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Music, Theater, Dance: An Illustrated Guide

Foundations for Music

The information in this guide is based on a 1993 publication and has not been updated.

Two extraordinary American women, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and Gertrude Clarke Whittall, by their generosity toward the Library of Congress Music Division, had a profound influence on the history of music in the United States and laid the cornerstone for all subsequent musical philanthropy in the Library. They were born within three years of one another, and their support of music in the Library overlapped for several decades, beginning in the 1930s. Although their devotion to music was equal, they expressed that devotion in divergent but complementary ways, Mrs. Coolidge focusing largely on the new, Mrs. Whittall on the classic tradition exemplified by the repertory of the string quartet.

Photographer unknown. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and Music Division chief Harold 1949. Coolidge Foundation Collection. Library of Congress Music Division.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953), one of the most notable patrons in the history of American music, seized an opportunity in 1924 to expand the vision and mission of the Library of Congress through underwriting concerts, commissioning new music, and encouraging musicological scholarship. Having already won international prominence by sponsoring chamber music festivals in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and for commissioning and inspiring compositions by eminent contemporary composers in the United States and abroad, she sought to establish a permanent base for these activities as well as a permanent musical influence.

In 1925 the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation was established in the Library for the promotion and advancement of chamber music through commissions, public concerts, and festivals. Mrs. Coolidge's ultimate aim, as stated in a letter dated February 4, 1925, to the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, was profound as well as prescient:

to make possible, through the Library of Congress, the composition and performance of music in ways which might otherwise be considered too unique or too expensive to be ordinarily undertaken. Not this alone, of course, nor with a view to extravagance for its own sake; but as an occasional possibility of giving precedence to considerations of quality over those of quantity; to artistic rather than to economic values; and to opportunity over expediency.

The Library of Congress Trust Fund Board, the first of its kind in the federal government, was established in 1925 to administer the funds of the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation and all future endowments. With an additional gift, also in 1925, Mrs. Coolidge financed the construction of the 511-seat Coolidge Auditorium in the northwest courtyard of the Jefferson Building. Designed according to her preference for "severe and chaste beauty" rather than "ornate display," the Coolidge Auditorium was completed just in time for the first Coolidge Festival, which successfully inaugurated the new hall on October 28, 1925. This structure has become world famous for its magnificent acoustical properties, for the caliber of the artists and ensembles who have played there, for newly commissioned works premiered, and for the individually scheduled concerts interspersed among concert series, retrospectives, and festivals.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge's legacy lies not only in the Foundation, auditorium, and concerts, but also in the collections she presented to the Library of original manuscripts and papers that she had received through her philanthropic activities. As a result of the Coolidge commissions executed by eminent composers, a steady stream of notable holographs has reached the Library through the years; many composers maintained a special relationship with the Library and continued to make generous donations of their own manuscripts.

Photographer unknown. Photograph of Gertrude Clarke Whittall.No date. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Following the standards set by Mrs. Coolidge's generosity, Gertrude Clarke Whittall (1867-1965), another great philanthropist, presented to the Library in 1935-1936 five incomparable Stradivari instruments, as well as a Tourte bow for each instrument. (See The Collections of Musical Instruments for details on these instruments.) In February 1936, the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation was established at the Library to maintain the Stradivari instruments and to support their use in concerts. For several years, guest string quartets played on the instruments for one or more concerts until the Library settled on the idea of a resident ensemble: the Budapest String Quartet was the Library's resident quartet from 1940-1962, and from 1962 to the present, the Juilliard String Quartet.

Continuing her generosity to the Library, in 1938 Mrs. Whittall provided funds for the construction of the Whittall Pavilion, a drawing room intended as a "beautiful sanctuary of the precious Stradivari," adjoining the foyer of the Coolidge Auditorium. To complete her gift and to enhance the value of the Stradivari, Mrs. Whittall also presented to the Library a remarkable assemblage of original manuscripts by composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schoenberg.

Since 1925, when the Coolidge Foundation was established, additional foundations have been created through gift or bequest, permitting the Library to extend significantly its influence in the musical world. Throughout the years, the generosity of donors has enabled the Library to render exceptional service to the public and the world of music through performances, commissions, acquisitions, broadcasts, recordings, exhibits, lectures, and publications, as well as other related activities.

Among the Library's music foundations that perpetuate the art and scholarship of music are:

The Library's widely acknowledged leadership in creating, performing, and collecting music for the benefit of the nation has been linked for decades to the generosity and wisdom of benefactors. These philanthropists continue to sustain the artistic values that music holds, and help assure the future of all musical art.