Chamber music in America

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

It is said that a certain bishop always raises his hat to a magpie. This may have been out of respect for the bird’s loquacity; but my respects are more freely paid, on the principle of two blades of grass for one, to the man who procures two performances of real music when previously we had only one. Such a man is John Christie of Glyndbourne Opera, who has single handed achieved European success and fame. Few men, even when they have had the means and opportunity, have done so well in the realm of opera1.

In America lives a lady who also has by her successful festivals of chamber music gained fame among the nations. I refer to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who in 1918 initiated the Berkshire Festivals of Chamber Music at her home on South Mountain, Pittsfield, Mass. A brochure recently issued reproduces a plaque bust of Mrs Coolidge bearing the legend ‘The fairy godmother of chamber music’. Being a classicist she might have said that nothing but classical music would be performed; on the other hand, she may have been influenced by the piles of chamber music lying unheeded. But she decided on a just balance between the old and the new, and sought to encourage composers by chamber music competitions.

At the first festival (in 1918), five sessions were given, including performances of the first and second winning compositions; one performance was devoted to chamber music for wind instruments by French composers. This policy of the open door has continued, and every school is welcome. The festivals have brought forward many interesting works; and at the second festival Ernest Bloch won the prize with a suite for violin and piano, and the second prize went to Rebecca Clarke for a sonata for viola and piano. And there was some gallantry shown, for the second prize piece was played at the first concert.

At this second festival, two works by English composers had their first performance in America, — Elgar’s quartet in E minor and Vaughan Williams’s song cycle On Wenlock Edge (which had its first performance at the Musical League Festival held at Liverpool ten years previously). A later English prize winner has been H Waldo Warner (1921), and Rebecca Clarke and Eugene Goossens were commissioned to compose new works for the festival of 1923.

During the life of these festivals, first performances there have included works by the English composers, Frank Bridge, Rebecca Clarke, Eugene Goossens, Cyril B Rootham, and H Waldo Warner; and first American performances have included the music of Arnold Bax, Frank Bridge, Benjamin Dale and Edward Elgar.

Mrs Coolidge appears to have explored every type of chamber music, instrumental and vocal. How many people know Beethoven’s Scotch and Irish songs? They include The soldier, The pulse of an Irishman, Sally in our alley, Enchantress, farewell, Bonnie laddie, Highland laddie, and Charlie is my darling. These were so successful at the festival of 1927 that they were repeated last year. Of course, it is frankly admitted that the prize winner has only one performance of his work; but nevertheless, competing composers are stimulated to do their best, and their response to the opportunity is so loyal that thirty nine of them, well known in their art, dedicated their essays to Mrs Coolidge.

  1. Christie inherited the Glyndebourne estate, and put it at the service of opera in 1934. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, January 1939, pp. 198–299