lizabeth Sprague Coolidge always loved a good party - she liked especially to celebrate meaningful events in her life. And in fact, she coined a special name for them. She called them "musical jollifications." I feel quite certain that tonight's festivities, would qualify as such, for this is, after all, a birthday party of sorts - for she was born on this day, October 30th, in 1864. And of course the reason that we are all here is to celebrate the long anticipated reopening of this wonderful auditorium that is her gift to the nation, to us really.
If by some miraculous means we could summon forth from these walls sound waves from the past, what a glorious "jollification" that would be, for history has been made here. On this stage some of the greatest chamber music of our century was premiered. Works of Bartók, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Copland and many others--works commissioned by Mrs. Coolidge. And she herself graced the stage with her imposing presence when over the years she conferred the Coolidge Medal for outstanding service to chamber music to such people as Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge, Hans Kindler, Alexander Schneider and some 20 others.
More often of course she could be found in the audience, enthroned in her usual place, her hearing aid poised expectantly in the air.
But there was history of another sort made here as well. Mrs. Coolidge could probably never have imagined the use to which this auditorium would be put during World War II when it became the site of some important high-level clandestine meetings between key members of Congress and the military. On these occasions the staff of the Music Division--at that time housed just across the corridor to my right--resorted to passwords such as "General Marshall is giving a concert today," or "the Senate chorus is being conducted by the Honorable Mr. Barkley."
There is one particular historic moment that I would like to share with you tonight. It was on the occasion of the 5th Library of Congress Festival in 1931 that Andrew W. Mellon stood on this stage, and in his capacity as board member of the Coolidge Foundation spoke words of almost prophetic import. This is what Andrew Mellon said.
Six years ago a remarkable thing happened. A private citizen induced a government complacent in the efficiency of its operations to adopt an entirely new role . . . persuaded a government concerned only with the utilities to accept as an utility something far more subtle than those of the grosser sort which alone it had deemed within its province. And then, having inspired the necessary convictions, she herself provided the resources for giving them practical effect. She did all this without the exercise of any political influence--did it single handed. That is her habit--except that when she gives, she gives with both hands. The consequences of all this may be such that no man can foresee--and only one woman.
What Mr. Mellon believed no man could foresee back in 1931, I believe we, you and I, have actually been privileged to see realized many times over.
This hall, by now so familiar to lovers of chamber music, was not the fulfillment of a dream--Coolidge was not given to dreaming--she was a woman of action. It was, rather, a hard-won achievement--one of many unique projects to come from her richly inventive mind. So unique was the inspiration that it required an act of Congress to realize it. The mere building of performance spaces was not new to her--this auditorium is actually the third of four that she built in her lifetime. But what makes it so unique - as Mellon noted - is that with it she challenged the U. S. government to take up the unlikely business of the arts.
We have grown to take for granted the superb sight-lines and perfect acoustics of this auditorium that make it such a gem. We are comfortable with the chaste classical lines and lack of ornament. But it is entertaining to speculate about the auditorium "that might have been" had the wishes of everyone concerned been realized. These walls would be covered with murals by John Singer Sargent, and the stage would be a circular platform. Obviously this did not happen. Sargent was ill at the time and in fact died the very year that the auditorium was dedicated. (What we do have from his hand is that beautiful charcoal portrait of Elizabeth done in 1921). And fortunately the acoustical consultant pointed out the faulty acoustic that would result from a circular stage.
The Coolidge correspondence here at the library contains many fascinating details relating to the building of the auditorium and the cost of furnishings. Her initial donation for the construction was $60,000--later increased to $90,000. The seats cost a handsome $11.70 each (and that was not the lowest bid.) and the three manual Skinner organ was purchased for $20,000.
It was Carl Engel's desire that there should be a garden court with colorful plantings and topiary trees that would be furnished by the nearby botanical gardens. The courtyard was not completed until 1927, and then not on the roof of the auditorium as Engel had envisioned--but to the right of the stage, through those double doors. It features a lovely pool bordered with limestone coping and lined with Italian tiles. The cost, including all landscaping, $13,775.
Very likely all of us here have enjoyed the fruits of Mrs. Coolidge's association with the Library of Congress - and probably without ever questioning who was this remarkable woman who built such a perfect space for chamber music, and then gave the money to support free concerts, broadcasts, and educational outreach programs. And what fueled her intense and single-minded dedication to chamber music?
