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Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge founded the Berkshire Music Festival at South Mountain -- her Temple of Music -- that was to become the inspiration for -- and competitor with -- Tanglewood.

The grand dames of Berkshire music

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By Monday, Sep 15, 2014 Life In the Berkshires, Viewpoints

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America 2014.

Two women of strength and stature brought music to The Berkshires and we continue to benefit from their efforts.

You can go online and hear Gertrude Robinson Smith’s high pitched yet forceful voice demanding of a rain-soaked audience that Tanglewood must have an enclosure for its orchestra. It was the depth of the Depression but she raised tens of thousands that night. Tens of thousands fill the shed she built and flood the grounds to this day.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge has been credited with starting the Berkshire Symphonic Festival (Tanglewood) but the truth is slightly more complex. There is little doubt and no substantive argument that Gertrude Robinson Smith, acting upon an idea from Maestro Henry Hadley, created the Berkshire Symphonic Festival.

Smith relied upon her friends, the Cottagers, who had the means to support the arts. They were: in Stockbridge, Miss Mabel Choate (Naumkeag), Mrs. Georgie de Heredia (Wheatleigh), and Owen Johnson; in Dalton, Mrs. Bruce Crane, and in Pittsfield, Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.

Dr. Frederick S. Coolidge was born in Boston in 1865. In November 1891, at the age of 26, he married Elizabeth Penn Sprague, the daughter of a wealthy Chicago wholesale dealer, and young woman noted for her musical talent.

With everything to live for, a happy marriage, a growing son, wealth, and respect in his profession, Coolidge fell seriously ill at 30 years old.

Like many Cottagers before him, Coolidge believed that the high altitude and clean Berkshire air were restorative. In 1904, Coolidge hired the Pittsfield architectural firm of Harding and Seaver to design their Berkshire Cottage at 472 West Street.

The Doctor’s condition was chronic and the family spent more and more time at Upwey Fields in Pittsfield. Upwey means up from (or up above) the River Wye. Upwey is a suburb of Dorset, England. They named their cottage Upwey because, in the 17th century, it was the home of Elizabeth’s ancestor Edward Sprague.

Sprague was a fuller — a cloth finisher – a trade that afforded Sprague a decent living and lifestyle. In 1628 Sprague left for the New World. Proud of their citizen, Dorset remembered him as “Edward Sprague fuller to founding father”.

Coolidge suffered for the next twenty years and died in 1915 at age 50. When her parents died soon after, Elizabeth found herself in possession of a large fortune. Elizabeth gave Upwey Field to Berkshire School for Crippled Children in honor of her husband. To further honor him, she supported medical institutions, but her deepest commitment and largest donations were made to present and promote chamber music. She built her second Berkshire cottage on South Street, and called it “Temple of Music.”

Upwey Fields, site of the 'Temple of Misic.'

Upwey Field, site of the Berkshire School for Crippled Children.

Coolidge established the Berkshire String Quartet in 1916. Two years later, she built a concert hall on her property with 500 seats and outstanding fine acoustics. It was 1918 and the Berkshire Music Festival at South Mountain, Pittsfield, was born.

She selected the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., as her second venue. Elizabeth was already well known as a patroness of music when she approached the Library of Congress in 1924. She presented a check for $60,000 to cover the construction costs for the Coolidge Hall (about $600,000 today). When the cost of construction exceeded $60,000, Mrs. Coolidge wrote a second check covering the difference.

She also established a foundation to support composers and commission new works. She commissioned works by Copland, Stravinsky, and Bartok among others. Elizabeth was a performer in her own right and played piano at concerts into her eighties.

These were Elizabeth Coolidge’s pedigree and accomplishments when Smith approached her to support the establishment of a symphonic festival. Smith relied upon Coolidge for advice as well as money. Coolidge could be a strong ally. After all, South Mountain was a Chamber Music festival not in competition but complimentary to a symphonic festival.

As grand a grand dame as Smith, Coolidge insisted that the two festivals remain complimentary by making the symphonic festival schedule Thursday night, Saturday afternoon, and Sunday Night because South Mountain concerts had always been Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon.

Tanglewood held to the “Coolidge” schedule in 1937 and 1938, but in 1939 they made a new schedule. The popularity of Tanglewood was growing and it became clear that they could attract more outlanders if the schedule were Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. That would allow patrons arriving by train to travel up on Friday by an early train, attend all three concerts, leave by the late train on Sunday, and be at work Monday morning. They made a new schedule in direct competition with South Mountain.

Coolidge wrote Smith: “The Tanglewood music schedule interferes with us [the South Mountain Chamber Concert performances]…Please let me know if you have any definite suggestions about the rescue of South Mountain and the Temple of Music.”

Coolidge believed Tanglewood would drive South Mountain out of business. Evidently, there was no definite solution because there appears to be no answer to Mrs. Coolidge’s letter.

Coolidge withdrew her support of Tanglewood and dedicated more time and money to the Coolidge Foundation and Auditorium at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Coolidge would be pleased that almost 100 years later, Berkshire residents and visitors still gather at South Mountain to enjoy chamber music.

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