Cultivating Music in America: Women Patrons and Activists since 1860, edited by Ralph P. Locke and Cyrilla Barr; Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge: American Patron of Music, by Cyrilla Barr

October 1, 1999

Cultivating Music in America

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge

Cultivating Music in America: Women Patrons and Activists since 1860, edited by Ralph P. Locke and Cyrilla Barr. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. xi + 357 pp. ISBN 0-520-08395-4.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge: American Patron of Music, by Cyrilla Barr. New York: Schirmer Books, 1998. xxiv + 436 pp. ISBN 0-02-864888-9.

"Sybil Harrington, 89, Supporter of Opera and Medical Charities," said the 19 September 1998 headline in the New York Times obituary for the person who had given the largest individual donation to the Metropolitan Opera in the company's history. Since reading these two books under review, I am increasingly aware of the powerful roles women like Harrington have played and continue to play in American cultural life. As arts philanthropists, their monetary gifts, large and small, sustain and influence cultural life in ways rarely told or acknowledged even by those of us who most benefit from these activities.

Popular music has always had to acknowledge its commercial nature and obvious ties to consumer taste. Central to our understanding of "classical" music, however, is that its purported timelessness transcends the marketplace. Although such an "a-commercial" ideology is still widely believed and perpetuated by arts organizations of all kinds, it is a myth. There is no free lunch and there is no free art. All cultural objects of all kinds require money, and if it does not come from governmental or public sources, it must come from the private sector. In our own time the decreasing public support of the arts, either through truly diminishing resources, competing constituencies, or just plain lack of interest, has caused considerable turmoil as organizations sell themselves in ways that cause consternation for critics and audiences. Such salesmanship makes visible what has always been true; in a capitalist economy, music has to be a business.

Cultivating Music in America and the biography of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge take as their point of departure the role of patronage in the formation of American high art musical institutions, and in particular, they examine the role of women as especially committed, even passionate fund-raisers. Accessibly written and of interest to a wide audience, these books render visible a side of musical life that has been doubly ignored as "women's work" and tainted by money. Both books also show how philanthropy was its own reward, often in pointedly gendered ways. Philanthropy provided a means for women with means to take on active roles within the musical institutions they loved, fostering their sense of self-worth and usefulness. As Harrington herself stated, "I felt important for once in my life." Like her foremothers whose stories and accomplishments are at the center of these books, Sybil Harrington gave out of a lifetime of love for music and dance. As a child in Amarillo, Texas, she studied piano and organ, took ballet lessons and listened to the famed Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. Later in life, after having worked with her husband on a highly successful cattle ranch, she would act on that early love affair with opera, giving a total of thirty million dollars to the Met. While most of the women presented in Cultivating Music in America were influential in ways similar to Harrington, Cyrilla Barr's monumental biography of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge presents us with an individual whose patronage was so far-reaching that it is no overstatement to say that without her, musical life of this century would be quite different.

Cultivating Music in America is a richly-textured collection of ten essays and ten shorter "vignettes," which together make an enormous contribution towards recognizing the role of female philanthropy in the development of the western concert music-making tradition in the United States. Editors Ralph P. Locke and Cyrilla Barr favor the term "musical activism" rather than "patronage," given the latter's problematic semantic connotations of "patronizing" and "patriarchy." As they explain in their introduction and as is made clear in the essays, such "musical activism" has often been "woman's work." Through a complex historical network of cultural constructions, certain kinds of music-making and its appreciation were understood as appropriate attributes for middle and upper-class women. Similarly certain kinds of music—what we now identify as the Euro-American German-dominated canon—likewise attained a privileged ennobling power, or as Ruth Solie notes: "music had itself become religious practice" (p. 279). However, the increasingly public nature of music-making and its appreciation was rarely self-supporting. Rather it came to require ever-increasing specialized spaces, star performers and conductors and ever-growing numbers of trained musicians, all of which cost ever-increasing amounts of money to sustain, even as the "moral" nature of these activities required that such commercial realities remain hidden. As part of the female sphere was to model moral refinement and provide spiritual uplift, women with financial means but little access to public life thus took it upon themselves to educate, enlighten and uplift society through musical philanthropies.

