When Francis Goelet died in 1998, America lost its greatest patron of new music. Goelet’s catalogue of commissioned works in all genres–opera, orchestra, chamber, and vocal works–is a catalogue of major American classical composers of the latter twentieth century. He is identified most closely with four institutions: the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, New World Records, and the American Composers Orchestra.
Francis Goelet was born in Bordeaux into a family of wealth and prestige. Francis was the sibling who would become chairman of the Goelet Corporation, dealing in Manhattan real estate among many other concerns. He was not a musician, but a highly literate man who attended concerts and opera regularly. He joined the Metropolitan Opera’s board of directors in 1955, becoming chair of the production committee, and as one of his first acts, commissioned Samuel Barber to compose Vanessa, as well as underwriting the production. It was his first commission.
His next went again to Samuel Barber, in the early 1960s, for Antony and Cleopatra. Famously, this opera, composed to open the brand new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, was a flop with critics, the public, and even the composer. Goelet’s close friends love to tell the story of how Goelet took Barber to lunch several weeks after the opera closed. He asked Barber to consider re-working the opera. Barber was too far behind in his other commissions; he needed to continue making a living. So Goelet offered to re-commission the work. As a result, Barber was able to revise it substantially into a successful work.
Goelet joined the New York Philharmonic board in 1959, and set about commissioning what would stretch to a list of 73 works, which premiered from 1967 through to the coming 2000-2001 season. The largest group were the 150th Anniversary Commissions, 37 works, the most ever commissioned in one go by any orchestra. David Del Tredici was at that time Composer in Residence with the Philharmonic, through Meet The Composer‘s Orchestra Residencies Program, and had the happy task of coordinating the commissions.
In 1975, Herman Krawitz was asked by the Rockefeller Foundation to work on a recording project that would lead to the creation of New World Records, a non-profit label dedicated to recording American music of all kinds. Krawitz, who had been assistant manager of the Metropolitan Opera and worked with Goelet on Vanessa, invited Goelet on the New World Records board. Goelet agreed and proceeded to underwrite recordings of musical theater, chamber music, and jazz, as well as some of the works he had commissioned. He was the label’s chairman until his death.
When the American Composers Orchestra (ACO) was preparing for its first season at Carnegie Hall, (1985-86), its president, Francis Thorne, wrote to Goelet about helping out. A check for $50,000 came back, enabling the ACO to commission Milton Babbitt‘s 1st Piano Concerto, David Diamond‘s 9th Symphony, and Shulamit Ran‘s Concerto for Orchestra. Thereafter, Goelet contributed $25,000 each year, which the ACO used for one or two commissions. The list of commissioned works came to 21 by the time of Goelet’s death.
Goelet was awarded the Gold Baton by the American Symphony Orchestra League in recognition of his unparalleled contributions to the orchestra literature–105 works!–and the National Medal of Arts, by President Reagan. Goelet’s other great love was fishing; he was founder and chairman of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
Goelet usually chose his composers personally, based on a great deal of listening. According to Krawitz, Goelet’s tastes were broad, extending to Canadian folk music and heavy metal. But he also had his dislikes, minimalism and late-period Aaron Copland among them.
Those who knew him well are not many, as Goelet did not seek the limelight, but these few admire him intensely. Schuyler Chapin, now Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs for the City of New York, and formerly general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, calls Goelet “the greatest patron of music the U.S. has ever had, bar none.” He describes him as “one of the most widely read and cultivated people I ever knew.” Herman Krawitz, president of New World Records, still marvels at Goelet’s memory. “Anything he read, anything he listened to, he retained.”
But for all his wealth of musical knowledge and money, Goelet was not overbearing. Francis Thorne of the ACO paints him as a “shy, self-effacing person; caring and sweet.” Albert K. Webster, former Executive Director of the New York Philharmonic, said “helping in a quiet way was his hallmark.” Goelet agreed to accept the Gold Baton and the National Medal of Arts only when Webster convinced him that the recognition of patronage of new music would encourage others. Chapin recalls the theater director Gregory Mosher saying of Goelet, “He is the only very rich person I ever met who doesn’t think his opinions are sacred.”
From On the Money: New Music Funding in the United States
by Theodore Wiprud
© 2000 NewMusicBox