Coolidge, Elizabeth Sprague (1863–1953)

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Coolidge, Elizabeth Sprague (1863–1953)

American patron of music, whose benefactions greatly assisted many contemporary composers and introduced chamber music to thousands of Americans. Born Elizabeth Penn Sprague in Chicago, Illinois, on October 30, 1864; died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on November 4, 1953; daughter of Albert Arnold Sprague andNancy (Atwood) Sprague; married Frederic Shurtleff Coolidge; children: Albert Sprague Coolidge.

One of the most generous "angels" in the musical life of the 20th century was a tall, substantially built, distinctly autocratic woman who had to rely on a hearing aid to enjoy the music she so loved. Her name, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, had a distinctly patrician ring to it, which was appropriate since she came from the most significant aristocracy the United States was able to produce in the final decades of the 19th century, the aristocracy of wealth. The families of both of her parents, the Spragues and the Atwoods, had lived as hardy, independent farmers in Vermont, but in 1861, after graduating from Yale, her father Albert Sprague and his brother founded what quickly became the largest wholesale grocery business in the world.

Born in Chicago in 1864, Elizabeth had several siblings. Since all of them died in infancy, her parents spent a great deal of time with her and were deeply concerned about her education and future. Her mother Nancy Atwood Sprague , with whom Elizabeth enjoyed a warm relationship, was energetic and intellectually alert. Mother Sprague was delighted that, from her earliest years, her daughter exhibited these same qualities in abundance. Conventional wisdom meant little to a young girl who simply had to discover things through her own experiences. In her memoirs, Elizabeth's cousin Lucy Sprague Mitchell characterized the young Elizabeth Sprague as being very much "a determined individualist, with 'social' leanings that were rather confusing to her conservative father, who greatly admired her, though a bit uncomprehendingly."

Enjoying the benefits of an excellent private education, Elizabeth Sprague began to take piano lessons at age 11. Strongly drawn to music because of its beauty, the young girl also looked upon it as an opportunity to build up mechanical skills that would give her the power to produce beautiful, meaningful sounds. As a result, Elizabeth became an accomplished pianist, in later years noting that she owed much of her moral and mental strength to her piano teacher's "exaction from me, throughout my girlhood, of reverence for duty, of coordinated self-control, and uncompromising fidelity to standards."

Long hours of difficult piano practice was clearly therapeutic for Elizabeth, who described it as "a mechanical stabilizer"—one that gave her a strong "sense of power and balance" and helped her maintain emotional stability. Beginning in the 1890s, she began to compose music, some of which would later be performed in public, but was written mainly as a refuge from the worst affliction possible for a musician—deafness. Sprague began to lose her hearing in the 1890s and for much of her life used hearing aids.

Elizabeth Sprague married orthopedic surgeon Frederic Shurtleff Coolidge in 1891, and the couple resided in Chicago until 1904 when they moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Their only child, Albert Sprague Coolidge, was born in 1894. The marriage was by all accounts a happy one, its only major difficulties being the often precarious state of Albert's health, which had to withstand several crises; he died of tuberculosis in 1915. That same year her parents died, and it seems probable that her intense devotion to matters musical helped her to deal with the stresses brought on by the multiple traumas.

Just prior to her mother's death, the Sprague family gave a joint contribution of $200,000 to Yale University for the construction of that institution's first music building, Sprague Memorial Hall. In 1916, in memory of her parents, Elizabeth endowed the first pension fund for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The same year, she agreed to contribute up to $50,000 annually in support of the Bureau of Educational Experiments, a project headed by her cousin Lucy. Another munificent gift went to local efforts in Pittsfield to halt the spread of tuberculosis, but closest to her heart during this early stage of her philanthropical career was her underwriting of performances by a string quartet.

Elizabeth Coolidge's fortune enabled her to bestow generous gifts in behalf of various musical projects she regarded as desirable. The string quartet she sponsored became the renowned Berkshire Quartet. To create a perfect setting for great chamber music, she built a Temple of Chamber Music near her Pittsfield estate, and from 1918 through 1924 she sponsored annual South Mountain Chamber Music Festivals at this pleasant site. Chamber music in the United States made a quantum leap as a result of the Coolidge initiatives, with each festival featuring new compositions, announcements of commissions for additional works, and the award of prizes. Besides serving as patron and manager of the festivals, Elizabeth Coolidge occasionally performed as pianist as well. Sometimes her own compositions would be featured. Her musical vigor was undiminished even in the last years of her life; in 1943, she amazed her friends by performing at a Library of Congress recital at the age of 79, playing with remarkable energy the solo piano part of Robert Schumann's quintet, accompanied by the Kolisch Quartet.

