June 27, 2010

Emma Thursby

She is hardly remembered today, but at one time Emma Thursby (1845-1931) was the most famous singer in America. Known as "The America Nightingale" in homage to Jenny Lind, "The Swedish Nightingale," who took the country by storm a generation earlier courtesy of P.T. Barnum, Thursby was a soprano sfogato with a brilliant, pure and effortless voice. Like Lind, she only appeared on the concert platform at a time when American audiences deemed the operatic stage too risqué a place for a woman of her social/religious standing. 

Thursby wearing an amulet previously worn by Tietjens & Rudersdorff - 1887

Thursby's principle studies were with Achille  Errani, a tenor who had toured with Adelina Patti, and then with the Ukranian dramatic soprano Erminia Rudersdorff, who, according to Anna E. Schoen-René in her book American Musical Inheritance, was Manuel Garcia's first representative in America (Rudersdorff's previous studies had been with Giovanni Marco Borgdoni, Rubini, Luigi Lablache and Cavaliere Micheroux). 

Anchille Errani

But before Thursby arrived at Rudersdorff's studio in Wrentham MA, Errani encouraged Thursby to study in Milan, so she journeyed to the Continent on a Grand Tour, traveling first to England, then Germany and France, finally arriving in Italy where she studied with Antonio Sangiovanni, a well-known pedagogue of the time, after first gaining entry into Francesco Lamperti's studio. Lamperti was Thursby's first choice, but the august maestro frequently failed to meet at their appointed lessons, so Thursby shifted her attention to Antonio Sangiovanni who was teaching several of her friends and had the recommendation of Errani. In the end, Thursby took a total of 8 lessons with Lamperti and 26 with Sangiovanni before a traveling companion contracted typhoid and died, which necessitated a return to America. 

I am still with Lamperti but expect to go to S. (Sangiovanni) soon. I want you to practice singing as well as your playing. How I wish I was at home to teach you. Practice the scales & exercises I left at home and take a breath you can feel clear down in your boots. I am getting so big with my new style of breathing that I don't believe I shall be able to wear any of my dresses soon.  - letter to Emma's sister Ina 1872

All this and a great deal more is recorded in Thursby's biography - The Life of Emma Thursby - which was written by Richard McCandless Gibson on behalf of the New York Historical Society in 1940. It was commissioned by Emma's younger sister Ina, with whom she lived and traveled. Both remained unmarried, and traveled widely together, from Norway to Japan. 

Thursby in Italy in 1872

The Emma Thursby archives are housed in the library on the second floor of the NYHS at 170 Central Park West. In 2007, I sourced them to write an article for the March-April edition of VOICEPrints- the Official Journal of the New York Singing Teachers Association. You can find it here.  It deals with Emma Thursby's vocal technique.

It was a very curious experience to sit and read through the Thurby archives. Thursby didn't concern herself with singing alone. She also had an avid interest in Eastern Philosophy and Spiritualism, as many did during the first decades of the 20th century. Most curious are the spirit photographs taken of a pet mynah bird, which was stuffed after death and included in the collection. Apparently, the bird was quite opinionated about Thursby's students. Unfortunately, this one item has not survived. 

Until recently, Thursby's portrait by George A. Healy was also on view in a second floor gallery. One hopes that one of America's most illustrious singers will return for a new generation to admire.  

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