For 100 Years, a 'People's Music School'

April 15, 1994|By BARBARA MALLONEE

Last autumn, hundreds of bulbs were planted in the plaz inside the Peabody Preparatory, the rows of daffodils to herald the Prep's centennial year with as much fanfare as a choir of shiny brass. Daffodils bloom in courtyards and conservatories. Cultivated in beds and borders, they readily naturalize. Though they are not indigenous, they seem a part of native Maryland landscape.

Institutions are rarely indigenous, yet they, too, come to seem so. Peabody has spread as a downtown place name. Though George Peabody was not a native son, he succeeded as a young Baltimore dry-goods merchant. With wealth amassed later in mercantile enterprise abroad, he founded the Peabody Institute in 1857. In a photograph of its dedication, a white-haired gentleman stands on the front steps, facing Mt. Vernon Square; thousands of schoolchildren fan out before him, a grand gesture of civic gratitude for all that a library, lecture series, art gallery and academy of music were to offer.

Three decades later, May Garrettson Evans, a graduate of the Peabody and The Sun's first female reporter, proposed a music school to prepare young musicians for the Conservatory.

Life is full of turnabout and redirection. Having hailed all winter the daffodils expected in spring, Peabody this week heralds the rows of red and gold tulips that have unfolded instead! The small, specialized preparatory school opened by May Evans and her sister Marion in 1894 rapidly became ''a people's music school'' with no musical requirements for entrance and parents and grandparents as welcome as young children.

By 1898, it was part of the Institute. In her 35 years as superintendent, May Evans shaped the Prep not for the gifted few, but for the thousands upon thousands.

Elizabeth Schaaf, Peabody's archivist, writes that May Evans was ''tireless in her efforts to get music to the people of Baltimore, especially the disadvantaged young.'' She opened branches in poor sections, printing brochures in English, German, Yiddish. She proposed extension courses (Sun headline: ''Tired Business Men and Workers Generally Will Be Given a Chance to Study'') and programs ''to quicken the appreciation of church music.''

A third Evans sister, Bessie, hired first as a dance teacher at Peabody, later directed a growing dance department. In 1915, says Ms. Schaaf, May Evans arranged a community sing; 400 people packed Peabody to sing ''Annie Laurie'' and ''Old Folks at Home,'' and the next summer municipal band concerts featured singing in the parks. By 1929, when May Evans retired, over 2,000 were enrolled at the downtown Prep.

A century after the founding of the Prep, music and dance are as naturalized as the daffodils that wander their way across the east coast. More than 4,000 pupils now arrive to study in seven locations. An outreach program in the city's public schools has served 6,000 children since 1984. Coast to coast and far beyond, generations of Prep students are widely dispersed.

Love of the fine arts, George Peabody believed, was second nature to us all; May Garrettson Evans found that it is also in our nature to profit from instruction.

''Countless homes are happier,'' wrote a Sun reporter in 1929, ''because they have access to that spirit which breathes in music. To the Evans sisters, who . . . worked to bring this about, the whole city of Baltimore acknowledges its indebtedness in that through them music has come to citizens who might have passed through life with unskilled fingers and closed ears, unaware of the treasure.''

Reared in the genteel circles of Baltimore's upper-middle class, May Evans ventured, as a young reporter, into avenues, alleyways and affairs then reserved for men. At Peabody, her purview grew. Upon her retirement, at age 62, she traveled with her sisters Marion and Bessie to New Mexico to seek the vanishing songs and dances of the Pueblo and Navajo Indians.

May published a book with charts, music and paintings in color by Poyege, a San Ildefonso Indian. In 1929, May and Bessie gave lecture-recitals (''with accompaniment of native drum'') at Yale, at the Museum of Natural History in New York, in Atlantic City, and, of course, at Peabody.

Gentility, in ancient times, described the noble character of those who were ''of the same clan.'' The three gentlewomen who so influenced the character of the Peabody Prep had an awakened passion for community -- and a sense that the boundaries of one's indigenous culture were very broad.

In the Evans family scrapbook, one finds studio portraits of all three sisters in requisite taffeta and lace. But one finds faded snapshots too: May kneeling in mud to plant flowers on Poe's grave. Marion (in hat, silk dress, fur-trimmed coat) sitting on a ladder leaning against an adobe wall. Bessie on the lecture circuit in Navajo blouse and white trousers, wearing a headband and beads.

Barbara Mallonee chairs the Department of Writing and Media at Loyola College.

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