Highlights of the Music Exhibit, Pt. 2
This post is provided by Anne Marie Creighton, who joins us this year as a research fellow in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.
Having covered the musical material from the main three sections of the Library—Pre-Columbian, Garden and Landscape, and Byzantine—a few days ago, it’s time to turn to the music that the Blisses collected from their contemporaries. Dumbarton Oaks has been associated with music ever since the Blisses’ day (I doubt I will ever again work in a place after which Stravinsky named a concerto!), a tradition that carries on through our annual concert series and in which this exhibit takes part.
The association between music and Dumbarton Oaks originated with Mildred Bliss, a lifelong lover of music. Because Mildred Bliss was well-connected with the French music scene, Dumbarton Oaks possesses some interesting scores from the early twentieth century, which are housed both in the Rare Book Collection and in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives. These include a handwritten fanfare by Francis Poulenc, as well as several pieces dedicated to Mildred Bliss herself.
The piece we displayed from Francis Poulenc, often listed among the greatest French composers of the twentieth century, was a playful one, a birthday present. Written in 1957 for the seventieth birthday of Nadia Boulanger, it runs “Vive Nadia, la chère Nadia Boulanger, la très chère Nadia. Alleluia.”
Nadia Boulanger then gave it to the Blisses, adding the inscription on the bottom that runs, “ma chèrie Mildred, à mon chèr Robert mes amis incomparables que j’aime de tout mon coeur, Nadia, 16 septembre 1957.”
This sheet of paper involves some interesting characters from early twentieth century musical history. Poulenc wrote it late in his life, in the same decade that he wrote some of the religious choral compositions that continue to be among his most-performed works. Nadia Boulanger, for whom he wrote it, was a noteworthy figure in her own right—as a piano teacher, she influenced a number of famous musicians and composers, and she was one of the first prominent female conductors. This birthday present, given twice, reflects the long friendships between Boulanger and Poulenc and between Boulanger and the Blisses. The latter relationship is significant, among other reasons, because it was Nadia Boulanger through whom the Blisses commissioned the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto from Stravinsky, and it was she who conducted the premiere at Dumbarton Oaks when Stravinsky proved too ill to travel.
The other piece of music I will highlight today, given to Mildred Bliss by the composer and conductor Ernest Schelling, comes from much earlier in her life. This piece of music, for which we still have the original envelope, is engaging because of the significance it holds to the Blisses’ personal lives.
The first page of the music is inscribed “Intermezzo for the organ, by Ernest Schelling,” and “For Miss Mildred Barnes, 4/14/1908.” The envelope is addressed to “Mr. Helstein [?], Organist of Grace Church, Broadway + 9th St, New York,” and is marked “Please deliver at once, Important.” This is significant because that very day, on April 14, 1908, Mildred and Robert Bliss were married in Grace Church, New York. I do not know whether this piece of music made it to the church in time to be performed—if Schelling mailed it on April 14, it seems unlikely, but perhaps he dated the interior with her wedding date and not the date he sent it. With this, however, we can see Mildred’s association with music when she was still in her twenties, and one of her (perhaps belated) wedding gifts.