Let me begin by telling you who she was not. Because her endowment of the Library occurred during the administration of Calvin Coolidge, it is not surprising that she was often mistakenly identified as the wife of the president. She found this amusing and good-naturedly began to refer to herself as "the other Mrs. Coolidge." Then, who was she? The answer to that question is complicated by the ardor with which she guarded her private life. Her work as a patron of music was actually begun in her early fifties, and the publicity generated by her magnanimous support of music and musicians is in almost inverse proportion to the public's knowledge of her life up to that age--a period that might be described as her apprenticeship.
To those who knew Coolidge only in her professional life, she often appeared to be a woman of contradictions - a woman who could happily give away hundreds of thousands of dollars and yet castigate a piano tuner who overcharged her one dollar; one who unabashedly demanded a rebate from her corset maker when she lost weight and could no longer wear the garments, yet never failed to give generous perquisites to those who offered her the simplest courtesy. She could turn a phrase like an Oxford don when protocol required it, and in the next breath engage in a verbal sparring contest that betrayed not only a wonderful sense of humor, but a lexicon rich in adjectives. Her prose could be benign and perfunctory when she chose but could rise to great magisterial heights when she was annoyed.
She was at one and the same time the imperious dowager who could speak in the majestic plural like Queen Victoria, but was also capable of great tenderness, allowing only a chosen few to glimpse her surprising vulnerability--the soft underside of a complex personality. In the words of Anna Malipiero, a member of that privileged inner circle, "One had to learn to know her. . . . There were so many sides to her character. Her quick brain was allied to an equally quick dry sense of humor. And even her wrath had the nature of Greek tragedy."
Carolyn Heilbrun, in her book entitled, Writing a Woman's Life, has said "Women are well beyond youth when they begin, often unconsciously, to create another story." This certainly applies to Coolidge--but only in part, for although she was "well beyond youth" - in her 50s when she began her philanthropic life--there was nothing unconscious about her decision to do so. Her struggle for self-identity came to fruition only after an early life that was marked by both privilege and pain.
She was born Elizabeth Penn Sprague - in Chicago in 1864. The Spragues lived on Prairie Avenue, then Chicago's "Gold Coast", where neighbors were Armour, Swift, Pullman, Marshall Field, Potter Palmer, and Kimball, of the Kimball piano company. Lizzie, as she was then called, was reared within the strictures of a Victorian ethic that frowned upon public careers for young ladies of her social standing. And although she became a very accomplished pianist and aspired to a career, there could be no thought of her pursuing the life of a concert artist. The fact that such well known female pianists as Fanny Bloomfield-Zeisler and Teresa Carre-o were both close family friends of the Spragues, only added to the tension that plagued Elizabeth's early adulthood and ultimately dictated that her aspirations must be channeled into the only respectable realms available to her class and gender--the women's clubs.
In 1891 she married Frederic Shurtleff Coolidge, a member of what Oliver Wendell Holmes has called America's untitled aristocracy - the caste of Boston Brahmins. Fred was a handsome, mild-mannered young man, just graduated from Harvard, with promise of a brilliant career as an orthopedic surgeon. He was intensely committed to a life of service to others and, they were deeply in love. With her marriage to Fred, Elizabeth, once and for all, relinquished any serious thought of a career and devoted herself to becoming the proper wife and mother--and ultimately her husband's faithful companion throughout his long and tragic illness. Through each adversity, music was always her reliable refuge.
Elizabeth was the only surviving child of Albert Arnold and Nancy Ann Sprague, so when her father, mother, and husband all died between January of 1915 and March of 1916, she lost her entire support system in the space of fifteen months. The fact that she was now the heiress of a sizable fortune, estimated at some $4,000,000, could not really compensate the pain of loss. Moreover, with the fortune she also inherited the burden of conscience, the Sprague sense of accountability to society, and morality in the stewardship of wealth. It was at once a legacy of riches--yes, but also of responsibility, and Elizabeth now faced the task of how best to fulfill her mission.
In the years immediately following the loss of her family she dispensed an unusually generous amount of her inheritance in what might at first appear to have been a kind of reckless abandon--perhaps an impulsive emotional reaction. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is very apparent that she always intended that her major effort should be music in some fashion, but she needed time in order to formulate her plans. In the interim she was learning the ways of philanthropy, designing her own unique style of giving, and at the same time providing noble memorials to her parents and her husband.
