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Eben Tourgée

(1834-1891) ~ Inducted 2006

Eben Tourjée (1834-1891) is regarded as an American pioneer in the establishment of music schools and conservatories--an effort crowned by his founding of the world famous New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 1867.

Tourjée was born in Warwick in 1834 of French Huguenot lineage that could be traced to East Greenwich’s Frenchtown settlement of the 1680s.  At the age of eight Eben began his working career in an East Greenwich calico mill, and by age thirteen he was employed at the Harrisville cotton mills, a facility owned by Governor Elisha Harris, who recognized Eben’s musical talent and became his patron.  At age sixteen, after study in the East Greenwich Academy, Eben moved to Providence and began working at a music store and playing piano in the store orchestra.

Although he took lessons in voice, piano, and organ, Tourjée was more interested in teaching others the art of music than in his own concert career.  Influenced by the conservatory system employed in Europe at that time, he believed that music lessons should be taught in classes rather than by private lessons.  Accordingly, in 1853 he began a series of business-teaching ventures--first in Fall River, then in East Greenwich, Newport, and Providence, where he started his own independent musical institute in 1865.  That facility, one of the first of its kind in America, offered courses in social, instrumental, and theoretical music and awarded diplomas to those who completed the program.

With the support of many leading citizens, as well as musicians, Tourjée planned another conservatory to be located in Boston which he would operate simultaneously with the Providence institute.  On February 18, 1867, Tourjée ‘s New England Conservatory of Music opened in seven rooms of the Music Hall in Boston to a large number of students.  In its first year 1,414 pupils were enrolled, a number that grew to 1,824 in the New England Conservatory’s second season.  
      After the death of his first wife Abbie in October 1867, he closed his Providence school and centered his activities in Boston where he married Sara Lee, his children’s governess, in 1871.   Sara bore him two children.

Tourjée did things on a grand scale.  He staged huge concerts in the Boston area, called the first national music conference, arranged musical tours of Europe, served as the founding president of the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA), and established an academic affiliation with the new Boston University.  He was also a devout Methodist and held leadership positions in a number of religious enterprises.

When Tourjée died on April 12, 1891 he was survived by four children from his first marriage and a son from his second.  As his biographer, Edward J. Fitzpatrick has observed: “Tourjée had lived a full life completely devoted to making the art of music available to countless thousands and endless generations of fellow humans through his conservatories.”

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