On the Money: New Music Funding in the United States

The Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University has had a remarkable role to play in the history of American music, in part through the leadership it enabled Columbia University to enjoy at mid-century. The Fund was established at the university in 1940 by a generous bequest from Alice M. Ditson, the widow of music publisher Oliver Ditson. Her will stipulated that income could not be used for regular musical activities of the University – salaries or scholarships, for instance, but for the “aid and encouragement of musicians,” and more specifically, to provide for their “performances and publications.” Although the word “composer does not appear, it is strongly implied.

The original Advisory Committee to the Fund, named in the will, had many pet projects they wanted to fund at their own institutions, according to Jack Beeson, the composer who served as Secretary to the Fund from 1960 to 1988 and is its chief historian. The University’s trustees, however, originally appointed composer Douglas Moore, who had been on the Columbia music faculty many years but was just becoming department chairman, to be Secretary to the Fund in 1940. He took a strong hand in organizing the Fund’s grantmaking, and saw to it that the first two grants went to Béla Bartók (a stipend for transcribing recordings of Serbo-Croatian folk songs) and Benjamin Britten (for the premiere production of Paul Bunyan.) Several of the initial trustees were sufficiently appalled at grants going to a Central European refugee and a draft-dodging Brit, that they resigned, and Moore was able to appoint his own board.

For many years, the Fund’s principal expenditure was to produce the Columbia Festival of American Music each spring – a big affair with the NBC Symphony performing. It was there that the first all-Ives concert was heard. The Festival also featured a commissioned opera each year, produced at Brander Matthews Theater, a Columbia facility formerly on 117th Street. Works commissioned include many of the central titles of American opera, including Gian Carlo Menotti‘s The Medium, Virgil Thomson‘s and Gertrude Stein‘s The Mother of Us All, and Hugo Weisgall‘s Six Characters in Search of an Author.

The theater was demolished in the 1950s, and since then the Ditson Fund has had little to do with opera. Instead, it supported concerts at Columbia’s smaller MacMillan Theater and incubated many of the major new music groups in New York, starting with the Group for Contemporary Music, directed by Charles Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger. Another of its distinctions: purchasing the first tape recorder on which Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening began to experiment with electronic music. Indeed, the Ditson Fund underwrote the first electronic music concert in America, right in MacMillan Theater. That facility was completely remodeled and renamed the Miller Theater, beginning in 1988.

The Ditson Fund not only helped finance publication, it started the Columbia University Press Music imprint, which has unfortunately fallen into disuse. It also expanded the idea of publication to include recording, and in addition to supporting individual projects, helped to establish Composers Recording Inc., initially as a minority shareholder in that initially for-profit company.

The Fund also helped birth the American Music Center with important early grants shortly after the AMC was co-founded by Ditson Fund committee member Otto Luening in 1939. “We’ve given it grants in every year when it applied,” says Jack Beeson. “In fact, there were years when we held a little back in case we had to pay the AMC’s rent in an emergency!”

In 1945, the Alice M. Ditson Fund established the Ditson Conductors Award, the oldest such award honoring conductors for their support of American music. Recipients of the Award have included Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski and David Zinman (1997).

Today the Ditson Fund continues to support performance, publication, and recording of “younger or relatively unknown (living) American composers…presumed not to have ready access to major sources of funding.” (The big names commissioned in the 1940s and 1950s weren’t big names then; the American stipulation came later.) The committee, capped at seven, has a majority of composers: George Edwards (Secretary), Jack Beeson, Fred Lerdahl, and Robert Ward; the other members include the pianist Gilbert Kalish and two finance professionals: Douglas Hunt, a retired financial officer at Columbia, and James Kellum Smith Jr., former Vice President of the Mellon Foundation. It is administered from West Hartford CT by Elizabeth L. Mahaffey, who for many years was Douglas Moore’s administrative assistant and later served a prominent role on the Connecticut Commission on the Arts.

The Ditson Fund’s guideline on eligible composers is a rather elegant version of a tricky definition – the “emerging” composer. Other foundations with a similar focus, but different definitions, include the Jerome Foundation and Greenwall Foundation.

From On the Money: New Music Funding in the United States
by Theodore Wiprud
© 2000 NewMusicBox