Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge @ 150

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Charcoal Portrait, John Singer Sargent, 1923 (Wikimedia Commons)

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Charcoal Portrait, John Singer Sargent, 1923 (Wikimedia Commons)

The following is a guest blog by Anne McLean, Senior Producer for Concerts and Special Projects, Music Division, Library of Congress.

On Thursday, October 30, the Music Division celebrates the 150th birthday of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, pianist, composer, and impresario. She was an extraordinarily generous and visionary benefactor , an important music philanthropist who was the founder of the Library’s concert series, and a widely influential figure in the classical music world of her time.

Her work as a presenter and commissioner was groundbreaking, making an indelible impact through the many commissions she offered, the festivals she conceived and produced–both in Europe and America–and the many composers and scholars she championed. Her gift of the Coolidge Auditorium and the endowment which bears her name  would place the Library at the forefront of presenting institutions, an enviable and challenging position. Through the legacy of the distinguished traditions she established, the resonance of her ideas and accomplishments continues to be felt today.

This creative and formidable woman is still a very palpable presence at the Library. Since the opening concerts here in 1925, the series has carried the strong stamp of Mrs. Coolidge’s knowledge and integrity. She formed close and productive partnerships with the chiefs of the Music Division, beginning with Carl Engel, whose thank-you note to her after her Fifth Berkshire Festival opened a long and warm relationship, and the path to a new home for superb chamber music concerts at the nation’s library.

With Engel and later Harold Spivacke, she created an impressive, ongoing brain trust for programming. Her practicality, humor, and a sense of adventure enlivened their discussions of high artistic ideals; by no means were her major contributions financial ones, as has been documented extensively in books and articles about her. Enormous energy went into her contacts, conversations and collaborations with composers from Frank Bridge, Gian Francesco  Malipiero, and Benjamin Britten to Aaron Copland, and to the commissioning of works like Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Apollon Musagète, Arnold Schoenberg’s Third and Fourth String Quartets, Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs and many, many more. All subsequent programmers at the Library, inspired by her example, have found it found it very daunting to follow in her wake.

In Januarywatch this spacethe Music Division will announce plans for an exhilarating 90th anniversary season.  As a tribute to Mrs. Coolidge’s remarkable vision, and to honor her passionate commitment to the creation of new music, Concerts from the Library of Congress will unveil eight major commissions, to be premiered during the course of what should be a festive and very substantive 18-month period from January 2015 through May 2016.

This week, to celebrate the sesquicentennial anniversary of her birth, the Library presents an exciting doubleheader of concerts reflecting not only Mrs. Coolidge’s trailblazing path as a new music presenter, but her advocacy of early music. On October 29th and 30th, our Coolidge Auditorium audiences will hear very new and very old music, European and American composers, and instrumental and vocal ensembles, very much in keeping with programs at the very earliest Library concerts.

“My desire is to serve Art, and through Art, to serve humanity,” she said in a talk for the National Federation of Music Clubs, “for I feel that the survival of the human spirit largely depends upon its artistic freedom: to lose the privilege of self expression by which, through his Art…man has recorded Truth and Beauty, would be to limit spiritual nourishment.” In a rare radio speech at a Coolidge Festival near the end of her life, she spoke about “the radiation of friendship and beauty which chamber music has brought us.”  We feel this radiation very strongly today, as all of us in the Music Division salute Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge now on her 150th birthday, October 30, 2014.

The Coolidge Legacy by Cyrilla Barr

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation Collection Finding Aid

Quotes from Mrs. Coolidge:     
“Radiation of friendship and beauty which chamber music has brought to us.”

“My desire is to serve Art, and through Art, to serve humanity…for I feel that the survival of the human spirit largely depends upon its artistic freedom: to lose the privilege of self expression by which, through his Art…man has recorded Truth and Beauty, would be to limit spiritual nourishment.”

Coolidge 150

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