The following is a guest post by Ryan Ebright, Graduate Musicology Student, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
As one of the three Pruett Fellows from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill working in the Music Division this summer (more information about our work for the Library can be found in a previous post by my colleague Christopher Reali), I studied collections pertaining to the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore (CMSB). In order to learn more about the commissioning of new music in the United States during the latter half of the twentieth century, I chose to focus on the CMSB, which commissioned over twenty-five works during its existence between 1950 and 1997. My research was divided between the Library of Congress, where I examined the Randolph S. Rothschild Collection and the Robert Hall Lewis Collection, and the Peabody Archives in Baltimore, which houses Rothschild’s papers.
When composer Hugo Weisgall and Baltimorean Richard Goodman founded the CMSB in 1950, it was one of the only chamber music venues in the city. Though the society initially programmed music from all periods of history, as more chamber music groups established themselves in Baltimore, the CMSB increasingly devoted itself to the music of living composers. Beginning in 1970, the CMSB commissioned one new work almost every year, funded by Randolph Rothschild, the society’s president. The list of commissioned composers includes several recognizable names in twentieth-century classical music, including Hugo Weisgall, Milton Babbitt, Ernst Krenek, Ross Lee Finney, and Charles Wuorinen, as well as a number of other composers of national and international stature.
The materials of the CMSB reveal that while Rothschild supplied the financial support for the commissioned pieces, the selection of each commissioned composer in most instances was decided upon unilaterally by Robert Hall Lewis, who served as the Artistic Director of the CMSB for over twenty-five years. Lewis’ commitment to certain progressive compositional trends in twentieth-century classical music, including atonality and dodecaphony, is reflected in his choice of composers and the resultant works.
Ultimately, while the commissioning process of the CMSB represents a single thread in the fabric of American classical music of the late twentieth-century, its study will lend greater understanding to the propagation of progressive compositional aesthetics at a time when a new conservatism was developing in the American classical music scene.
My colleagues and I were also fortunate to experience some of the treasures that the Music Division holds. In addition to a private presentation of the Miller Flute Collection, we were also shown a number of the Library’s most impressive pieces (some of which we requested), including a 1501 printing of Petrucci’s Odhecaton, Brahms’ Violin Concerto, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Billings’ New England Psalm Singer, Britten’s Peter Grimes, and, my surprise favorite, a fifteenth-century Venetian monk’s compendium of music theory treatises with a beautifully illustrated Guidonian hand. I’m afraid my photograph does not do it justice!