Judy Waters: Pittsfield trailblazer connected people through music

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LUNENBURG — It's hard to imagine a holiday or community event without music. Music links to all cultures; it stirs emotions and memories. Music training can help with focus and attention.

Pittsfield chamber music pioneer Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge broke barriers with her historic music festivals in 1918 on Pittsfield's South Mountain. For Coolidge, music training provided an "emotional equilibrium" needed to survive the loss of both her husband and parents. "In her Own Style: the Patronage of Elizabeth Coolidge," (University of California) reveals intricate details of her life.

A trailblazer, Elizabeth knew the power of live performance to break down barriers. On the hillside at South Mountain, September 1918, two months before the Nov. 11 World War I armistice, musicians from countries still at war performed, as Coolidge stated, "in peace and enjoyment, the representatives of nations still in deadly combat." A "Musical League of Nations," published online at Library of Congress, sheds light on the historic 1918 Pittsfield festival hosting musicians from Italy, Austria, Hungary and France.

From a wealthy Chicago family, Coolidge founded the Berkshire String Quartet in 1916; she revealed in 1951 (in a paper to the Mother's Club, Cambridge) that her Pittsfield chamber group was at first a "curiosity" to neighbors who listened. An accomplished pianist who lived on West. Street in Pittsfield, Elizabeth would also found the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress.


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As World War II approached, Coolidge supported rising violinist Alexander Schneider. From a Jewish Lithuanian family, Schneider left Europe in 1938 at age 30 to escape threats of fascism. With help from Coolidge, the violinist performed for free in New York's Washington Square, as detailed in Nat Brandt's history "Con Brio: Four Russians Called the Budapest String Quartet."

Performing On New Year's Eve at New York's Kennedy Center, the virtuoso Schneider was passionate about reaching others through live performance and said it was cellist Pablo Casals and patron Elizabeth Coolidge, a longtime mentor, who had helped to shape his decisions both "musically and as a human being." Schneider, who became a U.S. citizen, traveled to Pittsfield to visit with Coolidge.

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Elizabeth's earlier arts patronage in Pittsfield from 1916 to 1925 helped to spark a Berkshire tradition. The "Pittsfield Music Festivals" were a new change, a re-awakening of culture, according to historian Van Brooks, in "New England: Indian Summer." Prior to Tanglewood's historic beginnings, in which Coolidge played a role, and the 1940 emergence of Pittsfield Community Music School (today Berkshire Music School), Elizabeth ignited the region with her cultural optimism.

Today in Pittsfield and other Gateway cities across the state, downtown streets are highlighting inclusive cultural experience as part of economic revitalization. In public parks, along previously neglected river fronts, live music, dance, theater and public art are slowly re-energizing once declining business districts, bolstered by state collaborative grants.


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Throughout 2019, live performance at Pittsfield's First Street Common and live listening on North Street continued Pittsfield's strong, historic arts legacy. According to recent research, listening to live music is a social experience which affects areas of the brain connected to trust and empathy. A new music academy in the town of Adams ("In an empty church in Adams, this group plans to teach children to play music," Eagle, Dec. 7) and the opening of the year-round Tanglewood Learning Institute also bring optimism to the cultural landscape in 2020.

Culture has potential to help lift us out of divisiveness and connect us to a shared humanity. As the country enters 2020, democracy is being challenged and intolerance is high. Elizabeth Coolidge helped set the stage for discovering harmony in a world of conflict. "The survival of the human spirit largely depends on its artistic freedoms..." said Coolidge. Though hers was a different world, the potential of art remains alive in our era of income inequality, climate change, and political conflict; that potential also connects to post industrial communities.

Like other visionary local patrons of her era, including Dalton's Zenas Crane, who contributed to the Berkshire Museum, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge played a key early role in Berkshire cultural heritage; her contributions to Pittsfield included a hospital and a school. The South Mountain Concerts continue and the Coolidge Hill Foundation remains today in Berkshire County.

Judy Waters is a Pittsfield native and former Richmond resident.


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