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Historic priorities of the Aspen Music Festival

Original Music Festival tent. Photo by Fritz Kaeser/Aspen Historical Society

The recent announcement that the Aspen Music Festival will cancel the Philharmonic Orchestra (student orchestra) concerts and reduce its student numbers by 80 is comparable to Aspen Skiing Co. announcing Ajax Express will not be operating next season. Housing challenges were given as a culprit. This could also be described as a COVID casualty or the inevitable climaxing chapter of years of runaway real estate prices.

Since I have not seen a single letter to the editor about this devastating development, I suggest it is also a casualty of lack of community concern for what has previously been Aspen’s most treasured cultural institution. My columns are “history”; indulge me for chronicling history this week with a pointed conclusion.

The Goethe Bicentennial Convocation, the beginning of the Aspen Institute, included a series of music concerts, mostly of chamber music and several concerts by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Ticket sales/attendance for the music concerts of the Goethe Bicentennial suggested great public interest. The following year, 1950, Walter Paepcke, made music concerts a major component of the Institute’s summer events, including some with the Denver Symphony.



Planning for the 1951 summer, musicians who had enjoyed their 1950 summer in Aspen pitched the idea of having a larger program. They would bring their students and have a music school, the students with their instructors would form a festival orchestra. Paepcke liked the idea and agreed to make it part of the Institute’s program, creating the Aspen Music School.

Longtime Festival musicians including Albert Tipton, Brooks Smith, Roman Totenberg, Mack Harrel, Reginald Kell and Stuart Sankey began their Aspen tenure. Pianist Rudolf Firkusny was a featured artist that summer and he headed piano instruction. Joseph Rosenstock, longtime conductor of the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, was Festival conductor. The first operas were staged in 1952, but at the amphitheater. An interesting note: local childrens’ book illustrator Garth Williams, a local at that time, created the scenery. Tipton initiated and conducted a student orchestra beginning in 1953.




The Music School and size of the nine-week music festival grew in 1953 and 1954, as did the financial commitment. There are a variety of explanations of what unfolded next. One is that Paepcke had envisioned mostly chamber music concerts as the component of the Institute’s summer program and did not want to continue subsidizing the Music School. The musicians were pushing for a bigger program and school. Paepcke announced he would no longer finance it.

The musicians organized. Part-time Aspen resident Courtland Barnes, a major arts contributor, agreed to negotiate with Paepcke. Paepcke agreed to allow the founding of a new music festival and agreed to allow it to use the amphitheater and the facilities that had housed the students (in the Aspen Block). The Aspen community joined the effort beginning with an event in November 1954, raising $460,000, in today’s dollars, to “make the festival permanent.”

The Aspen Music School and the Music Associates of Aspen Inc. formed. There were two important aspects: a majority of the board would be musicians and the music school would be a major component. The 1955 season attracted around 200 students and included the Festival Orchestra that mixed students with faculty. Hans Schwieger from the Kansas City Symphony took over as conductor. Over the next decade, the Aspen Music School quadrupled the number of students and the student orchestra concerts moved from Fridays to Wednesdays. The student orchestra was renamed the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra.

Editorial: Arranging housing for faculty, students and staff for the Festival has always required organization, effort and community help, and the Festival has worked to secure housing it can count on each summer. For many years, some of the family-owned hotels/motels housed students and staff and many locals rented their apartments and houses at reasonable rates; their way of supporting the Festival. The Mountain Chalet was one of the most important because it also provided a cafeteria. The cost of housing has always been challenging for students, and a few survived by camping. Like every institution and business, the need for affordable housing has not kept up with the changing ownership and competing profit incentives of contemporary Aspen.

The vision of the founders of the Music Associates of Aspen made the Music School the foundation of the Festival. One can hope the Philharmonic Orchestra will return next season and student enrollment numbers reestablished. Like many questions about a changing Aspen, should the Festival cater primarily to an affluent audience? That is not what the founders envisioned. Where is the Aspen community in this time of crisis?

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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