Tully, Alice Bigelow

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Tully, Alice Bigelow

(b. 11 September 1902 in Corning, New York d. 10 December 1993 in New York City), singer and philanthropist who made significant contributions to the cultural life of New York City.

Tully was the elder daughter of William J. Tully and Clara Houghton. Her father was a lawyer who served two terms in the New York State Senate. Her mother, a homemaker, was the daughter of Amory Houghton, Sr., the founder and president of Corning Glass Works. Tully and her sister lived a life of considerable privilege. In 1908 William Tully became general counsel to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and the family moved to Manhattan. The Tully sisters were educated in accordance with their social class and status. They attended Mrs. J. D. Randall Maclvor’s School and were introduced to museums and the arts. Tully then studied at the Westover School in Middlebury, Connecticut. By the time she left at age sixteen, Tully had developed what would be a lifelong interest in music, especially singing.

Despite the opposition of her parents, Tully trained for a career as a singer, studying with a private teacher in New York. In 1923 she moved to Paris and studied voice with Jean Périer, Thérase Leschetizky, and Miguel Fontecha. She also studied mime with Georges Wague. Her musical debut was at the Salle Gaveau in Paris on 27 September 1927 and her United States debut at New York’s Town Hall on 28 November 1936. Tully also appeared in the operas Carmen and Cavalleria rusticana.

Tully’s years in Paris and her travels through Europe had a profound impact on her professional and personal life. From her studies grew a deep and abiding love for the classical repertoire and a commitment to high standards, which she later applied to the work of contemporaneous composers, singers, and musicians. She also became an ardent Francophile. For her service on behalf of France and the French people, Tully was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Merité in the 1960s and an Officier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1986.

Tully returned to New York following the outbreak of World War II and decided to contribute to the war effort. With her experience as an amateur pilot, she flew submarine scouting missions for the Civil Air Patrol. She then volunteered at the French Hospital in Manhattan as a Red Cross nurse’s aid.

In 1950 Tully ended her professional singing career and began to divert her considerable energies to civic and cultural service. Thus began a notable career in philanthropy. In 1957 and for the following twenty-eight years, she provided financial support for performances by the Musica Aeterna Orchestra under the direction of Frederic Waldman at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Musica Aeterna programs featured less frequently performed works from the chamber repertoire. The orchestra also premiered works, some commissioned by Tully, that became part of the modern chamber repertoire.

After her mother’s death in 1958 Tully’s support of the arts, music, dance, and the opera made her, in the words of one journalist, “the closest thing we have to a Medici in these egalitarian times.” In 1958 at the invitation of her cousin Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., Tully made a commitment to underwrite the construction of a chamber concert hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Although Tully originally insisted that her donation be anonymous, she relented after she was assured that the hall would have acoustic integrity and would be both beautiful and comfortable. She contributed much of the $4.5 million needed to construct Alice Tully Hall, which opened on Tully’s birthday in 1969 and was completed very shortly thereafter. In addition, she contributed the organ, one of the finest of its kind in the United States. While the construction of the building was in progress, Tully turned her attention to the provision of a suitably expert chamber company to reside in the hall, becoming one of the founders of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Tully supported companies and projects that embodied the artistic principles and standards she believed in. She served on the boards of many organizations, giving generously of her time and energy to the Metropolitan Opera, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Alliance Frangaise, the Maison Frangaise, New York University Medical Center, the Humane Society, Save the Children Federation, the Juilliard School of Music, and Lincoln Center. Among her many honors for her contributions to American cultural life were New York City’s Handel Medallion in 1970 and New York University’s Gallatin Medal in 1976. In 1985 President Ronald Reagan awarded Tully the first National Medal of Arts for her work as a patron.

In addition to her philanthropic work or possibly as an adjunct to it, Tully took an active role in high society. She entertained often in her penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park and attended many society functions. A tall, slender woman with dark brown hair, she was noted for her elegance, wry sense of humor, and great personal charm. With all her honors, Tully had a modest opinion of the importance of her contributions to the enjoyment of and the preservation of classical music.

Tully never married and had no children. In 1992 she became housebound after a stroke. She died at her home of pneumonia at the age of ninety-one. Her remains were cremated.

Tully was a talented philanthropist. Her work was important because she knew what she was supporting, be it an individual or an organization. She brought to her philanthropic efforts deeply cultured interests, an informed sensibility, a vast knowledge of music and musicians, and a realistic approach to fostering what was best in music. Her generosity helped fuel the revival of chamber music and provided the most congenial venue in New York City in which to appreciate it.

Albert Fuller, Alice Tully: An Intimate Portrait (1999), is a memoir of their friendship. Tully’s life is documented in Harold C. Schonberg, “Alice Tully’s Busy Life in Music,” New York Times (24 Oct. 1984), and “Alice Tully,” The New Yorker (5 Oct. 1987). A major obituary describing her contributions to music is in the New York Times (11 Dec. 1993).

Ellen Loughran