George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children

Of the eleven new commissions premiered at the Fourteenth Festival of Chamber Music in 1970, it was George Crumb’s (b. 1929) Ancient Voices of Children that brought the audience to its feet. Crumb’s musical imagery perfectly evoked the haunting poetry of Federico García Lorca (1898–1936) in a cycle of songs lamenting a lost child. The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, led by founder-director Arthur Weisberg (1931–2009), and vocal soloists mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani (1933–1989) and boy soprano Michael Dash (1958–1995), held listeners spellbound. DeGaetani’s mastery of extended vocal technique gave her command of the most fiendishly difficult contemporary music, and Crumb wrote the work with her in mind. At the premiere’s conclusion the audience rose collectively and began to cheer. The New York Times critic called the piece “a full-blown masterpiece.”

George Crumb. Ancient Voices of Children, 1970. Holograph manuscript. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (047.00.00)

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Fourteenth Festival of Chamber Music Program

Festival program with autographs, 1970. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (053.00.00)

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Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5

When members of the Pro Arte Quartet—a group that Coolidge had championed for many years—suggested commissioning a new work from Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881–1945), she readily took their advice. Written in 1934, in one month, Bartók’s monumental String Quartet No. 5 was the only piece he composed that year aside from some orchestral arrangements of folksongs. It was premiered in the Coolidge Auditorium on April 8, 1935, by the Kolisch Quartet from Vienna. Bartók would later perform as pianist in the Coolidge Auditorium while on tour with violinist Joseph Szigeti (1892–1973) in the spring of 1940. By the end of the year, unstable war-time conditions in Hungary led Bartók and his wife to immigrate to the United States permanently.

Béla Bartók. String Quartet No. 5, 1934. Holograph manuscript. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (046.00.00)

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A Splendid Occasion

Béla Bartók to Elizabeth Coolidge, July 1, 1939. Holograph letter. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (045.00.00)

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Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs

The Hermit Songs of Samuel Barber (1910–1981) were commissioned in 1953 for the annual Founder’s Day concert celebrating Coolidge’s birthday on October 30. Based on anonymous Irish poems from the eighth to twelfth centuries, the song cycle was premiered at a memorable solo song recital featuring soprano Leontyne Price (b. 1927) with the composer at the piano. Price had catapulted to fame for her role as Bess in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, and she was hand-picked by Barber for the occasion. It was one of the most successful Founder’s Day concerts in the history of the series. Suffering from pneumonia, Coolidge was unable to attend. She died days later on November 4, 1953, at age eighty-nine.

Samuel Barber. “At St. Patrick’s Purgatory” from Hermit Songs, 1953. Holograph manuscript. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (044.00.00)

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Leontyne Price Premiers Hermit Songs

Founder’s Day Concert Program with sketches by Prentiss Taylor of Leontyne Price and Samuel Barber premiering the composer’s Hermit Songs, October 30, 1953. Prentiss Taylor Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (043.00.00)

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