A Musical League of Nations: The 1918 Berkshire Festival of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge

The following is a guest post from Robin Rausch, Head of Reader Services in the Music Division.

Signed portrait of Fritz Kreisler. Autograph reads: “To Mrs. Elizabeth S. Coolidge – Cordially, Fritz Kreisler, Xmas 1918.” Box 272, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division.

For three days in September, in 1918, the musical elite gathered in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for what was billed as the first chamber music festival ever given in America.  It took place September 16-18, two months before the November 11th Armistice was signed, ending World War I.  Among the attendees were musicians from countries that were still in deadly combat, including violist Ugo Ara from Italy and violinist Fritz Kreisler from Austria, each of whom had fought against the other’s homeland. German cellist Emmeran Stoeber and French oboist, conductor, and composer Georges Longy, listened in appreciation to each other’s music. Hungarian violinist Sandor Harmati played Russian music with the Letz Quartet, and Austrian violinist Hugo Kortschak led his Berkshire String Quartet through a new, prize-winning composition by Polish composer Tadeusz Iarecki, then serving in the Polish Legion in France.

The Christian Science Monitor reported on a “Beethoven uneasiness” among some who believed the composer’s music, which was also featured, should be “interned for the period of the war.”  Others came to the composer’s defense and proposed issuing a formal declaration urging the public “not to throw Beethoven over.”  In the end, it wasn’t necessary.  The opening performance of Beethoven’s Quartet, op. 127 in E flat major won the day and set the tone for the rest of the festival.

Portrait of Ugo Ara, 1918. Box 271, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division.

Despite rain the entire three days, a spirit of good cheer permeated the proceedings.  Composer and music critic Daniel Gregory Mason, covering the festival for The New Music Review (November 1918), wrote that the music and the brightly lit auditorium seemed to symbolize “the preservation of art and the other precious things of civilization from the storms which now threaten them all over the world.”  Those in attendance, especially those dressed in mourning, were aware of “this deeper significance of the festival, of the seriousness, far removed from any mood of mere entertainment, given it by the power of art to minister to sorrow, to inspire hope, [and] to strengthen all high spiritual devotions….”

In brief remarks made after the closing concert, composer Rubin Goldmark expressed the gratitude of the audience, saying that it was deeply comforting to still find in these tragic days such inspiration as musical art alone can give.  And he lauded Mrs. Coolidge for “helping to carry it on intact to the period of reconstruction after the war,” calling her efforts “a finely patriotic service.”  In response, Coolidge said, “in keeping art alive we are doing what we best can to serve America.” (The Outlook, Oct. 9, 1918)

Program for 1918 Berkshire Festival in Pittsfield, MA. Box 231, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division.

 

 

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge was a noted patroness of the arts and a talented pianist and composer.  After the success of her early Berkshire Festivals, she moved her chamber music concerts to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, to make them available to a larger public.  There she built a state-of-the-art hall that bears her name, the Coolidge Auditorium, and endowed a fund to provide concerts free of charge and commission new works by contemporary composers.  The concert series, begun in 1925, continues to this day.

Coolidge would remember her early Berkshire Festivals fondly, and the first, in 1918, when musicians from countries still at war with one another came together to make music, was the one she called “a kind of musical League of Nations.”

 

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For more information on Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, see these digitized resources:

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