STOCKBRIDGE — If you ask which was the first music venue in the Berkshires, the answer probably would be: the Tanglewood Music Festival.
However, the South Mountain Music Association is 98 years old and was established almost 20 years before Tanglewood. Pittsfield resident Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953) founded the association in 1918. However, an argument could be made that 2016 is its 100th anniversary because Coolidge held concerts in her home on West Street as early as 1916.
In 1916 Coolidge purchased the South Mountain property with the intent of establishing a chamber music festival. On the property, she built a new home, studio, and performance space called the "Temple of Music."
The Temple of Music seated 440 and was specifically designed for chamber music concerts. Built in the Colonial style using timber from an old textile mill, today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Festivals were spread over three consecutive days with morning, afternoon, and evening concerts. In those early years, the concerts were supported wholly by Mrs. Coolidge. She also supported composers and commissioned new works by Copland, Stravinsky and Bartok among others.
W.W. Cobbett, author of Cobbett's "Survey of Chamber Music," described Coolidge as "the fairy godmother of music." Coolidge was a performer in her own right and played piano at concerts into her 80s.
In 1935 the South Mountain Association was incorporated to continue the chamber music concerts and to maintain the concert hall donated to the association by Mr. and Mrs. Albert Sprague Coolidge (Elizabeth Coolidge's son and daughter-in-law).
Enter Gertrude Robinson Smith. Acting upon an idea from Maestro Henry Hadley, Smith created the Berkshire Symphonic Festival. For funding, Smith relied upon her friends, the Berkshire cottagers. Smith relied upon Coolidge for both her money and her experience in founding and operating the South Mountain Association.
Dr. Frederick S. Coolidge was born in Boston in 1865. In November 1891, at the age of 26, he married Elizabeth Penn Sprague, the daughter of a wealthy Chicago wholesale dealer and young woman noted for her musical talent. His health was not good and like many other cottagers, Coolidge believed that the high altitude and clean Berkshire air were restorative.
In 1904, he hired the Pittsfield architectural firm of Harding and Seaver to design their Berkshire cottage at 472 West Street. They named their cottage Upwey Field because in the 17th century, Upwey in Dorset was the home of Elizabeth's ancestor Edward Sprague.
In 1915, Dr. Coolidge died at age 50. The widow soon became an orphan and Coolidge found herself in possession of a large fortune. She gave Upwey Field to Berkshire School for Crippled Children in honor of her husband. To further honor him, she supported medical institutions, but her deepest commitment and largest donations were to present and promote chamber music.
The Berkshire Symphonic Festival (Tanglewood) started as a joint effort between Smith and Coolidge. Each saw the other's musical venue as complementary. Coolidge was as much a grand dame as Smith, and she insisted the Berkshire Symphonic Festival schedule be complementary as well. That is, Thursday night, Saturday afternoon, and Sunday night because South Mountain concerts were Friday night, Saturday night,and Sunday afternoon.
Tanglewood held to the Coolidge schedule in 1937 and 1938, but in 1939 iy made a new schedule. The popularity of Tanglewood was growing and it became clear that it could attract an even larger audience if its schedule was Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. Patrons arriving by train could travel by an early train Friday, attend all three concerts, and leave by the late train on Sunday. So Tanglewood made a new schedule in direct competition with South Mountain.
Coolidge believed Tanglewood would drive South Mountain out of business and wrote Smith: "The Tanglewood music schedule interferes with us Please let me know if you have any definite suggestions about the rescue of South Mountain and the Temple of Music."
There was no answer to Coolidge's letter so she withdrew her support of Tanglewood. She dedicated more time and money to the Coolidge Foundation and Auditorium at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.
Coolidge's worst fears were not realized. She would be pleased that 98 years later, Berkshire residents and visitors still gather at South Mountain to enjoy chamber music. She would be proud that on Tuesday, Director Lou Steigler traveled to the Alice Tully Hall in Washington D.C. and received the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Award on behalf of South Mountain. It is only the fourth time in its history that this award has been bestowed.
A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.