The South was considered a cultural backwater in the 1920s. It lagged behind the rest of the nation economically, and there was scant opportunity to enjoy the arts. There were no important museums, symphonies, galleries, or opera companies.
Nashville prospered in the Roaring Twenties as a center for insurance, banking, and distribution businesses. Enlightened civic leaders sought to correct the deficit of aesthetic opportunity in the city. A permanent model of the Parthenon was erected in Centennial Park. The Nashville Symphony was founded in 1920. Two powerful radio stations, WSM and WLAC, were started by local insurance executives.
One of many colleges in the “Athens of the South” was the Ward-Belmont School of Music. From 1918, the director of its Voice Department was Gaetano Salvatore de Luca. Born in southern Italy in 1882, he took voice training in Milan, migrated to the United States, and performed and taught in Mt. Vernon, New York. After his wife died, he came to Nashville with a letter of recommendation to a Nashville businessman. The Ward-Belmont president hired the confident, mustachioed dandy who wore spats and spoke rapidly with an Italian accent. De Luca was successful at Ward-Belmont. A vigorous salesman, he maintained a full subscription of students, and in 1927, presented the opera Cavalleria Rusticana at the Ryman Auditorium.
De Luca joined with artistically inclined public leaders to found the Nashville Conservatory of Music (NCM) in 1928. Its powerful board bought and equipped two adjacent mansions on West End to be the school’s headquarters. Accoutrements included a pipe organ, broadcast studio, and performance auditorium. De Luca recruited a strong, international faculty. The school opened in September 1928 with de Luca announcing an enrollment of two hundred. Nashvillians enthusiastically welcomed the conservatory.
The NCM awarded both two-year certificate and four-year diploma degrees and offered studies in dance, dramatic art, modern languages, piano, voice, violin, organ, and cello. By 1930, students from several states were enrolled. The National Association of Schools of Music certified the conservatory in 1930–one of the few in the South so recognized.
The NCM began to fail as the Great Depression progressed. Potential students could not afford tuition, wealthy supporters could no longer donate, and the NCM endowment was inadequate to finance its debt and operation. Additionally, de Luca was critically ill. Diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1930, he refused surgical treatment and died on June 19, 1936. The conservatory went into receivership that same year.
Several of de Luca’s pupils at Ward-Belmont and the NCM achieved national fame. James Melton had an important career in radio, movies, and opera. Four pupils became members of the Metropolitan Opera–Melton, James Macpherson, Norman Cordon, and Christine Smith. Melton, Macpherson, and Ablee Stewart were members of the nationally broadcast radio show “Roxy and His Gang.” Beyond these individual achievements, the NCM was a groundbreaking effort by Gaetano de Luca, an industrious music teacher and promoter, and Nashville leaders to establish high culture in the South.
Don H. Doyle, Nashville Since the 1920s (1985);
Robert W. Ikard, “Signor de Luca and the Nashville Conservatory of Music,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 60: 176-94, 2001.