This collection is neither comprehensive nor linear and it is not intended as a neat chronological exploration; rather, the individual contributions can stand alone as interpretations of kinds of activities or particular individuals. Of the nine essays, four have appeared elsewhere in other guises (Solie on Sophie Drinker, Joseph Horowitz on American Wagnerism, Cyrilla Barr on Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and Ralph P. Locke on Isabella Stewart Gardner). These essays, including additional ones on women's clubs, black women activists, and philanthropists in this century, are enlivened by ten vignettes, typically first-person reflections on the individuals or activities involved. Read together, the collection accumulates its own power as issues and individuals keep resurfacing: the cult of Richard Wagner, the musical ideologies of influential conductor Theodore Thomas, issues of taste and discrimination that privileged some musics over others, and the connection between women's growing social activism in settlement houses and reform movements and their musical activism that likewise was meant to educate and ameliorate, but often in ways that were classist and racist even as they certainly made women feel important and contributing members of society. Occasionally contributors contradict each other: for example, Linda Whitesitt and Horowitz take differing views on Mahler's treatment at the hands of the New York Philharmonic's lady guarantors.

Given the lack of recognition most of these women and their activities have had, it would be easy to present them as unsung heroines of the western concert music tradition. The best essays, though, are the ones that explicitly work against such an easy reading and instead situate their activists within larger social contexts often provided by historical and cultural scholarship produced outside music history's sometimes limited purview. Such larger contexts allow ambiguities, ambivalences and contradictions to appear and demonstrate how these gendered musical and philanthropic roles were enmeshed—often troublingly so—with competing ethnic, racial and class identities. Especially good in this regard is Whitesitt's compelling essay in which she explores women's work in music clubs and in the formation of regional concert series and orchestras. She concludes that her subjects are to be "praised and deplored," given that "their work simultaneously perpetuated a cultural hierarchy that excluded the women themselves from active participation" (p. 81). Similarly, in her discussion of Sophie Drinker (whose activism in her ground-breaking protofeminist 1948 publication Music and Women: A Study of Women in their Relation to Music does not fit the standard definition of patronage), Ruth Solie identifies "a persistent tension" between Drinker's egalitarian assertions and her assumption of class privilege (p. 267). Drinker too loved a kind of music institutionally at odds with the very feminized communal values she simultaneously promoted.

The vignettes reveal these tensions as well. Feminist musicologist and performer Mary Natvig discusses her ambivalence about her mother's symphony guild work, even though as a college professor with a Ph. D. in musicology she now makes her living within a similar institution. On the other hand, the comments from about 1991 of activist Betty Freeman show yet again how rarely women activists supported women composers, suggesting an internalized fear of music's own feminization. Freeman has long supported "classic modernists," yet her dismissal of Thea Musgrave seems highhanded. Her lack of knowledge of Joan Tower and especially Pauline Oliveros, who shares so much with Freeman's beloved John Cage, is baffling. Her comments show none of Natvig's self-awareness, even self-criticism, and I question the value of their inclusion in this collection.

Of all the individual philanthropists and activists presented, Jeannette Meyer Thurber and her career of stunning failures, as described by Emanuel Rubin, became my favorite. Thurber comes off as a women of indomitable energy and deeply held personal convictions about "good" music and the need to foster a "national musical spirit" (p. 147). While her reach frequently exceeded her grasp, her short-lived National Conservatory, best remembered for having brought Dvorák to America, presented a forward-looking music curriculum and a commitment to an open admissions policy that ignored race and gender well ahead of its time.

