Every regular concert goer in Cambridge has seen a big, smiling, blue-eyed, old lady take her seat in the front row at Sanders Theater and, after removing a flowered, hat, spread a pink and blue robe over her knees. She listens to the music with her hearing aid held out in front of her and applauds generously with arms outstretched. If it is a Boston Symphony concert, you will see Koussevitzky come down from the podium to shake hands with her. If she is giving the concert herself, which is probably the case, you will watch one of the musicians motion her to rise and acknowledge the thunderous thanks of the audience. This is Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, "the fairy godmother of chamber music."
There is a reason for this ecstatic epithet, for Mrs. Coolidge has done more than any American, perhaps anyone in the world, to popularize and encourage this art. More than, that she has had a real influence on the course of music in the twentieth century. One critic wrote of her concerts, "They have become a sort of musical weathervane. They show us how the mind is set in contemporary music. . ."
When Mrs. Coolidge's father, mother, and husband died within 15 months of one another about 1915, Frederick Stock, then conductor of the Chicago Symphony, persuaded her to engage a house quartet to cheer her. Two summers later, when the Stocks were visiting her in the Berkshires, they went to a chamber music festival in Connecticut. At dinner that night, Mr. Stock suggested that Mrs. Coolidge's quartet should play at the festival. Her answer, "Why go so far; why not have it here?" was the beginning of the great scheme which has made the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts a world famous music center. Appropriately enough Mrs. Coolidge was made honorary president of Tanglewood when it was organized in 1934.
In 1918, Mrs. Coolidge began a series of chamber music festivals in her newly finished Music Temple on South Mountain, near Pittsfield. To them she brought the most capable and renowned musicians in the world. The names of Hugo Kortschak, Willem Willeke, Jacques Gordon, Rudolf Kolisch, William Kroll, Albert Spalding, Myra Hess, and hosts of others appear on these programs. In these years she organized the Berkshire Quartet, the Coolidge Quartet, and the Elshuco Trio. She inaugurated in 1921 the Coolidge Prize for chamber music compositions and began commissioning works by contemporary composers. The list of those she has helped in this way, who have dedicated their works to her, contains virtually every name in modern music. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Malipiere, Ravel, Copland, Milhand, Sowerby, Piston, Bartok, Martinu, Hindemith, Harris, Hanson, Prokoileff, and Britten are among the composers who have benefited from her generosity. In fact, at a recent con- cert, her son pointed out that Beethoven was the only man on the program who had not dedicated his composition to her.
By 1925 she realized that the job of running the concerts, awarding the prizes, selecting composers for commission, had become far too extensive for her to handle alone. She therefore decided to transfer the administration to the Library of Congress, where she built a chamber music auditorium, Coolidge Hall. To it she added the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, the greatest institution of music patronage in the world. On establishing the Foundation, Mrs. Coolidge wrote, "Fashion is an enemy to art, I think, and if we aim at a musical center which shall be as respectively national as the Library... it would be an easy matter to explain the emission of the society element. I have wished to make possible... the composition and performance of music in ways which might otherwise be considered too unique or too expensive to be ordinarily undertaken."
In the fulfillment of these two aims lies the greatness of Mrs. Coolidge's life work. Under the auspices of the Foundation, the world's finest musicians have been able to present to attentive audiences music of their own choice whose special appeal would generally exclude it from the concert-manager system. Alexander Schneider's performances throughout the country, as well as at Harvard, of Bach's Six Snotaas for Unaccompanied Violin are examples of her impartial patronage. --Herbert P. Gleason
(This is the first of two articles about Mrs. Coolidge. The second will appear in Friday's CRIMSON.)