The University of Nebraska was founded in 1869. Early records of the University indicate that the Regents were concerned with the need for music study during the very early years of the institution's existence.
It was in 1892 that Chancellor Canfield began to plan for enhancement of the music program. Since the University was experiencing severe financial limitations, he proposed to the Regents that there be established a Conservatory of Music which would operate as a separate entity, i.e., an independent, private institution generating its own funds but serving the University by offering instruction for which the University would grant credit. It was also understood that the Conservatory would provide musical programs for University functions as needed. The plan was presented to Mr. Menzendorf who chose not to undertake the conservatory project. Therefore, with approval of the Regents, Chancellor Canfield invited Willard Kimball, Director of the Conservatory at Grinnell College in Iowa, to come to Lincoln with the establishment of the conservatory as his objective.
From the beginning it was Kimball's stated objective that the new conservatory would offer instruction equal to any in the country and certainly the best between Chicago and San Francisco. The School of Music was to be a private institution, however, although with close UNL affiliations.
The design for the new conservatory was prepared by a Chicago architect and construction began almost immediately to allow for completion and opening of the school in the fall of 1894.
In the years before the First World War, Kimball's music school became one of the six largest in the country, attracting over 700 students a year from as many as 19 states and supporting a faculty of up to 40.
Within the next decade the University School of Music established a national reputation even as Kimball had envisioned. An article in a 1910 issue of The Musical Courier describes the school in this fashion:
"It is just across the street from the University of Nebraska and has the
moral support of that great institution, being affiliated with it in every
way excepting that of finance and control. . . . all the students at the
University who want to study music receive credit from the University.
It stands here in a city of 40,000 inhabitants, situated in the center of
a great prairie, isolated from all the great art centers of the United States."
But the affiliation with the conservatory was lost so there was need once again for the University of Nebraska to establish a formal program in music. The 1912 establishment of the School of Fine Arts within the College of Arts and Sciences provided a unit within which the program could exist. It was Chancellor Avery who proposed to the Regents the introduction of theory courses.
At the end of the 1916-17 school year, nearing his mid sixties, Willard Kimball chose to retire. Adrian Newens took charge as Director in 1917-18; and in 1919, John Rosborough was designated Dean of the University School of Music. Rosborough, a graduate of Northwestern University, had been on the faculty since 1910 as an instructor of theory. He is particularly remembered for the a cappella choir which he formed within the University School of Music since the choir, later known as the Lincoln Cathedral Choir, gained national recognition in the 1930's.
In the Fall of 1930, the Board of Regents purchased the University School of Music for $100,000 with payment of only $10,000 in cash, anticipating that the earnings of the school would cover the balance as payments on the obligation became due. The University's School of Fine Arts was closed, but the University School of Music was permitted to continue in the hope that it could produce revenue.
Ultimately it was necessary for the University School of Music to become an integral part of the University. A plan of reorganization was devised in 1937 and Arthur Westbrook was appointed in 1938 as Director of the School of Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Chairman of the Music Department. With a full-time salaried faculty of thirteen, Dr. Westbrook proceeded to establish a comprehensive instructional program, which became the basis for the degree programs offered today.
The Master of Music degree was inaugurated in 1941, and the Department of Music Education was established as a part of Teachers College under Westbrook's chairmanship in 1942.
Upon Westbrook's retirement in 1952, David Foltz was appointed Chairman of the Department of Music, a position that he held through the school year 1957-58.
In 1958-59, Emanuel Wishnow was appointed to the chairmanship. Wishnow, later to be named the George Holmes Professor of Music, had been the University's teacher of violin and viola since 1933 and conductor of the University Orchestra since 1941. The Department of Music was still housed in the old conservatory building erected by Willard Kimball, and much of the original furniture and musical equipment was still in use. Magnificent as it was in 1894, it had deteriorated and become obsolete in terms of the needs of the school. In 1957, an annex for large ensemble rehearsals was attached to the east end of the building where originally there had been porches to serve the needs of Kimball's dormitory residents.
With this annex, the old structure continued to serve until state funding for a new building became available in 1963. Contracts for $1,156,454 were awarded, and construction began in 1965. The city closed the intersection of 11th and R Streets to permit construction of the new facility just west of the old school. The move from the old building to the new occurred between semesters of 1966-67.
Many of the School of Music alumni petitioned the University to name the new building for Arthur Westbrook, whom they remembered with the same deep respect and affection with which alumni of the old University School of Music remembered Willard Kimball. It was appropriately concluded, therefore, that the new music building would bear the name of Arthur Westbrook and the recital hall, when completed, would be named for Willard Kimball.
It was in April of 1967 that the old conservatory building was razed. Thus the recital hall was constructed on the site which Willard Kimball had purchased in 1894.
Kimball Hall, completed in 1969, was dedicated in 1971 with a three-day series of concerts.
With the completion of the Westbrook Music Building and Kimball Recital Hall there existed a physical setting in which the music program could grow. And, this it did in the ensuing years. Very soon the status of the Department of Music was changed to a School of Music with Emanuel Wishnow serving as the first Director of the School, a position which he held through 1971-72.
Leadership of the School passed to John Moran, Director from 1972-73 through 1976-77, and to Raymond Haggh, who served as Director from 1977-78 through 1983-84.
The need had long been recognized for placement of the Music Library in the Westbrook Building and for inauguration of a doctoral program. These were both realized with the opening of the Music Library in 1980-81 and enrollment of the first DMA candidates in 1983-84.
With the return of Dr. Haggh to classroom responsibilities in 1984-85, John Moran and Albert Rometo assumed the role of Director as a team on a one-year interim basis during which a search was undertaken for a permanent Director. The death of John Moran left Rometo to finish the interim period alone. Upon conclusion of the search, Kerry S. Grant was named to assume responsibility for the School beginning July 1 of 1985.
Dr. Grant, a musicologist specializing in the eighteenth century, came from the University of Oklahoma and served as Director for six years, until 1991. Prof. Rusty White, the double bassist on the music faculty, was Interim Director from 1991 to 1993 while another national search was launched.
The year 1993 brought several changes to the School of Music. The College of Fine and Performing Arts was formed at UNL with pianist Larry Lusk as its first Dean, the undergraduate teacher education program in music was moved from Teachers College to the School of Music, and Lawrence R. Mallett was appointed Director of the UNL School of Music.
The late 1980’s and early 1990’s saw the retirement of one-third of the tenured music faculty in the UNL School of Music. The 1990’s witnessed the rebuilding of the music faculty and the student body and the creation of a music technology center and a fully integrated, electronically interactive classroom/recital hall in Westbrook Music Building. The School of Music celebrated its first 100 years in 1994 with a televised Centennial Anniversary Concert featuring students and faculty.
After eight years, Dr. Mallett left to become director of the School of Music at the University of Kansas in 2001. Prof. Robert Fought then served as Interim Director for two years. Dr. John W. Richmond came to UNL from the School of Music at the University of South Florida, Tampa to be the director for thirteen years, from 2003 to 2016.
Upon the departure of Dr. Richmond in 2016 to become Dean of the College of Music at the University of North Texas, Denton, Dr. Peter M. Lefferts was named Interim Director for 2016-2017. Dr. Sergio H. Ruiz was named Director in the Fall of 2017.