He Wanted a Mountain, So —

his mother bought one for him, and the rest of us have benefited to this day. Or so the tale is told.

“He” was Albert Coolidge, only son of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who became known as the Fairy Godmother of Chamber Music. Elizabeth Coolidge, born in 1864 into a wealthy Chicago family, was herself a pianist. Her physician husband died in 1915, when Albert was still young. Her parents also died in 1915 and 1916. Liz Coolidge remained a widow the rest of her life, throwing her considerable energies and fortune into encouraging performers and composers of chamber music, not only classical, but commissioning new works as well.

For people living in the Berkshire mountains (well, hills, really) of Western Massachusetts, her peak achievement was the establishment of the South Mountain concert series. South Mountain lies off South Street, Route 7 in Pittsfield, and — so the story goes — Liz Coolidge bought a great parcel of the mountainside because her son fancied a mountain. She herself fancied chamber music. So her acquisition was used to build a lovely small concert hall in a clearing on the mountainside, reached by negotiating the twists and tree-lined turns of an ascending dirt road.

The hall looks like a small Colonial white wood rural church, complete to pew seating (despite cushions, somewhat hard on the rear). Lots of bare wood (much of which was actual timber from an old textile mill), a bare stage, superb acoustics — The only decorations are the views through giant windows on both sides of the building, of lawns on one side, dense trees on the other.

And at intermission, the colorful figures of concert-goers taking a breather on the lawn from the splendid music.

The American String Quartet

And splendid it is! The finest names in chamber music appear here every year during the brief five-concert Sunday season in September and October: The Emerson Quartet, The Brentano Quartet, on this particular Sunday afternoon it was The American String Quartet playing Mozart and Schumann, with world-renowned Richard Stoltzman on clarinet, and the venerable Menahem Pressler on piano. If you are at all a chamber music devotée, you know that these are names to conjure with.

South Mountain is in its 91st season. Liz Coolidge founded it in 1918, and that was eventually the origin (through more twists and turns than I can narrate here) of the mighty Tanglewood Music Festival, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and 500-pound gorilla of both the Berkshires and of the summer music world.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge founded many other chamber music institutions in many other places, in New Haven, Connecticut, and in Washington, D.C., for two. She was an enormously energetic woman, intense and single-minded. Despite the rather mournful picture here, she loved musical parties, which she called “musical jollifications.” Like Julia Child, she stood over 6 feet 3 inches tall and was a majestic presence, in later years compared to a dreadnought.

Thanks in part to her, in the Berkshires the hills are indeed alive with the Sound of Music! An ironic footnote: like Beethoven, by the time she was in her 60’s she was profoundly deaf, but attended every concert nonetheless. She died in 1953. You will find a great deal of information and many stories about Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge on the Internet. One story you won’t find is about how her son, Albert, wanted a mountain, and how she gave one to him. That story is only a tale from the Berkshire mountains themselves, but to my mind, it is the most beautiful tale of all.

Plaque in South Mountain Concert Hall

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27 Responses to He Wanted a Mountain, So —

  1. What a beautiful, and unknown to me, story! Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Rebekah says:

    What an amazing story, about the son wanting a mountain and she gave it to him! I’d never heard about any of this before, but I do recognize the name Coolidge.

    She sure must have had lots of energy!

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      I thought it an odd coincidence that her name was Coolidge, because Calvin Coolidge, “Silent Cal”, the 30th president of the US, was a prominent citizen of Northampton, and we drive across the Connecticut River on the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Bridge almost every day. But it was her physician-husband whose surname was Coolidge, and so far as I know, there is no connection between the families.

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  3. pauline says:

    A mother’s love can move (and apparently buy) mountains. I’ve lived here most of my life and did not know this story. Thanks for opening my eyes to a bit more of the wonderful culture of this area!