Because Fred had been a physician there were generous gifts to the medical profession. Within a week of her father's death she gave $100,000, to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to establish a pension fund. When her mother died the following year she increased the amount to $200,000. And just a month after her mother's death she promised her cousin Lucy Sprague Mitchell $50,000 a year for ten years to support her work at the New School for Social Research in New York. More remarkable even than the gift itself were the conditions that she attached--namely, that she should not be pressured to understand or even be interested in the group's work, for she would be engrossed in her own plans for music. It was an arrangement probably unprecedented in the annals of patronage and is absolutely antithetical to the intense interest and personal involvement that would characterize her musical ventures.
Her first major musical undertaking - her "magnum opus" as she called it - was the formation of the Berkshire Quartet, and the establishment of the Berkshire Music Festival in 1918. Here on the slopes of South Mountain just outside Pittsfield, Massachusetts, she built an auditorium and cottages for herself and her musicians, and established an annual festival, as well as a competition for the composition of chamber music. The first festival in 1918 actually occurred two months before the armistice and brought together representatives of nations still locked in deadly combat. She would later characterize her work as a sort of Musical League of Nations.
Although the Berkshire Festivals would continue to attract the elite of the musical world, Coolidge's determination that her programs should always be offered entirely free of charge, resulted in a truly heterogeneous audience. This egalitarian approach to her mission often brought amusing comments and questions from her audience. Although she was never known for her patience in business matters, Coolidge could be long-suffering and imperturbable when the uninitiated among the Berkshire audiences asked, for example, "How many musicians are in your quartet?" "Will the wives join later?" And "Are meals included?" On one occasion when a work of Ildebrando Pizzetti was performed a local critic identified the composer in his review as Mr. Pizzicato.
Between 1918 and 1924 Coolidge sponsored 7 annual Berkshire Festivals, and in those years witnessed the disbanding of her Berkshire Quartet, observed power struggles among musicians, and dispensed many thousands of dollars in the hope of ensuring the continuity of her work. She began to realize however, that if her activities at South Mountain were to survive beyond her lifetime they must be institutionalized and impersonalized. In her words: "They were sufficiently important . . . not to be dependent upon the life, the good will, or the bank account of any individual." By recognizing that perhaps the most stable and dependable home for her work would be within some agency of the U. S. government, she was venturing into uncharted territory. How was this to be accomplished? That was the question. She did not have to wait long for the answer.
In 1919 the Berkshire Prize for chamber music was awarded to Ernest Bloch, who was a close friend of the recently appointed Chief of the Music Division of the Library of Congress, the brilliant, urbane, and witty Carl Engel. Bloch asked Coolidge to invite Engel to the next Berkshire festival. She did, and their meeting marked the beginning of a kind of May and December friendship that would be the prelude to her endowment of the Library of Congress.
During Engel's visit Elizabeth shared with him the cache of manuscripts she had amassed as a result of the Berkshire competition. With a true librarian's instincts he diplomatically inquired what she planned to do with them and then ventured to suggest that she might deposit them at the Library of Congress, "as a permanent testimony to the ideals and munificence of a remarkable American woman." After only a short delay she did, in fact, send the manuscripts to the library, but with the request that she could also send her quartet to perform there. But, alas, Engel informed her, there was no place in the library where this could be done--the sole performance utility in the building was an antiquated piano in the basement. But Coolidge never gave up easily, nor did Engel who turned to his good friend, the composer Mary Howe, who was instrumental in obtaining the use of the auditorium of the Freer Gallery for a series of three concerts in February of 1924.
The success of these concerts set in motion a train of events unprecedented not only for their uniqueness, but equally so for the speed with which they were accomplished. On 23 October 1924 Mrs. Coolidge sent to the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, a letter expressing her intent to give to the government an auditorium and to establish an endowment. However, there were seemingly insurmountable problems.
There was no impediment to accepting her manuscripts and the gift of the auditorium, but a serious problem was posed by the fact that there was no legislation in place to enable the Library of Congress to accept and hold in trust the principal of a fund, the income of which would be applied to the increase of its collections or the expense of its operations. Nevertheless Coolidge was undaunted, and thanks to her persistence, Putnam's diplomacy, and some brilliant legal counsel, the entire maneuver was accomplished within the short space of five months. It required two separate bills that moved quickly through both houses of Congress, and with their signing into law by President Coolidge, the auditorium and the foundation became a reality in March of 1925.
