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Music at Dumbarton Oaks: The Performers

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 13:43 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink
Many famous or soon-to-be famous musicians performed at Dumbarton Oaks over the years, and several have reminisced fondly about their concertizing there, in both the residential and institutional periods.

In 1945, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, the founders of Dumbarton Oaks, joined with director John Thacher and six Washingtonians interested in chamber music to explore the formation of an organization that would assure the continuation of musical concerts at Dumbar­ton Oaks. That year, Dumbarton Oaks offered a festival of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music, the success of which led directly to the 1946 inauguration of the Friends of Music at Dumbarton Oaks. According to John Thacher, the new organization’s mandate was to add to Washington’s musical repertoire without competing with other musical organizations or duplicating their programs; to encour­age the participation of serious lovers of chamber music; and to present music in a setting—the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room—reminiscent of that for which the music was originally composed.

Many famous or soon-to-be famous musicians performed at Dumbarton Oaks over the years, and several have reminisced fondly about their concertizing there, in both the residential and institutional periods. Among them is the keyboard instrumentalist, Ralph Kirkpatrick, who wrote:

In the spring of 1934, I was invited by Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss to play in her beautiful music room at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington. As it later turned out, this was to be but the first of more than 50 concerts in which I participated in that same room between 1944 and 1979. In a letter of 23 April 1934, I included an account of this little concert, [telling Mrs. Bliss] “. . . there were a few gratified members of my audience who really caught and admired real musical value and who really meant something when they talked of transcendent beauty.”

—Ralph Kirkpatrick, “On Playing the Clavichord,” Early Music 9, no. 3 (July, 1981), 299.

Francis Poulenc and Pierre Bernac
Francis Poulenc and Pierre Bernac

From its inception, concerts offered by the Friends of Music at Dumbarton Oaks were remarkable. Major works, such as Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise, and world-renown artists, such as Karl Münchinger and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, quickly established a tradition of programming of the highest caliber. Using chamber orchestra forces, the Friends offered, for example, Mozart’s symphonies and violin and piano concertos. In 1949, the composer Benjamin Britten accompanied tenor Peter Pears in a concert of Britten, Purcell, and Mahler songs. The composer and pianist Francis Poulenc made his American debut at Dumbarton Oaks in 1948 and returned in 1952 for a concert with Pierre Bernac where they premiered Samuel Barber’s Mélodies Passagères. This song cycle, set to the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, had been commissioned for Dumbarton Oaks by William Strickland.

The Friends also sponsored early appearances of soon-to-be internationally famous artists such as Leontyne Price (1957) and Joan Sutherland (1961), both appearing at Dumbarton Oaks before their acclaimed debuts at the Metropolitan Opera. And, notably, the Friends endeavored to offer concert performances of then little-heard works, such as Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1953) and Handel’s Julius Caesar (1957), all in an effort to broaden the musical programming of Washington.

Occasionally, recordings resulted from the Friends of Music programming. This was especially true between 1947 and 1952 when pick-up orchestras were assembled at Dumbarton Oaks, and they rehearsed with famous conductors and soloists. On at least three occasions, recordings were made featuring what was called the Dumbarton Oaks Chamber Orchestra. Although it is unlikely that the instrumentalists remained the same on all three recordings, it is certain that the recordings resulted from concerts given in the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room that were then recorded within the week for posterity. The three vintage recordings that resulted from Dumbarton Oaks concerts are:

  • Igor Stravinsky, Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, conducted by Igor Stravinsky (1947);
  • Samuel Barber, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, with Eleanor Steber, soprano, conducted by William Strickland (1951); and
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Concerto no. 17 in G, with Ralph Kirkpatrick, piano, and Violin Concerto no. 4 in D, with Alexander Schneider, violin, conducted by Alexander Schneider (1952).