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      I can’t remember now where I heard the story of the mountain, or from whom — but it’s a wonderful one. As the Italian proverb has it, Si non e vero, e ben trovato. Roughly translated, If it isn’t true, it ought to be.
      All the information about Liz Coolidge is indeed true, she was an amazing person and ought to be better known and remembered.

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  4. mybrightlife says:

    Jollifications! What a splendid word. I have always associated chamber music with old England, which I guess is not far off, considering the historical background of your area, but still…steeped in your hills and history, legends live on. Lovely read. Thanks!

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  5. Wow, what a legacy – including Tanglewood! She seems to be one of those rare, amazing people who create more in a lifetime than most of us could ever dream of. (I was going to say ‘achieve’, but people like her do more than notch up achievements).
    I do approve of a musical (or any other kind of) ‘jollification’! And also, your photo of the view through the window is just wonderful – I’d like to blow this up and put it somewhere I could gaze at it indefinitely 🙂
    PS I do hope your Hub is on the mend.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      First things first, reply to PS — just this minute back from MD who has cleared Hub for return to normal activities, including treadmill and weights. Hurrah!

      Yes, even if she weren’t so tall, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge was a figure larger than life. Like Julia Child — shows the power of a strong mind and will, imagination and determination, and a passion for something so burning that it must be shared. I admire such people immensely.
      Speaking of imagine — imagine sitting in the South Mountain concert hall listening to glorious chamber music and gazing at that view — tremendous!

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  6. 2e0mca says:

    Some very special names there Judith and a fascinating tale of how the concerts were set up 🙂

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Martin. It’s a special place, and she was clearly a very special woman.

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      • 2e0mca says:

        She was – I’ve read about her before 🙂
        May I recommend one of my favourite female violinists to you… Iona Brown…
        you can hear her in action here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPbuNXbJUwA (but not as good as the real thing)…

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        • Touch2Touch says:

          This is the realm of extraordinary coincidences —
          When your email arrived, I was just reading an old small (1941) book by Rumer Godden set in London in which one of the main characters is named Lark — the daughter of musicians and a singer herself — and named after, of course, the Vaughan Williams composition. So I clicked on your link, and — it didn’t work. So I browsed youtube and found another recording of it by Iona Brown, and indeed she is extraordinary.
          (Frank just came in and I was telling him this tale unfolding, and he said Iona Brown! Of course! So there you have it.) To continue —
          The Lark Ascending features powerfully in one of the best books about music I have ever read, Vikram Seth’s novel An Equal Music. If you haven’t read it — I heartily recommend it, although you may not like long novels. Anyway, it can be accompanied by a two disc selection of ALL the chamber music featured in the book (has to be bought separately). I don’t know which I love more, the book or the CD’s. Anyway, capping the story perfectly, I looked again at the CD to see who was playing The Lark Ascending, and it is — of course — Iona Brown.

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  7. 2e0mca says:

    ps – I’ve noted Vikram Seth.. Will waving him though the Kindle very soon 🙂

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  8. I loved Vikram Seth’s Equal Music, and feel the same as you about the music on the CD! Thanks for reminding me of this, Judith – I’m now about to start a day of work from home with this playing in the background :))

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      There’s nothing like the conversation — the possibilities are awesome! I think I’ll listen to the CD myself tonight.
      The Schubert Trout Quintet makes me swoon with joy —

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  9. Patti Kuche says:

    I forgot what I was going to say!
    Reading through the comments led me to memories of Lark Ascending and singing the words set to the music of the Trout Quintet when I was a child at school. Music provides such a special companionship and I am so in awe of ESC’s energy and the wonderful legacy she left behind.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      To be a musician, or an active lover of music like ESC, has long struck me as partaking of an extraordinary way of life. Not to mention the obvious, the gift such people are to the rest of us!
      I never knew of words set to the Trout Quintet, which I heard for the first only during the past 10 years or so, when I encountered it in Vikram Seth’s book and the accompanying CD.

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  10. And now you have brought the mountain (story) to us. What a wonderful tale – I did not know any of this, and am delighted I now do!

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