Thursby, Emma (1845–1931)

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Thursby, Emma (1845–1931)

American concert singer. Born Emma Cecilia Thursby on February 21, 1845, in Williamsburg (now part of

Brooklyn), New York; died on July 4, 1931, in New York City; daughter of John Barnes Thursby (a manufacturer) and Jane Ann (Bennett) Thursby; studied singing with Julius Meyer, Achille Errani, Francesco Lamperti, Antonio Sangiovanni, and Erminia Mansfield-Rudersdorff.

Sang as a church soloist (1865–77); performed with Brooklyn Musical Association in Haydn's Creation (1868); toured with Patrick S. Gilmore's 22nd Regiment Band (1874); appeared in concert with Hans von Bülow (1875); toured California (1876); toured North America (1877–78); made London debut (1878), Paris debut (1879); went on a German tour (1880); received the medal of the Sociêtê des Concerts, Paris Conservatoire (1881); retired to teach (1895–1924); was a professor at the Institute of Musical Art (1905–11).

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on February 21, 1845, Emma Thursby was the daughter of Jane and John Thursby, descendants of Irish, French, and Dutch families. Included among Thursby's ancestors were a group of Huguenots who settled in Brooklyn in 1659. The Thursby family life revolved around the Old Bushwick Reformed Church in Williamsburg, where Thursby often sang, even as a child as young as five years old. Thursby's parents were well-to-do—her father was in the rope manufacturing business—and wholeheartedly encouraged her singing. After attending public schools, at age 12 she entered the Female Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where she studied music. Two years later, her father's terminal illness obliged her to return to New York. She attended a convent school briefly, but with her father's death her mother could no longer afford to pay for school. Instead Emma tutored other young people in music to support the family.

However, at age 20 she began to pursue a career as a professional vocalist in church choirs, including three years for the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church in Brooklyn and numerous concert appearances. In 1867, she began voice lessons with a New York tutor; in 1872, she commanded sufficiently high fees to be able to afford a year abroad in Milan, Italy, studying under Francesco Lamperti and Antonio Sangiovanni. After her return to New York, Thursby's fame continued to increase as concert audiences responded enthusiastically to her clear, powerful soprano and her remarkable two-and-a-half octave range. Through the 1870s she turned gradually from choir music to performing in classical music concerts in various East Coast cities. She became especially well known for her interpretations of Mozart. Throughout her career, Thursby consistently refused to sing opera because of the dramatic skills required and the intense competition for roles. Reserved by nature and a devout member of the Dutch Reformed Church, she never married and shared little of her private life with the public.

Thursby's rise to national celebrity began with her 1874 appearance with Patrick Gilmore's 22nd Regiment Band at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Critically and popularly acclaimed, Thursby toured with the Gilmore Band across the United States in 1875. By 1876, she was earning $3,000 a year as a soloist for the Broadway Tabernacle choir, the highest paid soloist in the country. One year later, she gave up church singing completely in order to concentrate on building a career as a concert vocalist. She signed a contract for $100,000 as principal vocalist in a North American concert series directed by Maurice Strakosch. Her European debut came in 1878 at St. James Hall in London, which led to an extended British tour. Thursby's French debut in 1879 and her German debut the following year were equally successful, and she enjoyed enormous popularity across western Europe. In 1881 she received the rare honor of a commemorative medal from the Paris Conservatoire. This was followed by concert tours in Holland, Spain, and Scandinavia.

Thursby curtailed her concert appearances in the late 1880s, after the death of her mother in June 1884 and that of her older sister the next January. After fulfilling a demanding performance schedule involving much travel for over a decade, she began to suffer from exhaustion and performed less and less frequently. A farewell concert in Chicago in December 1895 marked her final public performance, at age 50. Returning to New York, Thursby worked as a private voice instructor, and from 1905 to 1911 was a professor at the New York Institute of Musical Art. She continued to give music lessons until she suffered a partial paralysis in 1924, at age 79. Emma Thursby died of endocarditis and arteriosclerosis at her home in Gramercy Park, New York City, in 1931 and was buried in Brooklyn at the Cemetery of the Evergreens.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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Thursby, Emma (1845–1931)

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