Taking advantage of the start of the great economic boom of the 1920s, Coolidge increased her musical expenditures by crossing the seas and sponsoring a festival in Rome. In time, she would sponsor concerts spanning the globe from London to Moscow to Hawaii. In 1925, she established the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation at the Library of Congress. She had already written about her purpose in fostering the development of chamber music, to make possible "the triumph of Spirit over Brute Force … the immortality of Human Inspiration in the face of threatened mechanical destruction."

As the details of the Coolidge Foundation's organization were worked out, it became clear that the Music Division of the Library of Congress would administer the income from two substantial trust funds, which ensured a yearly income (in the 1920s) of $25,000. An additional $60,000, which was later increased substantially, made it possible for the Library of Congress to construct a chamber music hall, appropriately named the Coolidge Auditorium. Enjoying excellent acoustics, it boasted a seating capacity of 511.

To bring new music to these superb facilities, Coolidge commissioned chamber music from virtually all of the distinguished composers of the day, some of them famous, others barely known but showing promise; a highly abridged listing of them range from Samuel Barber, Béla Bartók, and Benjamin Britten to Aaron Copland, Luigi Dallapiccola, Paul Hindemith, Bohuslav Martinu, Walter Piston, Francis Poulenc, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, Ottorino Respighi, and on through the alphabet to Arnold Schoenberg, Virgil Thomson, and Heitor Villa-Lobos.

The Great Depression that began in October 1929 slowed down but did not end Coolidge's support of chamber music in America. Defaults in her Chicago municipal bonds reduced the income of several of her trust funds, and changes in her tax assessment forced her to cut back on her contributions. Nevertheless, she continued to support a number of composers including Frank Bridge, a talented British composer who was also the teacher of Benjamin Britten; in Italy, Coolidge support enabled Gian Francesco Malipiero to continue his creative efforts. To those fortunate enough to benefit from her generosity, she was truly "the fairy godmother of chamber music."

Interested in the progress of modern dance as well, Coolidge commissioned a number of ballet scores by major composers. These included Igor Stravinsky's Apollon Musagète, Darius Milhaud's Imagined Wing, Paul Hindemith's Mirror Before Me (retitled Herodiade), and Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring. The Milhaud, Hindemith, and Copland works were all given their world premieres in 1944 by the Martha Graham Dance Company. The late 1930s to late 1940s were a particularly creative period for performers, in part due to the fact that many talented musicians had fled from Fascist-controlled nations. Some of the performers sponsored during these years by the Coolidge Foundation included Myra Hess , Rudolf Serkin, Ralph Kirkpatrick, and Alexander Schneider; the eminent string quartets included the Budapest, Pro Arte, and Kolisch.

By the 1930s, Elizabeth Coolidge's robust health began to falter so she spent winters in California both for health reasons and to be near her son. Here, she enjoyed not only music but movies and long automobile rides. The approach of old age did not diminish her innate sense of humor. She enjoyed jokes at her own expense, whether it was about her height (at 5′11″, she was tall for her generation), her deafness, or her habitual dropping of handbags, gloves and concert programs. Often witty, she once responded to the question of why she did not support modern art with the reply, "I may be deaf but I am not blind." Some of her friends claimed that during concerts of dissonant modern chamber music, which she had commissioned but did not particularly enjoy, she would simply turn off her hearing aid.

Although certainly wealthy, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge was not as rich as some believed her to be. She managed her fortune astutely in order to give generously to those in need. This included not only musicians but nurses, who received both her own and her parents' Chicago houses, and crippled children, who were given her Pittsfield home. Another Pittsfield facility, for tuberculosis patients, received her generous support. Generally shunning publicity, she finally accepted the Cobbett Medal of London, the Order of the Crown of Belgium, became came a member of the French Legion of Honor, and was made an honorary citizen of Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

A woman of strong character, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge was a feisty and flinty American original. Unafraid of majority opinions, she was a convinced atheist who had hoped that the opening event of the festival celebrating the inaugural of her foundation in 1925 would not be a prayer but a performance of Charles Martin Loeffler's Canticle of the Sun, a composition commissioned for the occasion. Coolidge was certain that this was "surely a more exultant hymn of praise and devotion than would be likely to issue from the Senate or the House of Representatives." As the program was finally worked out, the festival opened with Bach's "To God on High All Glory Be."

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on November 4, 1953. The year following her death, a "memorial festival" lasting two days and sponsored by the South Mountain Association was held at Pittsfield in the Temple of Music that she had built so many decades earlier. Her contribution to the evolution of music in the 20th century was immense and is still being assessed. With little exaggeration, Olin Downes, music critic of The New York Times, gave a fair estimate of this remarkable woman's role as benefactor and patron in the musical life of the 20th century when he described it as being "without parallel in the modern period on either side of the Atlantic."


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Neuls-Bates, Carol. "Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, twentieth-century benefactress of chamber music," in Judith Lang Zaimont, ed. The Musical Woman: An International Perspective, Vol. II: 1984–1985. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1987, pp. 136–144.

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John Haag , University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Coolidge, Elizabeth Sprague (1863–1953)

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