By KEVIN LAVINE
The Library of Congress Music Division is fortunate to have enjoyed a long tradition of patronage from several far-sighted individuals whose bequests continue to complement the division's activities and collections. Among these individuals are Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953) and Gertrude Clarke Whittall (1867-1965), two extraordinary American women whose generosity toward the Library's Music Division has had a profound influence on the history of music in the United States and laid the cornerstone for all subsequent musical philanthropy in the Library.
The unprecedented gift in 1925 by Mrs. Coolidge provided for the construction of a chamber music hall (the Coolidge Auditorium) at the Library of Congress, the commissioning of new musical works and the establishment of a free public concert series.
Following the standards set by Mrs. Coolidge's generosity, in the mid 1930s Mrs. Whittall donated five stringed instruments to the Library made by famed Cremonese master Antonio Stradivari: the "Castelbarco" cello (1697), the "Cassavetti" viola (1727) and three violins, the "Ward" (1700), the "Castelbarco" (1699) and the "Betts" (1704), all named for former owners. (A gift of five bows by distinguished French bowmaker François Tourte accompanied these instruments).
Mrs. Whittall's choice of a library to receive these instruments, not a museum, assured that the instruments would not become mere relics, but would be played from time to time as they were intended. To that end, she established the Whittall Foundation, an endowment to maintain these instruments through their use in Library concerts. The endowment also provided for the construction of a climate-controlled Stradivari sanctuary adjoining the Coolidge Auditorium to house these instruments. Known as the Whittall Pavilion, the room was designed with furnishings from Mrs. Whittall's home along with other custom-made furniture specifically purchased for it and ornamented by iron grillwork with a violin motif. Completed in 1939, it was formally introduced to the public with a concert of violin and piano sonatas performed by Adolph Busch and Rudolph Serkin.
Of the five Stradivari instruments collectively known as the Cremonese Collection, perhaps none is held in higher esteem than the "Betts" violin. Created in 1704 by master violin maker Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), the Betts violin dates from the Stradivari's so-called "Golden Period" (1700-24), when the master's artistry, skill and innovations in construction and design are universally acknowledged to have attained their highest level of refinement. In addition to his astonishing accomplishments, unsurpassed even after three centuries, Stradivari's technical innovations endowed the violin with an unprecedented flexibility and agility that allowed it to adapt to new musical styles, thereby leading to the creation of a performance tradition and body of music repertoire for the instrument, and assuring its survival for more than three centuries.
Referring to the Cremonese Collection in her first and only radio broadcast, on Dec. 18, 1937, at a series of chamber concerts presented to commemorate the bicentennial of Stradivari's death, Mrs. Whittall said, "This collection of instruments … belong to every one of you, for they are given to our government to hold and protect forever. … They may be heard in concerts held in the Library, and through the medium of the radio, by an even larger audience. If the appreciation and enjoyment of music in America will be advanced thereby, the purpose of my gift will have been fulfilled."
Kevin LaVine is a senior music specialist and reference librarian in the Library's Music Division. Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, the Library's curator of musical instruments, contributed to this story.