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Whittall Pavilion at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is home to a collection of rare instruments that include the Whittall Stradivari strings. These instruments are housed in the library’s Whittall Pavilion, named after the philanthropist Gertrude Clarke Whittall, who donated the pavilion, autograph musical manuscripts and correspondence, and instruments to the library. It was Whittall’s desire that the instruments be played by accomplished musicians so that they could be enjoyed by the public.

This collection of instruments I held in trust for a short time. Now they belong to every one of you. . . . If the appreciation and enjoyment of the music in America will be advanced thereby, the purpose of my gift will have been fulfilled.

Gertrude Clarke Whittall

Born on October 7, 1867, Gertrude Littlefield Clarke grew up in Bellevue, Nebraska. As a child, Gertrude Clarke was exposed to the community involvement of her father, Henry Tefft Clarke, who planned and built a bridge across one of Nebraska’s rivers, established a mail system for the mountain districts, and built the first north-south railway system west of the Missouri River. He was also a generous donor to Omaha’s Fairview University.Carolyn Homan Lesinski, “Unsung Heroines: Women Patrons and the Development of Modernism in America,” (MA thesis, American University, 1992), 46–47. Whittall attended boarding school, where she explored her interests in the arts and humanities, specifically music, art, and literature, and learned Spanish and French during her travels in Europe and South America.Lesinski, “Unsung Heroines,” 48.

On June 4, 1906, Gertrude Clarke married the British rug manufacturer Matthew John Whittall.Lesinski, “Unsung Heroines,” 48. The couple lived on a Georgian-style estate in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, and there, at a 1908 performance of the Flonzaley String Quartet, Gertrude Whittall first developed a love for chamber music. After her husband’s death in 1922, Gertrude Whittall moved to Boston where she lived for twelve years until moving to Washington, D.C., in 1934.Lesinski, “Unsung Heroines,” 49–50.

Collecting the Stradivari Strings

Gertrude Whittall became well known in Washington, D.C., for the musical performances she hosted in her home. Performances by string quartets sparked her desire to obtain a set of high-quality antique stringed instruments. With the help of the violinist Louis Krasner, in 1935, she acquired two violins, a viola, and a violoncello, all made by the famed Italian instrument maker, Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737).“The Collections of Musical Instruments,” Library of Congress, November 15, 2010, https://www.loc.gov/rr/perform/guide/instru.html. His instruments were highly regarded and sought after for their perceived superior tone quality and craftsmanship.Horace Petherick, Antonio Stradivari (London: “The Strad” Office, 1900), available online at https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/14279444.

The oldest of Whittall’s strings is the 1697 “Castelbarco” violoncello, acquired in an excellent state of preservation, practically free from restoration. The youngest is the 1727 “Cassavetti” viola. The two violins are the 1699 “Castelbarco” and the 1704 “Betts.”William Dana Orcutt, The Stradivari Memorial at Washington, the National Capital (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation, 1938), 23. In 1937, Whittall acquired and donated a third Stradivari violin, the 1700 “Ward.”

Whittall Laura Hills, Painting of Gertrude Whittall Clarke. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Whittall later described the five strings in a poetic fashion:

The three violins are as different as human beings. They have strong personality: the “Betts” is of royalty; it is outstanding in beauty and perfection, and, as Walt Whitman once said of Mt. Shasta, “Alone as God.” The “Castelbarco” is feminine. The “Ward” is sophisticated—it lived long in London and knows so many things. The “Cassavetti” is marvelous. A viola, when played by a great artist, can wring your heart. It can express secret thoughts that you have felt and never could put into words. It can say unsayable things. As for the “Castelbarco” ’cello, any artist who has once drawn his bow across its strings will be haunted forever by its unforgettable tone. When all the strings are playing together the ensemble is like a heavenly choir, for they all speak the same language.”Orcutt, Stradivari Memorial, 23.

Whittall also collected five Tourte bows. Considered the best bow maker of his time, the Parisian François Tourte (1737–1835) earned the nickname the “Stradivari of the bow.” His use of Pernambuco wood from Brazil created a bow that was lightweight yet suitably stiff.Orcutt, Stradivari Memorial, 47.

The Whittall Stradivari strings (l. to r.): 1704 “Betts,” 1700 “Ward,” and 1699 “Castelbarco” violins; 1727 “Cassavetti” viola; and 1687 “Castelbarco” violincello. Composite photograph from William Dana Orcutt, “The Stradivari Memorial at Washington, the National Capital” (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1938), 18, 32, 36, 40, and 44.

