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American Women: Resources from the Performing Arts Collections

Special Collections

The Music Division holds more than five hundred named special collections in music, theater, and dance, varying in size from fewer than a dozen items to more than half a million. Many of these collections are processed and have finding aids online. Others are in varying stages of processing and may have guides, inventories, or print finding aids available on-site. Collections with no finding aids or other guides are described by catalog records in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

Researchers who wish to consult any special collection material are advised to contact the Performing Arts Reading Room two weeks in advance for assistance in planning their visit and to ensure that collection material will be available.

Women and the Creative Process

Henry Kitson, sculptor.The fairy godmother of chamber music: Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge 1933. Law Library of Congress.

The special collections in the Music Division represent the creative life of women in myriad ways. Primary source materials tell the story of women composers such as Ruth Crawford Seeger and Carrie Jacobs Bond and performers such as singer Geraldine Farrar and violinist Maud Powell. The entrepreneurial talents of women can be seen in collections such as that of the National Negro Opera Company, founded and directed by Mary Cardwell Dawson, or the Edward and Marian MacDowell Collection (PDF), which documents the vision and tenacity of Marian MacDowell, founder of the MacDowell Colony (see "The House That Marian Built: The MacDowell Colony of Peterborough, New Hampshire").

Especially important to the Library of Congress are those collections resulting from women's patronage. (For a thorough discussion of women's contributions as patrons of music in America, see Ralph P. Locke and Cyrilla Barr, eds., Cultivating Music in America: Women Patrons and Activists Since 1860 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). The Music Division is particularly fortunate to be the beneficiary of such support. The generosity of two remarkable American women, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953) and Gertrude Clarke Whittall (1867-1965), was instrumental in the formation of the first special collections in music at the Library of Congress.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge was an ardent supporter of chamber music and, in 1925, established a foundation at the Library of Congress to promote the composition and performance of new chamber works. At the time her endowment was without precedent at the Library and served as a model for those to follow. It funded the construction of the Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress, an intimate state-of-the-art concert hall that has seen premieres of such works as Igor Stravinsky's Apollon Musagète and Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, both Coolidge commissions. The endowment also supports musicological lectures and commissions new works of chamber music, some by women composers. The resulting collection of commissioned autograph scores and related correspondence is part of the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation Collection. Among composers represented are Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), Mary Howe (1882-1964), Mél Bonis (Mme. Albert Domange) (1858-1937), Clara Wildschut (1906-1950), Vivian Fine (1913-2000), Miriam Gideon (1906-1996), and Sofia Gubaydulina (b. 1931). Mrs. Coolidge was a composer herself and several of her songs and chamber pieces are included in the collection. (For further information on Mrs. Coolidge, see Cyrilla Barr, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge: American Patron of Music (New York: Schirmer Books, 1998). Barr is also the author of The Coolidge Legacy (Washington: Library of Congress, 1997).

Photograph of Gertrude Clarke Whittall. Undated. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Gertrude Clarke Whittall

Gertrude Clarke Whittall was another patron of the Music Division whose support, although independent of the efforts of Mrs. Coolidge, nonetheless complemented them. In 1935-36 she donated five Stradivari instruments to the Library and established a foundation for maintenance and promotion of their use in concerts. She saw these instruments as belonging to the nation and in 1937 built the Whittall Pavilion, adjacent to the Coolidge Auditorium, for their public display. In 1941 she purchased for the Music Division a collection of music manuscripts and letters by European masters of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The Gertrude Clarke Whittall Collection contains works by Haydn, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and Schoenberg. These manuscripts also include an autograph score of Clara Schumann's cadenzas to Mozart's Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466; a few letters of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847); a facsimile of Hensel's Das letzte Lied; and a copy of a prelude for organ by Hensel in the hand of a member of the Mendelssohn family. Her gifts extended beyond the Music Division when, in 1950, she established the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund in the Library of Congress, which sponsors series of poetry readings, lectures, and dramas. She loved poetry and gave the Library many valuable literary manuscripts in the hand of contemporary poets. Robert Frost, a dear friend of Mrs. Whittall, once wrote to her: “Having you there in Washington is like having seeds of fire on the hearth that only needs a scrap of manuscript for tinder to burst into flame with the first passing breath of inspiration.” (Robert Frost, letter to Mrs. Whittall, April 12, 1961. This letter is from a specially bound volume of letters of tribute to Mrs. Whittall presented to her on May 3, 1961, by Librarian of Congress L. Quincy Mumford in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund. Library of Congress Archives, Manuscript Division.)

Since the acquisition of the Coolidge and Whittall collections, the Music Division has actively pursued collection development of primary source materials. Today there are more than five hundred named special collections varying in size from fewer than a dozen items to more than a half million. What follows is a selection of special collections that may be of interest to researchers of American women in the performing arts.