The granddaddy of Music Festival conflicts |

The granddaddy of Music Festival conflicts

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Willoughby CollectionThe early Aspen Music Festival featured a circus tent and sometimes a circus of conflicting purposes.

This summer’s controversies surrounding music festival factions and personalities are notable for arising after many years of stability. But festival seasons of the developmental 1950s also featured fierce battles between the visionary founder, Walter Paepcke, and musicians who had their own ideas for an Aspen summer music festival. The very foundation of the Music Associates of Aspen arose from the granddaddy of disagreements.

The idea of a performing festival intertwined with a music school has often been fraught with tension. Battles between trustees responsible for balancing the budget and faculty fighting for quality performances and instruction parallel institutional dilemmas in most other nonprofit institutions. Administrators, caught in the middle, find themselves negotiating solutions in an atmosphere where compromises are often seen as retreats from the core institutional mission.

The granddaddy of festival conflicts occurred in 1954. The internal conflict between Paepcke and his hand-chosen director Richard Leach led to a public squabble among their various constituents. At that time the festival and evolving school were part of the Aspen Institute. Paepcke served as the visionary founder, hands-on CEO and major benefactor. Leach, as overall director, juggled not only the festival and school, but also the Aspen Institute’s programs. Each responsibility competed with the others for funding and focus.

Paepcke focused on music as an important component of the Goethe Bicentennial. When he decided to continue his vision, he committed to building a music festival and school as an integral part of the Institute, but as just one element of his “Aspen idea.” Like many subsequent music festival trustees, he was more motivated to attract prestigious performers than to train future musicians. The Institute and the Music Festival were expensive projects. Some of their funding came from sales of property that Paepcke had amassed in Aspen in the 1940s. Income from Institute activities, including the music festival/school receipts, could not cover operating deficits.

Paepcke’s Container Corporation succeeded because of his extraordinary entrepreneurial abilities. As an industrialist he was accustomed to wielding almost dictatorial power. Supervising hand-picked department heads at Container Corporation did not prepare Paepcke for managing musical artists. Disagreement with the festival director and the music faculty, who sought ever more autonomy, prompted Paepcke to announce at the end of the 1954 season that he was firing Leach. He would no longer fund the music festival, nor would he allow the festival to use his Aspen Company facilities for the school or Aspen Institute’s amphitheater for music performances.

To save the festival, Courtland Barns, an experienced patron of the arts, led an effort to create a board of trustees. His board was willing to take over financial responsibility, separating it from the Institute, if Paepcke would allow the use of his facilities. Faculty members committed to develop their own vision of a festival-school, and the local community, which had reluctantly supported Paepcke, pledged financial support. Paepcke reluctantly relented and, in this crescendo, the Music Associates of Aspen was created.

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