While the editors identify many of the shared issues among essays, more could have been made of the riches here and the wealth of topics they open for further exploration, especially as it adds to a history of women's philanthropy at large and a growing body of work on what might be called women's ways of giving. Did the feminizing of philanthropy aid in hiding music's commercial nature as women too were excluded from the marketplace? It was also hard to tell whether the editors appreciated the contradictory tensions as interpreted by some of their contributors. At the end of their opening chapter, Locke and Barr bemoan the current state of symphony orchestra support as "listeners turn away to forms of leisure activity that are less demanding aesthetically and intellectually" (p. 45), a statement sure to raise the eyebrows of many of us involved with musics that take place outside the symphony concert hall.

Locke restates this concern about the viability of live performances of "art music" in his concluding chapter, but as this volume itself demonstrates, these art music institutions were truly "artificially" constructed and perpetuated; while they certainly provided crucial outlets—emotional and intellectual—for the women involved, those contexts have changed mightily. Women with time and money today have many more options in their spheres than did their mothers and grandmothers, and they may be more consciously aware of the gendered contradictions regarding their participation. I, for one, do not support arts groups which seem unwilling to involve women as full participants, as conductors, performers, and the composers of works performed. Furthermore, my experience with my female students suggests that women are no less involved in or passionate about music than they were in the past. However, how that "music" is defined has changed, along with the gendered, class and racial realities along with the ways they can feel important in their own lives.

Cyrilla Barr's full-length biography of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge is an important contribution to our understanding of American cultural life. Read alongside Cultivating Music in America, it fleshes out even further the intersections of gender politics, class and musical life in the United States during the first half of this century. It is also a compelling account of a life of class privilege that was marked early and often by tragedy and for whom music became a means of survival.

As Barr tells it, Coolidge's influential activism was in large part a response to her unmet desires and unfulfilled dreams. As a child with real musical talent she longed to continue her music study overseas, and for the rest of her life, music-making was a constant outlet, especially in the face of family upheaval. She practiced the piano daily and frequently played chamber music with amateurs and professionals. However, it was not until the premature death of her husband, whose illnesses had consumed her life for the preceding decade, and the deaths of her supportive, if at times smothering, parents all within fifteen months of each other, that Coolidge stepped into her role of activist and patron. Sybil Harrington lost her husband and only daughter in the same year, and she coped with that loss much as Coolidge did, taking charge of the family's philanthropic foundation and moving beyond the charities favored by her husband to embrace her love of the Metropolitan Opera. How often has women's philanthropy been a response to thwarted plans and personal tragedy? Again, drawing on wider research on women's philanthropy might help us see Coolidge in a larger perspective.

Born and raised in Chicago, Elizabeth Sprague was the only surviving daughter (two younger sisters died in childhood) of Nancy Atwood and Albert Arnold Sprague, who along with his brother made a fortune in the wholesale grocery business and provided his daughter with a model as an early patron of the Chicago Symphony. Reared in an environment of wealth and noblesse oblige, Elizabeth Sprague received musical instruction and showed talent as a pianist. However, as was true for women of her class, she received neither the prestigious European musical instruction of which she dreamed nor the kind of post-secondary education she would have liked to have.

Through her friend Isabella Coolidge, she met Frederic Shurtleff Coolidge, Isa's younger brother, a talented orthopedic surgeon and scion of a distinguished Boston Brahmin family. They married in 1891 and settled in Chicago, where Fred joined the faculty of the Rush Medical College. Their first child, Albert Sprague, was born in 1894. Within a year any hope Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge might have had of an easy or conventionally happy married life vanished as Fred began to show symptoms of the tuberculosis which plagued him for the rest of his life. Elizabeth gave birth to a stillborn daughter in 1897 and suffered a second miscarriage in 1901. The following year Fred contracted syphilis, most likely during surgery, since at that time surgeons wore no gloves. He tried to combat both diseases with the latest techniques of the time, to no avail. Elizabeth spent much of the next thirteen years relocating her family to healthier places and ministering to an ever-increasingly ill Frederic. While her parents provided a continuous source of financial and emotional support, from packing up household supplies to paying for travel, special accommodations, and private nurses, Elizabeth's music-making served her as a constant companion. The thirty-room home she and Frederic built and shared for a time in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, featured a large music room measuring some forty feet across with twin fireplaces and graceful French doors. Their housewarming featured music performed by members of the Boston Symphony with Elizabeth at the piano.