I believe it is highly unlikely that Mrs. Coolidge would have established the foundation had not the library also accepted the gift of the auditorium, so strong was her conviction that the music on the library's shelves should not merely be conserved like mute artifacts in a museum, but that it should be brought to life in performance.
It is a mark of Coolidge's growing confidence in Engel that once the legal documents were signed she left for Europe for the entire summer, entrusting to him the responsibility of the building and the planning of the first festival for that fall. The first Library of Congress festival was a three day celebration beginning on October 28, 1925, and culminating on the 30th - her birthday - thus establishing the tradition of Founder's Day. Elizabeth was 61 years old and already extremely deaf.
The first music to be heard in this auditorium was the Bach Chorale prelude "To God on High All Glory Be" which was played on the new Skinner organ. It was followed without a break by the featured work commissioned for this occasion, Charles Martin Loeffler's setting of St. Francis of Assisi's Canticle of the Sun. Inevitably the question arose, should the chaplain of Congress be invited to give an invocation? Coolidge quickly put the issue to rest saying "I am certain that Loeffler's beautiful setting of St. Francis's Canticle of the Sun is surely a more exultant hymn of praise and devotion than anything that would be likely to issue from the Senate or the House of Representatives."
One of the most remarkable features of this first festival in 1925 is that it was carried over the radio by the Navy Broadcasting Service in Arlington. Mrs. Coolidge was truly visionary in her early recognition of the immense potential of radio, and against the advice of those who warned that it might cause a decline in audience attendance, she insisted that radio equipment be installed in the auditorium so that "everything which goes on within it [can be] heard by as wide an audience as desires to hear it." Her initiative actually pre-dates by two years the establishment of the Federal Radio Commission of 1927 (precursor of the Federal Communications Commission of 1934). Within a decade her concerts were being carried by the networks who very quickly discovered that they had taken on a behemoth in Coolidge. Her broadsides arrived with regularity chastising them for truncating performances in order to accommodate rigid time slots and for programming single movements of works. She made it very clear what her priorities were - and by implication, what the network's should be as well. In 1937 she wrote to the president of NBC, "The Music is more important to me than the broadcasting and should not be in any way mutilated or inartistically abbreviated for the sake of the National Broadcasting Company."
For us, living in this city that offers such an abundance of good music, theater, and ballet, it is difficult to imagine the Washington of 1925. At that time Richard Aldrich, critic of the New York Times, characterized Washington as "a cultural backwater, one of the most unmusical capitals in the world."
Indeed, this seems to be born out by the reviews of the dedication concerts in 1925. The critic of the Washington Herald, for example, found Howard Hanson's Quartet "devoid of form and harmony, having passages of some beauty which but emphasized the many measures of riotous noises." And Debussy's quartet was deemed "chaotic." This kind of criticism never discouraged Coolidge; if anything it became the catalyst that set her on a crusade of audience education. How well she succeeded is evidenced by the fact that only a few years later she was able to fill this auditorium for an entire evening of Schoenberg.
Commuting from her home in Cambridge to Washington, and meeting the ever-growing demands on her time, Elizabeth developed her own method of dealing with a crowded schedule. Mary Howe's son, Bruce, shared the story of how on one occasion when Mrs. Coolidge arrived with barely time to snatch a quick sandwich and change clothes before a concert, she simply disappeared into a small washroom under the stairs and emerged only minutes later in an elegant long beaded evening gown--every hair in place. She had worn it under her travel dress to save time.
In 1933 Coolidge moved to Washington, into Meridian Mansion, a luxury apartment at 2400 16th St. now known as "The Envoy." Here she maintained what she called her "sweet little apartment" which actually comprised three units, a space large enough to accommodate 200 for an evening of chamber music. Before that she often stayed in the home of Mary Howe when she was in Washington, and Mrs. Howe also hosted many post-concert parties for Coolidge.
