Emma Thursby: America's Nightingale
In 1857, a 12-year-old girl by the name of Emma Thursby was enrolled in the Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem. Her parents, John B. and Jane Thursby, selected the school for their excellent academic curriculum and, most importantly, for the outstanding musical training program. Emma's education in the great German composers such as Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, came under the supervision of Sylvester Wolle, the school principal, his brother and assistant Francis Wolle and the singing instructor Mary Weiss. Emma never forgot her happy experiences in the Bethlehem school. She would years later return to perform a concert with Fred Wolle, Frances Wolle's son, at the Moravian Central Church.
Emma Cecilia Thursday was born on Feb. 21, 1845, in Williamsburgh, N.Y. Due to their successful rope making business, the Thursby family were well-to-do. When she was as young as 4 years of age, the family discovered that Emma possessed a beautiful bird like voice. John and Jane Thursby were protective of Emma and did not permit an over exposure of her special gift. Emma did perform in a concert benefit for the local church, the Old Bushwick Reformed Church.
Residing in the still provincial of Williamsburgh, good schools were at a premium. The Thursbys wanted the best education for their children and therefore placed Emma and her older sister Alice at the Bethlehem school. The girls quickly learned to be disciplined in their studies and enjoyed the many new friendships they made there, Emma was selected by her classmates to be the May Queen.
At this time, Emma's father contracted a cold that persisted. He was diagnosed with consumption known today as tuberculosis. John Thursby requested that Emma return home from Moravian Seminary for a short visit. Thursby's condition continued to worsen and Emma never returned to the seminary. Emma and her siblings were left in the care of their paternal grandmother, as the parents traveled to Europe to seek a cure for John's condition. Sadly, the family business suffered putting the Thursbys in financial ruin. After several months of unproductive health advice, the Thursbys boarded a steamer to return to America. They got as far as Liverpool when John Thursby died.
Back in the United States, Jane Thursby faced severe financial constraints. She took in boarders and Emma took a paying job as a singer in the Bedford Avenue Reformed Dutch Church. Soon all the local churches were clamoring to hire this astounding soprano. Her trills and coloring of lyrics was described as "divine." Finally, Emma was earning enough income to afford to take vocal lessons. She was the sole supporter of her family. Through her concerts, Emma became a part of an important musical scene in America. By 1870, the reputation of her pure and sweet voice made her a star in the New York area. She shared the bill with Mark Twain and appeared at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
It was considered essential in the 1800s for American artists to travel to Europe to further study their craft. Emma spent 10 months in Europe studying from various important vocal instructors such as Francesco Lamperti and Antonio Sangiovanni. She also visited notable European landmarks, attended countless concerts and learned to speak Italian. She returned to America with the confidence to sing any aria from the popular operas of the time such as Rossini, Bellini, Braga or Donizetti. She was nicknamed "The America Nightingale." Emma began performing on tour through the states then through out Europe, Japan, China and South America. By the 1880s, Emma was the most famous concert singer in the world. Although she had met the royalty of Europe, there was one concert in 1885 that brought her great pleasure. Emma returned to Bethlehem to sing at the Moravian Central Church and was accompanied on the organ by Fred Wolle, the son of her childhood teacher Francis Wolle. After several years of paralysis, Emma Thursby died on July 4, 1931, at age 86.