Barr notes how quickly Coolidge moved into the role of philanthropist following the death of her father in January of 1915. Within days of his death she announced her intention to give one-half of the funds she had just inherited to the Chicago Symphony for the creation of a pension fund. Barr underscores further how this kind of giving—swift, decisive, generous and typically meant to induce others to follow suit—would become Coolidge's trademark. Her later and better-known creation, the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress and its trust fund in support of chamber music, took a mere five months from her letter of intent to completed donation, including the requisite congressional action.

Despite the initial funding of her father's favorite symphony, Coolidge would soon turn to chamber music as her chosen field for cultivation for what Barr claims were personal and practical reasons. As a talented pianist, chamber music spoke to her directly, she knew more about it and thus could exert more control, and on a practical level it cost less to fund; she got more bang for the buck.

Barr presents her subject's life in two parts: a chronological narrative of her private life, followed by an in-depth discussion of her professional activities that is topical as well as chronological. The sheer amount of material at Barr's disposal in the Library of Congress archives and elsewhere is staggering, as Coolidge was a prodigious correspondent. Barr does an admirable job presenting her information in careful detail without overwhelming her reader with minutia. The first half of the book is an extraordinary story of class privilege. The second half is almost mind-boggling in its description of Coolidge's spirited, innovative and virtually unending philanthropic activism that brought her in contact with numerous musical luminaries both in the United States and Europe: Amy Beach, Charles and Harmony Ives, Darius Milhaud, Mary Howe, Gian Francesco Malapiero, Arnold Schoenberg, Maurice Ravel, Paul Hindemith, Alfredo Casella, and Frank Bridge, to name but a few. She supplied many of these musicians with much needed financial resources of all kinds, especially during the tumultuous war years of this century. Indeed, the most touching chapter in the second part chronicles Coolidge's support for composers displaced by the rise of fascism and later World War II. She wrote on behalf of composers trapped by circumstances of all kinds and often went to great lengths to find them employment in America, even quietly funding situations as she did for Milhaud at Mills College. But her generosity had limits, especially when strained by political realities. Despite an abiding affection for Malapiero, whose edition of Monteverdi's complete works she underwrote as one of her many unknown gifts to musical scholarship, she cut off support in 1940: she simply could no longer send money to a country whose policies were so at odds with her own beliefs.

Like many of the other philanthropists covered in Cultivating Music in America, Coolidge was often contradictory and anything but transparent. She was marked by a kind of moody intensity as a young woman, often to her mother's dismay and probably her husband's, and in later life she could be imperious and overbearing; as one friend noted, you had to learn how to know her. She was hardly a friend of feminism or of women seeking to achieve professional parity in the male-dominated musical world. No woman ever received the coveted Coolidge Medal, and Rebecca Clarke was the only woman composer to receive a commission. While she had lifelong female friends, Coolidge seems to have been most comfortable in her patronage as the sole woman among male professionals. Although she did much for American musical life, she did less for American music per se, preferring the support of an abstract "good music" over fostering a musical nationalism. Yet she honored her colleague Oscar Sonneck and his pioneering work in American music by establishing scholarships in his name for research on American music. It is telling of the time that after three years, she was literally unable to give the money away.

As Sybil Harrington claimed, giving money away was hard work, but worth it in the end for the giver as well as the receiver. Now, thanks to these two books, those of us who have been the direct and indirect recipients of these philanthropic activities can rightly acknowledge the far-reaching importance of this kind of hard work and give it the recognition it deserves.

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