Living in Washington provided greater personal involvement in her work, both in the formation of policy and the selection of performers. Although over the years she came to know many of these artists personally, she was never overawed by their celebrity. When in 1926, for example, she commissioned Ravel to write a work which would turn out to be his Chansons Madécasses, he was very tardy in fulfilling his commission she became irritated by his dilatory performance. She wrote to her friend Henry Prunires in Paris, "May I ask your intercession in this matter, namely, that you would represent to Mr. Ravel that I am greatly disappointed as the time goes by and he does not fulfill his promise of sending me the other two songs which were positively promised by the first of January - and for all three of which I have paid him." There's the rub!
When Hans Kindler encouraged her to commission Schoenberg to write a quartet, she agreed and offered Schoenberg her usual commission of $1,000. He believed he should have more. Unintimidated by his reputation, she said "no", and wrote to Kindler, "I do not feel that we should pay an extravagant price to Mr. Schoenberg unless he gives us more privileges than merely presenting him with a first class performance of his work. . . . I agree with you that it would be a great addition to our programs to have his quartet, but I cannot see why we should pay him a large fee unless we have a few special privileges." They did work it out and Schoenberg's 3rd and 4th quartets are the result.
The key to the enigma of why she responded to some ideas and/or composers and not to others may often be found in her correspondence. Those who were privy to her personal likes and prejudices knew very well that she could be galvanized by a mere suggestion if it touched a favorite subject. At the same time cajolery could elicit her most trenchant responses. And timing was all important.
She seemed endowed by nature with the ability to distinguish the blandishments of opportunists from the worthy appeals of those in genuine need. Alfredo Casella believed it was a learned asset that came through years of being the target of those who attempted to impose on her generosity. A strange and amusing catalogue of curios offered to her for sale could be compiled from the letters addressed to her: a shirt of Beethoven's, a lock of Brahms's hair, and the pen with which Meyerbeer wrote Le Prophéte. While she steadfastly ignored the purveyors of such questionable relics, she was quick to react to worthy causes as, for example in 1934 when Schoenberg was trying to sell the score of Wozzeck for his pupil, Berg, who was in dire financial need. Coolidge wrote to Engel, "He like the rest of the world has turned to me to produce the cash." The asking price was 6,000 Austrian shillings--approximately $1,040. The Friends of Music of the Library of Congress raised $600--Coolidge quietly supplied the remainder.
When she responded to genuine need, she responded quickly and with warmth. Hers was never a remote patronage, a kind of antiseptic dispensing of humanitarian assistance from a safe clinical distance. Nowhere is that more evident than in her response to the victims of the diaspora at the time of World War II. Whether displaced for reasons of race, religion, or clash of political and/or artistic ideologies, the integrity of those composers and artists who had the courage to leave all rather than compromise their convictions, evoked the noblest responses from her.
Mrs. Coolidge knew personally and corresponded with nearly every major composer and performer of chamber music in the first half of this century. That many of them became close friends is evident from the very personal nature of their letters. For example, she commiserated with Prokofiev over their respective dental problems. On that subject she wrote more forthrightly to Engel in 1930, "I have not a single tooth left in my upper jaw, but a marvelously handsome set is being manufactured for me." Although her toothless condition kept her from going out at the time, she had no hesitation in inviting the Pro Arte Quartet (her favorites) to come and play for her. To Robert Maas, the cellist of the quartet, she wrote, "I am sure that such good friends as you have always been to me, will not mind seeing me under this great disadvantage--for I simply cannot bear to have you leave Los Angeles without seeing you and hearing you." There is abundant evidence that friendship and musical considerations always prevailed over vanity.
She once broke her earphone and badly bruised her ear when she tripped over a double bass, and the side of her head had to be shaved. In response to Frank Bridge's concern she wrote, "I am touched by your inquiries about my head and hair. I have now accumulated a fringe which is neither one thing nor the other. It is too long and bristly to be successfully hidden, and too short to be caught in with the rest and made to know its place. However, as you know, I do not base my friendships or affection upon my beauty, and feel that you will be just as glad to see me as though I had a perfectly satisfactory permanent wave."
Inevitably, quarrels sometimes arose within the performing organizations that she sponsored. She steadfastly did her best to distance herself from the fray, but she was not always able to maintain a disinterested posture and became vexed when she found herself drawn into the conflict by performers who came to her to settle their differences like school children. On these occasions she could be sharp in her admonitions. When, for example, the complaining violist of the Coolidge Quartet attempted to gain her ear she replied, "I consider William Kroll (the first violinist) as the leader of the quartet, and must leave it to you both to decide whether you wish to play together. To me it is a matter of indifference. Please do not re-open this useless discussion." In private she sagely reflected on these internal struggles with the laconic observation that "They all want to play first violin."
