Newcomb Music School

In 1908-1909, Brandt Van Blarcom Dixon, the first and only president of the women’s college of Tulane University (Sophie Newcomb College) visited women’s colleges and other coordinate colleges. Seeing their work, he came back to New Orleans with plans for two new programs for women students. A Household Arts School (sometimes called domestic science, or home economics) and a Music School were established in 1909.

It is significant that these two innovations came together, linked as they were to social expectations for women. The Music School eventually became as famous as Newcomb’s art program. Its first faculty members were Guiseppi Ferrata, once a student of Franz Liszt and thus truly connected to European music, and Leon Ryder Maxwell, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music and thus also connected to older traditions of music education.

From the beginning, the women students took their music into the community. Besides accompanying their teachers in lectures to public schools, they also formed their own musical groups. One of the most popular of these student groups was the Guitar and Mandolin Club. Oral histories with graduates of the College from the 1920s remember this group as playing at a number of nightclubs, as well as private parties in the region.

In the post World War I years, the faculty also came to include some women. Prominent among these was vocal teacher Clara del Marmol, who stayed at the College for over fifty years, but, likely because she was a woman, was never promoted to professor.

There are many other aspects of the Music School’s program that speak of gender, as well. The Music program at Newcomb was the first to allow male students to “cross register” that is, to come over from the all-male Tulane undergraduate side to the women’s side of the campus. Notably, at least one assistant to the chair would not let brass or percussion instruments into the practice rooms, deeming them as producing the “wrong kind of music” for women. In a 1920s photo of the faculty, all six men are named but two among the five women are unnamed.

One can also see trails of documentation to the archives that tell of the gendered history of the school. In the early 1920s, Professor Maxwell began the formation of a music library with his personal collection of sheet music and books. When the Newcomb, Howard, and Tilton Libraries were merged in the late 1930s, the new library was called Howard-Tilton Library, with Newcomb disappearing under the umbrella of the University’s chosen name. The music library remained in Dixon Hall, where the older Newcomb College Library had been, serving many male and female students. The sheet music collection is today a part of Special Collections, while Maxwell’s books became part of the Maxwell Music Library within Howard-Tilton, today the Music and Media Library.