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.
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.