Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (October 30, 1864 - November 4, 1953), born Elizabeth Penn Sprague, was an American pianist and patron of music, especially of chamber music.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge's father was a wealthy wholesale dealer in Chicago. She was musically talented and studied piano as well as composition. She married the physician Frederic Shurtleff Coolidge who died tragically from syphilis contracted from a patient during surgery, leaving her with their only child Albert. Soon after, her parents died as well. She inherited a considerable amount of money from her parents and decided to spend it on promotion of chamber music, a mission she continued to carry out until her death at the age of 90 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Due to his husband's profession, she also gave financial support to medical institutions.

Coolidge's financial resources were not unlimited but through force of personality and conviction she managed to raise the status of chamber music in the United States, where the major interest of composers had previously been in orchestral music, from curiosity to a seminal field of composition. Her devotion to music and generosity to musicians were spurred by her own experience as a performing musician: she appeared as a pianist up to her 80s, accompanying world-renowned instrumentalists.

Coolidge established the Berkshire String Quartet in 1916 and started the Berkshire Music Festival at South Mountain, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, two years later. Out of this grew the Berkshire Symphonic Festival at Tanglewood, which she also supported. In 1932 she established the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Medal for "eminent services to chamber music". Recipients of the medal include Frank Bridge, Benjamin Britten and Roy Harris. The Sprague Memorial Hall at Yale University was also financed by Coolidge.

Her most innovative and costly endeavour, however, was her partnership with the Library of Congress, resulting in the construction of the 500-seat Coolidge Auditorium, specifically intended for chamber music, in 1924. This was accompanied by the establishment of the Coolidge Foundation to organize concerts in that auditorium and to commission new chamber music from both European and American composers, as it continues to do today.

Coolidge had a reputation for promoting "difficult" modern music (though he declined to support one of the most modern of all composers, Charles Ives). But she never aimed at such a reputation and explained her preferences in music as follows: "My plea for modern music is not that we should like it, nor necessarily that we should even understand it, but that we should exhibit it as a significant human document." Though American herself, she had no national preferences, and in fact most of his commissions went to European composers. She didn't have any urge to specifically promote women composers, either.

The most lasting memorial to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge's patronage of music are the compositions which she commissioned from practically every leading composer of the early 20th century. Among the best-known of those compositions are the following:

The list of composers who benefited from Coolidge's support is impressive, including also Ernest Bloch, Alfredo Casella, George Enescu, Howard Hanson, Paul Hindemith, Bohuslav Martinu, Darius Milhaud, Ottorino Respighi and Albert Roussel.

External links

The Coolidge Legacy by Prof. Cyrilla Barr