The 1919 Berkshire Festival

In 1919, the Berkshire Prize was awarded for a new work featuring viola. The jury deadlocked, with half voting for Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, and half voting for Ernest Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Piano. Coolidge was forced to cast the deciding vote, an agonizing choice as both composers were personal friends. She awarded the prize to Bloch, but included both pieces in the 1919 festival program. From then on juries consisted of an uneven number of adjudicators.

The 1919 Berkshire Prize Jury. (left to right) Louis Bailly, Harold Bauer, Richard Aldrich, Frederick A. Stock, Elizabeth Coolidge, Hugo Kortschak (not a jury member), Georges Longy, and Rubin Goldmark. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (014.00.00)

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Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata for Viola and Piano

Program of the Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music, 1919. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (012.00.00)

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From the Berkshire Hills to Washington, D.C.

Music Division chief Carl Engel had long hoped that the Library of Congress might someday sponsor concerts. But the Library had no performance venue. The first of Coolidge’s festivals in Washington, D.C., took place at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art in 1924, followed by a White House reception hosted by President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge. A distant cousin of the president, Coolidge was often mistakenly identified as the first lady, and jokingly referred to herself as “the other Mrs. Coolidge.”

Three Recitals of Chamber Music in the auditorium of The Freer Gallery of Art. Program, 1924. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (018.00.00, 019.00.00)

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White House Invitation for “the Other Mrs. Coolidge”

White House reception invitation, February 9, 1924. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (051.00.00)

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The Most Perfect Home for Music

Undaunted by the lack of a performing venue at the Library of Congress, Coolidge proposed not only to build an auditorium, but also to set up a trust fund for performances and commissions. Engel and Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam (1861–1955) enthusiastically endorsed the idea. It took an act of Congress to accept her unprecedented gift. Engel proposed that the auditorium be built in a courtyard that adjoined the Music Division. His practical, yet brilliant, idea avoided purchasing additional land, utilized existing walls, and reduced the cost of heating, ventilation, and lighting systems. Engel dedicated the savings to the creation of “the most perfect and beautiful room for music” that “the most competent minds can evolve.”

Joint Resolution, S. J. Res. 152, December 18, 1924. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (022.00.00)

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An Unprecedented Gift

On November 12, 1924, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864–1953) wrote this check to Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam to fund the building of a finely-tuned auditorium that bears her name. Together with the founding of the Coolidge Foundation that to this day commissions chamber music from world-class artists, her unprecedented gift ensured her support for contemporary music would continue for many generations.

Cancelled check, Elizabeth Coolidge to Herbert Putnam, November 12, 1924.Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (023.00.00)

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Building the Coolidge Auditorium

The Coolidge auditorium under construction, 1925. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (020.00.00)

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