A name in history: Clara Baur dedicated to music by teaching others to appreciate its beauty and joy

Founded a school dedicated to classical music

CINCINNATI -- Kathleen Battle. Faith Prince. Al Hirt. Dorian Harewood. 

These well-known names in the entertainment industry have one little-known name to thank for the education they received at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music – Clara Baur. 

Clara Baur

Baur, though small, single and far from rich, started what we know today as CCM 147 years ago. The Queen City’s first school solely dedicated to teaching classical music was founded with no one’s money but her own. It never was endowed under her leadership. 

The Stuttgart, Germany, native was “directress” of the Cincinnati Conservatory of music for 45 years until her death at age 77 in 1912, yet there is no city street, park or building bearing her name like so many important men of her era. 

Her legacy lives on quietly in a 1914 Clement Barnhorn-designed fountain in the CCM Alumni Garden and in an intimate meeting room added to CCM’s Corbett Center in 1999. 

Both are a far cry in stature compared with the 10-acre Mount Auburn estate of the John Shillito department store family that Baur bought and developed into her conservatory’s campus. 

The stately Samuel Hannaford-designed mansion was located on an Oak Street block between Highland and Burnet avenues. Its grounds and grand rooms were perfect for music instruction for about 60 years until CCM became part of UC in 1962, after which the estate was razed. 

The sprawling, sublime conservatory – remember, Mount Auburn was a spacious suburb when the school opened there in 1902 – elevated the lives of thousands of students and rivaled the European institutions Baur admired. It included dormitories and studios for its students as well as a 600-seat concert hall. 

At age 32, in the winter of 1867, Baur founded the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in rented rooms, showing the “courage, pluck and knowledge that proved a better foundation for enduring success than an endowment fund,” according to the 1906 edition of the World Almanac & Book of Facts. 

The College of Music – with which Baur’s school merged in 1955 – was established in 1878 in Dexter Hall next to Music Hall and proved to be a stiff competitor of her conservatory. 

Yet the almanac described Baur’s school as having played “a signal part in the development of musical culture in America” and as having “seen its fame increase until it has transcended the bounds of our country and is known in all the musical centres of the world.” 

The conservatory first located in Miss Nourse’s School for Young Ladies in Walnut Hills. It offered courses in Baur’s specialty, which was voice, as well as piano. The school moved in 1876 into a building at Vine and Eighth where students were offered room and board. Baur moved the school into a mansion at Fourth and Lawrence in 1888. 

Initially, she catered her music classes to the daughters of Cincinnati’s rich, offering courses in social graces, posture and language as well. 

The school’s popularity eventually spread nationwide and its students included children as young as six years old. CCM offered diplomas to those who completed all their coursework, certificates to those who mastered a single branch of music and testimonials to deserving short-term students. 

By 1881, Baur was holding Saturday Evening Musicals that featured her faculty members and students. She also began the first summer music program in the country. 

In addition to leading private and public performances by her students, Baur spread her passion for music by giving talks and reading papers before groups such as the Cincinnati Woman’s Club. 
She spearheaded the establishment of the Cincinnati McDowell Society, an allied arts group that embraced and promoted “music, painting, play-writing, literature and any other creative art acknowledged by civilization,” The Enquirer wrote in her Nov. 24, 1912 obituary. 

At a 1914 ceremony dedicating the Barnhorn-designed fountain, Cincinnati attorney and arts patron Lawrence Maxwell “paid a high tribute to the sterling qualities of Miss Baur, her ideals and the sincerity with which she worked toward their realization,” the paper read. 

Baur lived modestly in various places in downtown Cincinnati, sometimes with her brother and sometimes with friends from her native Germany. Her niece, Bertha, was her constant sidekick and business partner. 
Bertha took over as the conservatory’s directress when her aunt died and carried on the musical mission until her death in 1940. The Baur women are buried side-by-side at Spring Grove Cemetery. 

Both carried the legacy of putting music before anything, especially money. The self sacrificing Baurs never accepted salaries. 

That, wrote Lewis A. Leonard in his 1927 book “Greater Cincinnati and Its People,” was because “they were afraid some ambitious young man or young woman might be deprived of the opportunity to study music.”

This is part of the series, called A Name in History, where WCPO contributor Brent Coleman delves into some of the names behind Cincinnati's rich history and iconic institutions. Join him every Monday for a new chapter into the past.​ 

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