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The Friends of Music

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 15:35 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

Pianist Jens Elvekjaer playing in the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room, Friends of Music concert, January 12, 2009.

Although Dumbarton Oaks had offered periodic musical recitals during its first years while the Second World War raged, it was only when peace was reestablished in 1945 that the institution could contemplate the creation of a permanent subscription series. Designing a suitable music program for Dumbarton Oaks raised several challenges. For one, although director John Thacher had an interest in music, he was, in his own words, “neither a musician nor a musicologist,” and did not have the understanding of music necessary to conceptualize much of the program. Washington, D.C., also already boasted a plethora of musical offerings—including the Friends of Music of the Library of Congress, to which the Blisses were subscribers—and this required that Dumbarton Oaks find its own niche in the city’s existing music programming.

In the end, Thacher determined that a subscription-based series of chamber concerts would be the most suitable option for musical offerings at Dumbarton Oaks. He felt that Washingtonians “would not appreciate concerts which were free as much as concerts for which they shared the responsibility for success.” In December 1945, a trial series of five concerts were held in the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room, paid for by the generosity of seven anonymous donors. These concerts proved to be the precursor to the Friends of Music at Dumbarton Oaks, which was inaugurated the following year.

Ralph Kirkpatrick and Alexander Schneider in the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room, 1945
Ralph Kirkpatrick and Alexander Schneider in the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room, 1945

Under the guidance of a group of individuals enthusiastic about the inception of the Friends of Music at Dumbarton Oaks, the general course of the musical programming was charted. Works from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries were to be preferred, since the Library of Congress series tended to favor compositions of the nineteenth century. However, by 1947 works by Beethoven and Schubert were being performed. American music was to be included whenever possible, as it was felt that American music was underrepresented in Washington. Furthermore, young composers were to be supported through the occasional commissioning of new works for concerts.

Friends of Music Concert "A Program of Music by Young American Composers," February 7, 1940
Friends of Music Concert, A Program of Music by Young American Composers, February 7, 1947

In the autumn of 1946, the Friends of Music at Dumbarton Oaks was officially founded, with nearly $10,000 raised in subscriptions during its pilot year. The Blisses worked closely with Thacher during this formative period, providing their support and advice as necessary to promote the success of the program. The inaugural concerts, held on December 14 and 15, 1946, were “Two Recitals of 17th and 18th Century Music,” with mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel, violinist Alexander Schneider, harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, and cellist Daniel Saidenberg. The next concert, on February 7, 1947, featured soprano Nan Merriman in a “Concert of Music by Young American Composers” conducted by William Strickland. The composers chosen for this avant-garde concert were William Bergsma, Charles Bryan, Edmund Haines, Homer Keller, Robert Palmer, William Strickland, and Robert Ward. In planning for these concerts, John Thacher had written Mildred Bliss:

Speaking of music, I thought we might have the first “Friends” concerts on the fourteenth and fifteenth of December. I was so much impressed by the singing of Jennie Tourel at Williamsburg last spring that I am making arrangements for her to sing at that time with [Alexander] Schneider and [Ralph] Kirkpatrick and a small chamber orchestra. Then it seems to me that it might be interesting, among other possibilities, to have one concert devoted to the works of contemporary, but apparently unknown, American composers. Bill Strickland, whom you may know, has been most successful in conducting these works, and from all I hear the musical festival at Wellesley last spring, in which he played a prominent part, was outstanding. I am sure that he would welcome an opportunity to arrange such a festival for us.

In her Town Talk column, Eva Hinton commented on the initial offerings of the Friends of Music program: “The first two concerts of the ‘Friends of Music’ subscription series at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks were acclaimed two of the loveliest concerts ever to be heard in Washington.”

Letter from soprano Leontyne Price to John Thacher after her Friends of Music concert at Dumbarton Oaks on March 9, 1961
Letter from soprano Leontyne Price to John Thacher after her Friends of Music concert at Dumbarton Oaks on March 9, 1961

After the success of the first season, the Friends of Music at Dumbarton Oaks, according to Thacher, “simply grew and evolved along lines which reflected the desire that the impact of the music upon the audience be felt as deeply as possible.” He cautioned that the programming “should not play down to an audience” but instead should strive to “offer it only great music produced as perfectly as possible.” Looking back on the history of the program and those involved, Thacher remarked that “over the years the ‘Friends’ became a closely knit group, who I believe felt that the concerts were their own. They spoke up when concerts were not up to standard; they cheered outstanding performances; and they were generous both with their contributions and with their ideas and suggestions.”

The Friends of Music concerts are still strong nearly seventy years after the program’s founding, adding a rich artistic depth to the varied offerings at Dumbarton Oaks. Maintaining the Blisses’ tradition of having music performed in their home, the concerts continue to present some of the most celebrated and promising musicians to Georgetown in the splendor of the Blisses’ former estate.