Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, whose endowment has funded 90 years of magnificent free “Concerts from the Library of Congress” and commissioned more than 100 great works of music, is honored in a free exhibit there.
Her legacy certainly continues, with nine new commissions to be performed in the 90th anniversary season of the concerts beginning Oct. 10 in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium. The concerts and the exhibit, “Chamber Music: The Life and Legacy of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge,” interconnect in many ways. Both demonstrate and celebrate Coolidge’s contributions to music, including commissioning classics ranging from Béla Bartók’s monumental “String Quartet No. 5” (1934), Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs” (1953), and George Crumb’s “Ancient Voices of Children” (1970). All had their premieres onstage in the Coolidge Auditorium, as did her commissioned works by Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg, Darius Milhaud, and other 20th century greats.
Chamber music was her passion, but she was also a pioneer in commissioning dance, dating back to 1928 and Igor Stravinsky’s “Apollon Musagète,” with choreography by Adolph Bolm, to several ballets in the 1940s for choreographer-dancer Martha Graham, including Aaron Copland’s famed “Appalachian Spring.” The one-act ballet made history when it premiered at the Coolidge Auditorium on Oct. 30, 1944. It starred Graham, “the mother of modern dance,” as the bride; Erick Hawkins as her husband (he would become her husband four years later); Merce Cunningham as the preacher; with sets by designer-sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
The exhibit has a photograph showing Graham looking admiringly toward the benefactor after the premiere. It also displays a letter in which Graham thanks Coolidge for being a “force for faith in creative talent” and being the first person to commission works for American ballet. “I’ve dreamed of this happening, and now it has happened to me.”
The centerpiece of the concert season will be the “Martha Graham at the Library” Festival next spring. It will include performances of Library of Congress/Coolidge dance commissions by the Martha Graham Dance Company, highlighted by “Appalachian Spring,” and Samuel Barber’s “Cave of the Heart.”
Samuel Barber’s music manuscript for “At St. Patrick’s Purgatory,” one of his “Hermit Songs” based on medieval Irish poetry, is displayed in the exhibit. Pianist Barber accompanied Leontyne Price — making her recital debut — at its premiere at the Coolidge Auditorium on Oct. 30, 1953. The concert program is decorated with sketches of Barber and Price by artist Prentiss Taylor. But Coolidge was too ill with pneumonia to attend the premiere, and died a few days later at age 89.
Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953) had been an accomplished pianist and avid composer, who yearned for a concert career. But performing in public was forbidden for a Victorian lady, heiress to a Chicago grocery fortune. Her musical philanthropy really began after the deaths of both her parents and her husband within about 14 months. The week after her father died, she gave half her inheritance, $100,000, to establish a pension fund for Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians. After her mother died, Coolidge matched the initial contribution. She also provided funds to a new string quartet that became the nucleus for her Berkshire Music Festivals near her Pittsfield, Massachusetts home, and established the Berkshire Prize, for composing chamber music works. Many of the exhibit’s photographs and other items reflect her Chicago and Berkshire philanthropy.
Coolidge wanted to do far more, so she went from the Berkshire Hills to Capitol Hill. She offered to build a performance hall at the Library of Congress, and set up a trust for performances and commissions of new music. It took an act of Congress — passed in 1925 and signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge, a distant cousin of her husband’s. (She jokingly referred to herself as “the other Mrs. Coolidge.”) The bill, her invitation to the Coolidge White House, and her $60,000 check for the initial funds are shown together.
The most poignant item is also set in Washington. It involves her strong support of Marian Anderson after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the African-American opera singer to perform at the DAR’s Constitution Hall in Washington. Anderson’s concert at the substitute venue, the Lincoln Memorial, made her a civil rights legend. Anderson, in gorgeous script, inscribed that concert program, “To Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, with deepest appreciation, Marian Anderson.”
Coolidge deserves everyone’s deepest appreciation. She had said, “My plan for modern music is not that we should like it, not necessarily that we should even understand it, but that we should exhibit it as a significant human document.” This enlightening exhibit, and the 90th anniversary concert season, do exactly that. And they make beautiful music together.
For more info: “Chamber Music: The Life and Legacy of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge,” free, Performing Arts Reading Room Gallery, First Floor, James Madison Building, 101 Independence Avenue, S.E., Washington, D.C. Aug. 13- Jan. 23, 2016, Monday through Saturday. “Concerts from the Library of Congress” 2015-2016 season Oct. 10-Feb. 26, 2016, free, Coolidge Auditorium, Thomas Jefferson Building, ground floor, 10 First Street, S.E., Washington, D.C. Library of Congress Music Division, with more than 21 million items, holds the world’s largest music collection.