Brief Historical Sketch of the Illinois Wesleyan University School of Music
The earliest music instruction of record at Illinois Wesleyan University took place during the academic year of 1863/4 under the direction of Professor Harvey C. DeMotte, an enterprising mathematics instructor, who in later years became Vice President of the University, in addition to accompanying Dr. John Wesley Powell, in his explorations of the American Southwest. DeMotte’s Department of Vocal Music would “henceforth constitute a regular department of the University.” Within a decade the University boasted “advantages in musical culture equal to those offered by the best institutions in the land.”
During the remaining decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, the “Wesleyan College of Music” was only loosely tied to the University. Organized on a conservatory model, music instructors maintained individual studios, recruited their own students and set their own fees, an annual percentage of which was paid to the University, for the privilege of being affiliated with the “Wesleyan.”
There were simultaneously several competing colleges of music operating in Bloomington, vying for the same students. Mergers and separations took place, with an accompanying swell and ebb in numbers of both instructors and students. By the mid-1890s enrollment in the Wesleyan College of Music approached the 600 mark. Instruction was provided in rented facilities along Bloomington’s business corridor. Students completing a prescribed curriculum received either an artist’s diploma or a teacher’s certificate depending on their aptitude or aspirations.
Illinois Wesleyan Presidents Francis Barnes and Theodore Kemp both sought to consolidate the College of Music and draw it into a closer relationship with the University. Between 1919 and 1924, three residences were purchased along North Center Street, on the site of what is currently the Memorial Student Center. These were refitted to provide studio and practice facilities for faculty and students. Classroom instruction took place in “Old” Main Hall (known subsequently as Hedding Hall and Duration Hall). Recitals continued to take place downtown or in Amie Chapel. The first Bachelor of Music degree was conferred in June 1921. The Bachelor of Music Education degree followed in 1927. Chapters of the national music service fraternities, Sigma Alpha Iota and Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia were established at Illinois Wesleyan as early as 1924, with Delta Omicron following suit one year later.
In 1925, President William J. Davidson was approached by the Theodore Presser Foundation with a matching offer of $75,000 for the construction of a new music building. Within the next three years, a capital campaign raised an additional $92,000 to complete and furnish the new building. Ground-breaking ceremonies took place on October 31, 1928 and Presser Hall was dedicated on February 3, 1929. The new building proudly boasted “25 studios, 30 practice rooms, a small recital hall and an auditorium with a seating capacity of eight hundred. The studios and practice rooms are sound-proof, and are equipped with excellent musical instruments, including 58 pianos and 5 pipe organs. It is undoubtedly one of the finest buildings of its type in the world.” On December 30, 1930, the Illinois Wesleyan University School of Music was admitted to the National Association of Schools of Music.
The decades of the 1930s through the 1960s were boom years for the School of Music, both in terms of enrollment and the prestige of its faculty. Additional academic programs were established during this period, including a Graduate Program (1932-1975), and a Junior College of Music (1938-1954) located in Springfield, Illinois. The study of contemporary music has for many years played an important role in the curriculum of the School of Music. The annual Symposium of Contemporary Music inaugurated in 1952 continues to bring internationally-known composers to the campus for concerts and lectures.
On a May night in 1970 a devastating fire (set by juvenile arsonists) precipitated a major renovation of Presser Hall. Out of the ashes of this tragic event came the dedication of the Alice Millar Center of the Fine Arts in 1973, which greatly enhanced the facilities of the School of Music.
Illinois Wesleyan University has consistently attracted music students from all regions of the United States and beyond. Its faculty and graduates have achieved and continue to earn wide recognition as performing artists on the concert and operatic stage, as music educators and administrators, as church musicians, as composers, as music theorists and music historians.
From its beginnings, the Illinois Wesleyan School of Music has played a major role in the cultural life of Bloomington-Normal, partnering with neighboring academic, civic, and religious organizations to foster the art of music in our community. The Collegiate Choir and the Wesleyan-Symphony Orchestra are but two examples of musical ambassadorship to have originated from Presser Hall. Most recently, Illinois Wesleyan’s involvement with the creation of the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts (2006) attests to its continued commitment to the arts and arts education in Central Illinois.