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Cornell Conservatory was Noteworthy

  Charles Milhauser  

Horace Alden Miller and a few members of one of his early 20th century Cornell orchestras.

The college’s sesquicentennial year also marks the 125th anniversary of the founding of Cornell's Conservatory of Music in June 1878. The college had barely escaped bankruptcy in the wake of the national depression of 1873, and the trustees, still burdened with the enormous debt incurred in building the Chapel, agreed to the demand to establish a Conservatory only on condition that it be entirely self-supporting.

The first director, Isaac Bunn, rented rooms in College Hall, Old Sem, and South Hall and paid for his own pianos, instruments, and organ. Bunn’s salary was what he netted from the fees his students paid. His teachers and students were required to attend morning prayers and were subject to the college’s rules. Although later underwritten financially by the college, the Conservatory remained an independent entity until 1960, when it was reorganized as the department of music. For much of its history, the Conservatory had a national reputation for excellence and was pre-eminent in Iowa.

By far, the most interesting—and best connected dynastically—of the Conservatory’s graduates and faculty was Horace Alden Miller, Class of 1896 and professor of organ, piano, counterpoint, and wind instruments from 1904 to 1937 (excepting 1906-07) and director from 1907 to 1915. He was born in 1872 in Rockford, Ill., moved to Iowa at age 11, and in 1909 married Cornell English teacher Luella Albrook, Class of 1895, his childhood sweetheart. Both her parents were Cornellians as was her maternal aunt, Chloe, the wife of professor Alonzo Collin (the house they built is still called Collin House and is part of the campus). Luella’s father was a trustee and the college’s financial agent. Horace’s architect brother, Grant Clark Miller, Class of 1899, designed Cornell’s Alumni Gymnasium, now McWethy Hall, and more than 100 Carnegie libraries.

Horace Alden Miller initiated the Cornell Symphony Orchestra’s annual spring tour of Iowa and Illinois high schools (12 cities in 1924) and for 31 years took the orchestra on the road, first by horse and wagon and then in Model A Fords. Later he leased railroad cars, especially when he brought along his own grand piano. His wife played double bass in the orchestra and acted as chaperon.

He invented an “Electric Eye Page Turner” for organists. The performer turned his or her head into the field of a photoelectric cell, which initiated an electric charge that traveled to a motor that flipped a small wire carrier to turn the page.

In 1939–40, Miller lamented to newly installed President John Magee that there was no monument on campus to commemorate former President King’s 45 years of “philanthropic and sacrificial labors.” Miller’s concern resulted in the building that had for 65 years been known only as the Chapel being officially named the William Fletcher King Memorial Chapel.

In 1961, Cornell honored Miller by establishing the Horace Alden Miller (HAM) Scholarship, the most prestigious of Cornell’s music scholarships.

Miller was noted for using American Indian tribal themes and flute calls in his many compositions. After his retirement in 1937, Miller settled in Altadena, Calif., and established the Cornell Publishing Co. Cornellians could purchase his wares, mostly his own compositions, at half-price. He died in British Columbia in 1941.

Charles Milhauser is classics professor and registrar emeritus. He may be reached at or
100 Intracoastal Place, Apt. 307,
Tequesta, FL 33469.

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