjected to flooded sewers, oral histories, and other sources. I returned to Fontainebleau in 2000 for additional research, and continued to conduct interviews and work with various materials related to the school over the course of the next year or so. Then I began writing  and presenting papers and articles in advance of the book’s completion.

The Conservatoire’s administrators anticipated that I would write something that could be used for public relations and promotion; as a scholar, what I wrote was the truth about the school’s sometimes rocky history and its often-problematic policies, practices, and people. The Conservatoire, I think, expected a glossy and uniformly positive narrative about its past. And while I did find a lot for the Conservatoire to be proud of, I also interviewed numerous musicians  who told an altogether different story about the school and, in particular, its most famous director, Nadia Boulanger. The documents I found in those attics and basements and boxes and files covered in dust confirmed that the school’s history was not a straightforward or simple one. Those who idolized Boulanger were unhappy about and often unbelieving of the negative information about their saint that had come to light, and while I was cheered on by many alumni, others–mostly privileged white men, the student demographic most supported by Boulanger–stalked and harassed me, tried to shout me down, and tried to end my career as a musicologist before it had even really begun.

I don’t back down easily, and especially not in this case, where I had an enormous amount of evidence about the Conservatoire’s workings, successes, and failures. My book was published and received good reviews, and I received numerous communications from former students, faculty, and staff praising it for its honesty.

In 2021, the Conservatoire will celebrate its 100th anniversary. When I approached the publisher of the book last year about creating a new and updated edition for that occasion, I was told that unless I expected the school and alumni to buy 500 or more copies, doing so was not practical. Given the controversy surrounding the publication of the first edition, I’ve concluded that a formal revised and updated version isn’t feasible. So while I will continue to write about the Conservatoire Américain, its people, and its legacy, my work will likely appear in journals and be simultaneously made available through CORE on Humanities Commons. Therefore, I’ve decided to make the 2007 book available in full as a free download through Humanities Commons. You can access the PDF here; the file contains the page proofs copy of the book, so there are some uncorrected errors in it that were fixed before print publication. I hope it will be useful for scholars working on any- and everything related to the Conservatoire, its faculty, students, philosophies, influence, and legacy.

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