Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953) was a woman with a mission and the imagination and money to realize it. Gunther Schuller writes in his foreword to the very thorough biography by Cyrilla Barr (Schirmer Books, 1998) that “the hundreds of masterpieces she commissioned over a period of many decades are to a remarkable extent the basic staples of our twentieth-century repertoire, particularly in chamber music.” Indeed, chamber music was her principal mission, and she was a major force propelling chamber music from curiosity to headline status in America.
Born Elizabeth Penn Sprague, daughter of a wealthy grocery wholesaler in Chicago, she married a physician named Frederic Shurtleff Coolidge. The family bore one child, Albert Sprague Coolidge, before Fred died, tragically and over many agonizing years of decline, from syphilis contracted during surgery on an infected patient. Shortly afterward, Coolidge’s father died, and then her mother, leaving Elizabeth well endowed financially but without any immediate family other than her son.
Where most people would retreat into solitude and self-indulgence, Coolidge cultivated increasingly her own musical gifts as pianist and composer, as well as the contact with leading musicians afforded by her first acts of philanthropy (memorials to her late husband and parents). Until her ninth decade, Coolidge played sonatas and chamber music with world-renowned instrumentalists, and it was her personal experience of music that spurred her unprecedented giving. Her financial position was nothing like a Rockefeller‘s, yet through force of personality and conviction she had tremendous impact.
Coolidge started and bankrolled the Berkshire Music Festival in 1918, pre-dating Tanglewood by decades, at South Mountain, where a modest chamber music festival continues today. Later she would support chamber music at Tanglewood as well. But her most innovative and costly endeavor was the creation in 1924 of a presenting arm of the Library of Congress. It was America’s first public-private partnership in the arts, entailing the construction of the Coolidge Auditorium, seating 500 and specifically intended for chamber music; the establishment of the Coolidge Foundation to support performances there and the salary of the Chief of the Music Division of the Library of Congress; and, later, the residency of the Budapest Quartet. Coolidge believed strongly in government support of music–including a state-sponsored National Symphony, and her powerful advocacy created this important beachhead at the Library. She was also visionary in putting concerts from the Library of Congress on the radio, and having them syndicated nationally by NBC.
Coolidge’s dedication to chamber music extended to building the repertory through constant commissioning. Her loyalty to the dozens musicians who became like family to her, led her to provide temporary but often crucial livings to composers and players. This was particularly important during the exodus from Europe in the face of Nazism and World War II.
Her commissions included hundreds made through the Coolidge Foundation, which continues commissioning today (in chamber music solely); and many more, incompletely documented, that she offered personally. She was not particular about national origin; in fact, the majority of her commissions went to European composers (Bartòk, Bridge, Britten, Casella, Hindemith, Malipiero, Milhaud, Ravel, Schoenberg, and Toch among them) because her perception was that Europe still led America in composition. (She also carried no banner for women composers.) Important Americans commissioned included Roy Harris, Wallingford Riegger, and Aaron Copland. Appalachian Spring, a milestone in the development of American dance as well as music, was completely engineered by Coolidge for premiere at the Library of Congress. Many more Americans have been commissioned through the Coolidge Foundation since her death.
Coolidge’s commissions represent a wide swath of the leading composers of her day, as well as many almost forgotten already. In her time her reputation was for commissioning difficult modern works, though on expert advice she declined to help Charles Ives. “My plea for modern music,” she once told the National Federation of Music Clubs, “is not that we should like it, nor necessarily that we should even understand it, but that we should exhibit it as a significant human document.”
From On the Money: New Music Funding in the United States
by Theodore Wiprud
© 2000 NewMusicBox