Music has had a strong presence at USC since the opening of the University in 1880, with music courses included in the first curriculum of the College of Liberal Arts. The USC Thornton School of Music was founded as the Conservatory of Music in 1884, at which students could only study either voice or piano, and a year later in 1885 it became the College of Music.
The early years were a time of many changes in the physical housing of the College. As the student body continually grew, the College of Music was constantly looking for more space. Thus, it inhabited several buildings during this time, both on and off the University Park Campus, including Widney Hall, the Blanchard Building downtown, the Mason Opera House, the Old Marble Homestead, Clark House, the Old Cohn Mansion, and Bovard Concert Hall.
As a result of the Great Depression and the financial difficulties that came with it, the College was downsized and administratively relocated in the College of Liberal Arts as the School of Music in 1933, headed by a Director instead of a Dean. Despite the obstacles caused by the Depression, several programs continued to grow and become more established. Horatio Cogswell, head of the Voice Department, created several award winning Glee Clubs. Harold William Roberts headed the Trojan Marching Band from 1927-1937, during which time it grew in numbers, theatrical flair, and prestige. Similarly for the university's Golden Jubilee in 1930, the music school helped to sponsor two concerts, one of Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah, which included a chorus of 500 and featured famous leads such as Lawrence Tibbett, and The Apolliad, which featured original works by students from the Literature, Visual Arts, Music, and Drama departments. As registration and funds picked up in 1937, Dean A. S. Raubenheimer of the College of Liberal Arts reorganized the entire School to reflect a greater emphasis on core education and added the General Education requirements that are still used today. Furthermore, the first Doctoral degree candidates in Music were admitted in 1942.
Yet another upheaval occurred, however, when the School of Music became the College of Music in the Institute of the Arts under Dean Max Krone and Director Max Swarthout in 1946. With this change came the creation of a Preparatory School associated with the College of Music where children K-12 could take piano lessons from the faculty. It was withdrawn from the Institute of the Arts in 1951 and re-established as an independent School, and remained a School even though it was part of the School of Performing Arts in the 1970s under the deanship of Grant Beglarian.
In 1999, the school gained a major benefactor in Flora L. Thornton. Her naming gift of $25 million was the largest contribution to an American school of music up to that time.
Along with Mrs. Thornton, USC Thornton School of Music has had several other important donors throughout its history. A particularly notable example is Captain G. Allan Hancock, whose love of music and the biological sciences, combined with his friendships with John S. Garth, a USC music student, and USC President Rufus von KleinSmid, inspired Hancock to establish the Allan Hancock Foundation, fund the construction of the USC Hancock Foundation Building, and sponsor multiple concerts by his Hancock Trio in the 1940s. Many alumni and former professors have endowed scholarships, chairs, and professorships throughout the years including: the Carolyn Alchin Chair scholarship for students of composition in 1930, the Carrie Jacobs Bond scholarship in 1947, the Jascha Heifetz Chair in Violin in 1974, the Gregor Piatigorsky Chair in Violoncello in 1974, the Stephen Crocker Professorship in Music in 1987, the Bowen H. "Buzz" and Barbara M. McCoy Chair in Jazz in 2004, the H. Robert Reynolds Professorship in Wind Conducting in 2008, the Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld Chair in String Instruction in 2008, and the Robert Mann Chair in Strings and Chamber Music in 2013.
Currently, the USC Thornton School of Music is the oldest continually operating cultural institution in Los Angeles with 16 undergraduate and 25 graduate programs. It also presents over 500 concerts each year and has a weekly radio broadcast on KUSC, Thornton Center Stage.
Heads of the Music School
Mrs. C. S. Nellis, 1884 to 1886 (principal); Louisa M. Wright and Leila Breed, 1886 to 1887; Mrs. L. H. Stagg, 1887 to 1890 (principal), 1893 to 1895 (dean); F. A. Bacon, 1895 to 1898; Walter F. Skeele, 1898 to 1934; Max Swarthout, 1934 to 1948 (director); Raymond Kendall, 1948 to 1951 (director), 1951 to 1967 (dean); Grant Beglarian, 1969 to 1982 (Dean of Performing Arts); Howard Rarig (director, Music), 1971 to November 1979; William Thomson, July 1980 to 1986; Larry Livingston, 1986 to 2001; Robert Cutietta, 2002 to present