It is no surprise that not everyone liked her - particularly upon first meeting. Sudden encounter with so imposing a presence could be daunting. It was not only her physical presence - she was over six feet tall, and in her later years became quite heavy - it was her energy, the intensity of her personality, and the single-mindedness bordering on the fanatic, that caused some to react badly to her. It is a measure of her unforgettably forceful demeanor that Hindemith, himself a formidable personality, was intimidated by her. He describes how on the day of his big concert here at the library, between the rehearsal and the performance, Elizabeth crowded in one of her famous parties at which she presided from the head of the table--in his words, "all booted and spurred, as impressive as an armed robber baron." At the end of the luncheon she sat on a small chair near the door to receive the compliments of the guests as they left. It reminded Hindemith "very much of Polyphemus's hell, in which all of the escaping sheep are examined in the stomach." Despite his initial reactions to Coolidge he, like others such as Frank Bridge, came to recognize the sincerity of her designs for them, and became her close friends.
Like the luncheon described by Hindemith, the requisite parties Coolidge sponsored after her concerts were not always enjoyed by the tired musicians. Alfredo Casella, who accompanied her on the ambitious tour of 1931 that took her and her musicians to 11 cities in 7 countries in just over six weeks, has left us a vivid description of what it was like to travel with this indefatigable lady. She always traveled with her musicians whose entire expenses she paid. Sometimes they actually traveled on the Orient Express, and stayed in luxurious hotels; at other times--during the depression, for example--she advised more economical accommodations. Her arrival in Venice is typical: She and her company would be met at the train in Mestre by the motor launch of Hotel Danieli to be transported to the city and down the grand canal in style. Casella describes it for us:
The arrival at the hotel of that tall spectacled lady, followed by a retinue of twenty or thirty persons, most of them armed with musical instruments, was impossibly funny. The hotel was thus taken by assault by the cosmopolitan company, which was looked upon with a certain amazement by other travelers who were not part of it. But life with Mrs. Coolidge was not easy. Her guests were supposed to hold themselves at her disposal all day long and even late at night if she so desired. Around her there were organized a great number of official and unofficial receptions, teas, garden parties, and banquets. She is a woman of really phenomenal physical constitution; although she herself was never tired, her guests were often completely exhausted.
She was nearly 68 years old at the time of the incident described.
One of the qualities of Coolidge's patronage that sets it apart from others such as Isabella Stewart Gardner, for example, is that Mrs. Coolidge was herself an accomplished musician. While still very young she began to study piano with Regina Watson, who had been a student of Tausig, who was Franz Liszt's favorite pupil. Thus Elizabeth belonged to a distinguished pianistic genealogy.
Casella knew Mrs. Coolidge very well, and had high praise for her innate musical judgment, saying that "she always acted with complete critical independence, and none of us have ever been able to exercise the slightest influence on her taste or on her selection. Besides her great intelligence and her incomparable generosity, she has been guided by a very solid musical culture and a first-rate artistic instinct."
Coolidge's own comments about the music she commissioned often reflect her astute critical faculties. When Ernest Bloch began to compose music intended to pay homage to his adopted country she wrote: "I like him best when he is himself, a Jewish Prophet (the last of the Old Testament line) and feel that his inspiration from David and Solomon is more vital and inevitable than that which he has adopted from Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman." I believe today most critics would agree with her.
Her innate musical intelligence and judgment was noted by others as well. In 1928 Hans Kindler wrote to Coolidge's secretary, "With no one in the musical world have I had such marvelous, stimulating, exciting, and satisfying experiences as an artist, as with her." Similarly, Hugo Kortschak--the first violinist of her Berkshire Quartet--years after moving to New York wrote, "I miss my playing with you immensely; you have been the greatest and best artistic influence that I have ever had and our exchange of opinions has been a wonderful education for me." And in 1948 when she financed Alexander Schneider's studies with Casals, he wrote to her from Prades, "There are two people in my life who really help to shape all my decisions as a human being and as a musician: you and Pablo Casals."