The Whittall Pavilion at the Library of Congress

In 1925, a decade before Whittall’s 1935 donation of the original quartet of Stradivari strings, the philanthropist Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge had sponsored the construction of the Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress.The Library of Congress’s Music Division had been established in 1896. Whittall often attended concerts in the Coolidge Auditorium, which prompted her to consider the Library of Congress as a suitable keeper of her Stradivari strings.Orcutt, Stradivari Memorial, 19. Whittall donated the strings to the Library of Congress, as opposed to a museum, so that they could be actively enjoyed by musicians and the public, rather than being kept locked up in display cases. She believed that “in no other way could they be heard and kept alive.”Gertrude Clarke Whittall to Mr. MacDowell, Washington, D.C., October 17, 1937. Whittall, Gertrude Clarke, Music Division Old Correspondence, Library of Congress. During a radio broadcast she explained:

This collection of instruments I held in trust for a short time. Now they belong to every one of you, for they are given to our Government to hold and protect forever. In presenting these instruments to the Library of Congress, it is my aim to give to the people of this country an opportunity to see and hear these rare Stradivari. They may be viewed at the Library of Congress by any one who wishes to do so. 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 the music in America will be advanced thereby, the purpose of my gift will have been fulfilled.Orcutt, Stradivari Memorial, 23.

Along with the strings and Tourte bows, Whittall purchased and donated to the library original autograph musical manuscripts and correspondence by composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Berg, Brahms, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Mozart, Schoenberg, Schubert, and Wagner. The collection of Brahms manuscripts is considered the best in the world.Nicolas Slonimsky, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 7th ed. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), 2491. In 1936, she also established the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation at the Library of Congress to facilitate the acquisition of additional musical manuscripts and to promote concerts with the Stradivari strings. Whittall was a “proponent of free access for the public to the arts and literature,” and it was her desire that the foundation would allow the concerts to be attended by the public free of charge.Lesinski, “Unsung Heroines,” 6. The foundation also supported the 1938 construction of the Whittall Pavilion, to the side of the Coolidge Auditorium, to house the strings and Tourte bows and additional gifts of rare instruments.

Whittall Pavilion 1950 Reception in Whittall Pavilion for Sesquicentennial 1950. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Whittall stipulated in her bequest that the strings were never to leave the library. (One rare exception may have been made on December 18, 1937, the two-hundredth anniversary of Stradivari’s death, when Whittall gave permission for the strings to be played at Washington’s Constitution Hall, where a larger audience could be accommodated than in the Coolidge Auditorium.Anonymous undated letter. Whittall, Gertrude Clarke, Music Division Old Correspondence, Library of Congress.) However, since the strings could not leave the library, musicians found it difficult to get comfortable with them before performing a concert. For that reason, the Music Division engaged a resident string quartet at the library. The first was the Budapest String Quartet in 1940, followed by the Juilliard String Quartet in 1962.“Gertrude Clarke Whittall,” Library of Congress, accessed January 16, 2018, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200152689. In 2003, the library disbanded the resident quartet program and began to invite a more diverse range of musicians to play the Stradivari strings.Erin Shrader, “An Act of Congress,” Strings 26, no. 4 (2011): 45–49.

Continuing the Legacy

In addition to the foundation, Whittall established the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Fund in 1950 at the Library of Congress to promote the appreciation of poetry, literature, and drama. A poetry room was dedicated in the library on April 23, 1951, on the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. Today, the fund allows the library to host lectures, poetry readings, and other literary events.“Portrait of Gertrude Clarke Whittall,” Library of Congress, accessed January 16, 2018, http://www.loc.gov/poetry/poetryroom/2a-portraitwhittall.html.

Gertrude Whittall’s gift of her collection of Stradivari strings and her stipulation that they be played and enjoyed initiated other gifts of rare musical instruments to the Music Division of the Library of Congress. Whittall’s Stradivari were soon joined by five stringed instruments from the collection of Henry Blakiston Wilkins. In 1938, Mrs. Robert Somers Brookings gave the Music Division a 1654 Nicolò Amati violin, which her husband had acquired on the advice of the famous violinist Joseph Joachim. In 1941, the library received a large collection of flutes and other wind instruments from Dayton C. Miller. His gift stipulated that the collection be preserved intact to best illustrate the history of the flute. Other important instruments at the Music Division include the violinist Fritz Kreisler’s 1952 gift of the “Kreisler” Guarneri violin (ca. 1730), made by Giuseppe Guarneri; Mrs. Cameron Baird’s 1967 loan of the Stradivari “Tuscan-Medici” viola (1690); and the violinist/conductor Szymon Goldberg’s Guaneri “Baron Vitta” violin, (ca. 1730), donated to the library in 2007 by his widow, the pianist Miyoko Yamane. The “Baron Vitta” and the “Kreisler” are “twin” violins, both having been made of wood from the same tree. These instruments are all housed in the Whittall Pavilion.“About This Collection,” Library of Congress, accessed February 23, 2018, https://www.loc.gov/collections/musical-instruments-at-the-library-of-congress/about-this-collection.

Profile by Diana Gerberich, 2018 Wintersession student, and Faye Yan Zhang, 2017–2018 Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellow.