George Eastman had raised himself from poverty to wealth by founding Eastman Kodak, pioneering much of the science and art of photography, and building his company to world dominance through a combination of inventiveness and enormous stamina. His creation of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester required much the same combination of traits.
Eastman had adored music since childhood. In fact, music was such an important part of his life that when he built himself a mansion (finished in 1905), he had a large organ installed in the music room and paid his own organist to wake him with the instrument every morning, then serenade him with fugues and toccatas until Eastman had finished breakfast. By the mid-1910s, Eastman had decided his native Rochester needed a high-level conservatory. “Without the presence of a large body of people who understand music and get enjoyment out of it, any attempt to develop the musical resources of any city is doomed to failure,” he pronounced.
Eastman wanted to create a music school that included not just international-level training for university students, but also major community elements and preparatory training for children and adults—an unconventional notion at the time. He also aspired to celebrate high music and popular music alike, and to resist practices that reduce the audience for classical music. In 1918, he presented his ideas to University of Rochester president Rush Rhees. It soon became clear that Eastman would have to shoulder almost the entire burden of making the project happen. So he put his legendary ingenuity and determination to work and overcame one objection after another.
Starting from scratch would be difficult, so Eastman bought the property and practice of the existing D. K. G. Institute of Musical Art. He then purchased more land around it and closely supervised every detail of the design of a campus and magnificent main building, insisting that it include one of the most glorious auditoriums ever built for music, dance, and film screenings—the 3,100-seat Eastman Theater. Ground was broken in 1920, and the school (with 32 instructors) opened to 104 students in 1921. Buildings and students were added with the passing of years.
Today, 500 undergraduate and 400 graduate students are enrolled in the collegiate division of the school. They are taught by almost 100 faculty members, whose numbers have included seven Pulitzer winners and numerous Grammy awardees. Eastman’s vision for community education and engagement is alive and well; the Community Music School enrolls around 1,000 students (children and adults) each year. Eastman alumni now fill important roles, from musician to conductor to manager, at many of the world’s greatest musical entities, and the Eastman School’s graduate program is regularly ranked first in the nation.