When she was nearly eighty Elizabeth made the acquaintance of Henri Temianka, founder and first violinist of the Paganini Quartet, who has left some wonderful memories of his association with her in her last years. He recalls inviting her to an informal afternoon of chamber music at his home in California. "She arrived in her chauffeured limousine, a commanding six foot-figure, . . . a bundle of imperious energy. . . . After she disembarked, the chauffeur emerged with an enormous box, large enough to have hidden a body. Staggering under its weight, somehow he managed to reach the music room, where he dumped it in front of the most comfortable armchair. Mrs. Coolidge soon followed, occupied her throne, produced a huge ear trumpet, and sat back expectantly. Seven string quartets later, she reluctantly agreed to a dinner break."
Deafness can impose a cruel isolation--doubly painful to one whose life is music. Elizabeth's letters are threaded with admissions that listening to music was at times almost intolerable. Even more so, the pleasure that she derived from performing chamber music sometimes became a veritable torture. She once admitted to Hans Kindler, "You have no idea how difficult it is to concentrate on Brahms when there is an entirely different composition roaring inside one's head, without rhythm or harmony, but simply incessant noises." Despite this handicap she continued to play even in her last years when she could do so only with the aid of a contraption that wired her hearing aid to the soundboard of the piano. In her late seventies and early eighties she still practiced as much as six hours a day on such demanding repertoire as Beethoven's "Kreutzer Sonata" and the Brahms Trio in B Major that she was playing with members of the Kolisch Quartet. Whatever the quality of her playing at this time, when she admitted that sometimes she could hardly hear herself or her partner, she seems to have communicated in her music something beyond the mere notes on the page that prompted Temianka to write in 1944:
It is claimed that you are about to celebrate your eightieth birthday. I, who played the Brahms D minor Sonata with you in Washington as recently as last February, don't believe it. You are so miraculously young in spirit, you have so much vitality--enough to put all of us to shame--that it hardly ever occurs to me that you are older than I am, let alone that you are about to complete your Eightieth year in this imperfect but exciting world. I believe that the secret of your remaining so young through all these years lies in the fact that you have always been vitally interested in what others did. While others are moping about themselves, you have no time to mope.
In fact, one of Coolidge's most endearing qualities was the open, and often witty, manner in which she dealt with her deafness. She never attempted to hide it--her hearing apparatus was as prominently displayed on her imposing bosom as were the ubiquitous pearls. And of her many eminently quotable utterances perhaps the best-known is her response to a young artist who had the temerity to ask "Mrs. Coolidge, why is it that you do so much for the cause of modern music and you do nothing for modern art?" To which she quickly responded, "Young man, I may be deaf but I'm not blind."
She once admitted to her composer-friend Mabel Daniels that she was less than enthusiastic about some of the very modern works that she had commissioned. And it is said that she could sometimes be seen to turn off her hearing aid in the middle of a concert. Nonetheless, her acceptance of the new and unfamiliar in the music she commissioned was remarkable. She not only fostered the contemporary, she spoke out boldly in its behalf. Addressing the National Federation of Music Clubs when she was in her in 80s she said, "My plea for modern music 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." It mattered not whether she liked the music that she commissioned, for she recognized the importance of extending the boundaries of knowledge. On hearing the theremin for the first time, she wrote to Carl Engel, "Time and space are on their last legs, I think, and we shall all have to re-educate our senses to interpret a new set of sensory impressions." And while she enthusiastically offered Roy Harris a commission for a quartet in 1933, she quietly acknowledged to Engel, "I do not expect to like it much myself, but I consider that of no importance and am sincerely glad to have helped to bring to notice another serious American composer."
Inevitably the question arises whether some of the works written for her--most notably the string quartets--were done by composers for whom chamber music was not a congenial medium, but who did so because they recognized an opportunity to gain her favor and hopefully a commission. The fact that much of this music has not been heard in the forty years since her death is not necessarily a reflection of its quality: it may simply be too soon to make the judgment.
In 1972 the BBC aired a broadcast featuring reminiscences of Coolidge in which the commentator, reflecting on the comparatively small number of her quartet commissions that had found a place in the repertory, noted that after all, "a ten per cent success rate, regarding success as the evaluation of posterity, is in itself, a positive achievement." But perhaps even more importantly, "every work is a milestone in the life of its creator and often a commission of this sort could be of more importance biographically than musically, a leg up, a confidence booster which would lead to works of greater significance later."
