Founder’s Day: Remembering Mrs. Coolidge in Coolidge Auditorium

The Coolidge Legacy. Biography by Cyrilla Barr, published by Library of Congress, 1997, 63 pgs.

Does the name “Coolidge” sound familiar? If you’re a regular LC concert goer, or have taken a tour of the Jefferson Building, then you know about the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium. Were you to assume that this venue was funded by or named for President Calvin Coolidge, you would be wrong! Our famous auditorium was constructed due to the passion, vision, and funding of one of the Music Division’s greatest patrons: Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953).

Mrs. Coolidge (as we reverently refer to her here in the Music Division), came from a financially and culturally privileged family, and inherited a love of music from her father as well as an affinity for performance from her mother. Though she excelled in her piano education as a child and a young woman, Elizabeth was ushered by family and society into a life dedicated to husband and family, where performance could be pursued as a hobby in women’s clubs, but by no means as a professional career.

After losing her entire family to death and physical distance between 1915 and 1916, Mrs. Coolidge was left with a large inheritance. She began funding charitable causes, largely including music organizations such as the successful Berkshire Festival and Competition. The Berkshire Competition invited contemporary composers to submit compositions for chamber music, reflecting Mrs. Coolidge’s personal passion for new chamber music.

As years went on, Mrs. Coolidge became concerned with not only promoting new chamber music in her own lifetime, but in establishing a legacy that would ensure the continuance of her efforts after her time. In 1924, Mrs. Coolidge submitted a formal proposal for the construction of an auditorium at the Library of Congress. It took an act of Congress to accept this unprecedented gift to the government, and construction lasted only one year before the auditorium was ready for its first performance in 1925. In addition to the wonderful performance venue she funded, Mrs. Coolidge began commissioning new works by the great composers of the 20th century through her foundation. As a part of this program, Mrs. Coolidge required those composers to submit manuscript copies of the commissioned works – an effort that greatly added to the richness of our collections. If you are interested in reading more about this fascinating woman, often referred to as the “patron saint of American music”, you can download a PDF of Cyrilla Barr’s biography of Mrs. Coolidge, The Coolidge Legacy, on the Performing Arts Encyclopedia.

On Mrs. Coolidge’s 80th birthday, October 30, 1944, Coolidge Auditorium hosted the world-famous premiere of Martha Graham and Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” (check out Copland’s sketches of the music!). Quite a birthday gift, indeed! We in the Music Division continue to celebrate our great patroness’s birthday every year with our annual Founder’s Day concert, this year featuring the Finnish period instrument ensemble Helsinki Baroque who will be performing tomorrow night, on what would be Mrs. Coolidge’s 146th birthday, at 8:00 in Coolidge Auditorium.

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