Elizabeth Penn Sprague’s Grand Tour

In 1882, at the age of seventeen, Elizabeth Penn Sprague (1864–1953) embarked on a “Grand Tour” of Europe with her parents. Her visa for the trip provided a detailed physical description: “stature six feet and one half inch; forehead high; eyes blue; nose straight; mouth ordinary; chin pointed; hair light; complexion light; face oval.” For eleven months, she traveled with her family through nearly every country of Western Europe attending the opera whenever possible, including Halévy’s La Juive at the Théâtre de l’Opéra in Paris and the premiere of Wagner’s last music drama, Parsifal, in Bayreuth.

Elizabeth Penn Sprague at age seventeen, 1882. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (001.00.00)

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Passion for Music

Immersed in music from a young age, Coolidge studied piano with Regina Watson (1835–1913), a student of Polish virtuoso pianist and composer Carl Tausig (1841–1871). In 1891, at the age of twenty-seven, Elizabeth married physician Frederick Shurtleff Coolidge (1865–1915), who encouraged her passion for music. She continued to play musicales and charity concerts. In 1893, Elizabeth was invited to perform at the World’s Columbian Exposition, where she played Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, with an orchestra led by Theodore Thomas (1835–1905), founder and first music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge on her wedding day, November 21, 1891. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00)

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A Performance at the World’s Columbia Exposition

Special Concert by Illinois Amateurs in the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbia Exposition. Program, July 1, 1893.Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (003.00.00)

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The Art of Composition

In addition to studying piano and performing, Coolidge also found “spiritual refuge” in the art of composition. In 1901, in honor of the tenth anniversary of her marriage, she set to music a group of texts from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. A sketch for the work includes a scheme of subject motives and each motive’s emotional association, which Coolidge identifies throughout the sketch and develops in a later draft. She sought feedback on the work from composer Amy Beach (1867–1944), whose career was well established by the turn of the century. Beach responded with enthusiasm for the song cycle, noting “considerable ingenuity in the handling of your ‘leit-motiven’.”

Amy Beach to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, November 17, 1902. Holograph letter. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (006.00.00, 006.01.00)

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Coolidge Family Portrait

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Frederick Shurtleff Coolidge, and Albert Sprague Coolidge, 1901. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (004.00.00)

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Browning Song Cycle

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Scheme of subject motives for Browning Song Cycle. Holograph manuscript, 1901. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (005.00.00)

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Gratitude for a Magnificent Contribution

After the unexpected death of her father in 1915, Coolidge decided the best way to memorialize him was to make a financial donation to her father’s favorite enterprise in Chicago—its orchestra. Coolidge donated one half of the personal fund she had inherited in order to create a pension fund for the members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Conductor Frederick Stock and the orchestra’s musicians signed an official certificate of thanks for Coolidge’s generosity and performed an arrangement of movements from her original string quartet.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra certificate of thanks to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, 1915. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (007.00.00)

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