Eventually we must ask ourselves, "What if tragedy had not struck? Would Coolidge have lived the life of the idle rich?" It is difficult to imagine Elizabeth Coolidge ever finding fulfillment solely within the confines of the women's clubs. She was an activist at heart, restless without a project--or better still, a host of them. There is little to be gained from "what if" speculation--especially if it diverts from demonstrable evidence. Although Elizabeth Coolidge matured to womanhood during the Victorian era (she was thirty-seven when Victoria died), she had long since demonstrated an independence of thought that ran counter to many of the expectations heaped upon women of that period. It was an independence hard won, however, When tragedy befell she could have retired in comfort and succumbed to ennui and self-pity. But for Coolidge there were no acute attacks of that Victorian malady, "the vapors", and idleness was word not to be found in her vocabulary.
It is more valuable by far to contemplate what can be learned from her example. The hall mark of her philanthropy which sets her apart from most others was her intensely personal involvement in her work, even up to her death in 1953. Her last letter, written exactly one week before she died, outlines plans for a festival I Pittsfield. She spent the income from her investment very carefully, divested herself of many material comforts, and passed her last years in spartan simplicity in Hotel Continental in Cambridge, having an upright piano to play, but not even owning a phonograph.
The lesson that Coolidge taught is that patronage need not be the exclusive domain of the very wealthy. The operative element in her equation of successful philanthropy was "creativity", a creativity characterized by cooperation resulting from her inspiration of others, and by the fact that she did not believe in the dole. She nearly always required some service from the musicians she supported.
Her endowment of the Library of Congress was a mere "mustard seed" compared to the Vanderbilt fortune, for example, which actually exceeded the treasuries of some sovereign states, yet she was able to parlay a comparatively modest fortune into a legacy that has yielded rewards probably beyond any attempt to measure. In that sense Mellon was correct when he said the "perhaps no man could foresee" the result. Hers is a valuable lesson for today when the arts must depend more and more upon private support.
The foundation that she established here at the Library of Congress has become the model for others. There are today more than one hundred fifty such endowments, over twenty of them in the Music Division alone; and the manuscript holdings of the library have been significantly enriched through Coolidge's deposit of the works amassed by virtue of her commissions and competitions. Moreover, through their professional association with her, many of her composer friends also bequeathed their compositions and personal papers to the library. The record speaks for itself.
Coolidge's largesse has prompted many comparisons--especially with such great patrons of the Renaissance as Isabella d'Este. In all epochs there have been enlightened people, but Coolidge's example speaks loudly to our time when the blessings do not flow so often or so freely. What the renowned British pianist, Ivor Newton once said of Lord Howard deWalden aptly describes Elizabeth Coolidge. "The practical enthusiasm and personal interest of great patrons in the work of the artist they knew went far beyond anything an official cultural programme can give."
Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge died in her 90th year, still forming plans up to the end and, I believe silently took with her to the grave the knowledge of innumerable other benefactions about which we will never know. Near the end of her life she wrote to Ernst Toch, "It is lonely to have outlived one's generation--to feel solitary and alone." The demise of so many cherished friends was more than a mere reminder of her own mortality, it became the occasion of a retreat into the consolation of treasured memories. Near the end of her life she wrote to Frank Bridge's widow, Ethel, "I have so long and interesting a past to remember that I find myself living largely in it and so, escaping a little from the present. . . . But I cling to the friendships which still remain to me."
To those who inquired of her health her usual response was simply, "There is nothing wrong with me but too much anno Domini." While she could not ignore the effect of the unremitting accumulation of anno Domini upon her body, her mind and spirit seemed ageless--right up to the end. She was fond of applying to herself a line from Tennyson's poem, "The Brook." "Men may come and men may go, but I to on forever." She was not, of course, speaking literally, but I wonder if she might possibly have realized what Andrew Mellon alluded to back in 1931, that through her work, like the brook, she does indeed go on forever.
I would like to think that she is looking down approvingly on these festivities and would decree them genuine "musical jollifications." And so it seems only proper to suggest that at some point before this evening ends, we should acknowledge our debt to this great lady and drink to the continued health and long life of the work that she began here. So however, you may wish to say it--be it a benediction or a toast--thank God, mazel tov, or salute, I believe it all translates to the same sentiment. Elizabeth thanks!
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