Willoughby: Aspen Music Festival — small untill it was large

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
The Bayer Tent, built in 1965, nearly doubled the Aspen Music Festival’s seating capacity.
T. Willoughby/Courtesy Photo |

The Aspen Music Festival and School began small and stayed that way for over a decade. Within a few years, the total number of students, the size of the audience and the number of performances expanded logarithmically.

During the earliest years of the festival, the umbrella of the Aspen Institute extended shelter, financed and carefully supervised by Walter Paepcke. He wanted to entice outstanding musicians to perform compositions that were not frequently heard, those less popular with most audiences. Paepcke would support no group larger than a chamber orchestra. Although a pianist or string quartet would satisfy his purposes, the list of performers expanded and students began to follow their instructors to Aspen.

Paepcke kept his dream contained but he did, however, like the idea of a music school. This objective fit his vision to entice colleges to establish satellite humanities campuses in Aspen. The music school grew mostly by word of mouth.

Musicians wanted to expand the music school and the summer performance schedule in 1954, but Paepcke, who paid the bills, resisted. An acrimonious split severed music from the institute. Despite the breakup, Paepcke allowed the new Aspen Music Festival to use buildings he had acquired for use by the institute. These included the tent and Wheeler Opera House for performances, the Independence Building for a dorm and the building that now houses Elliott Yeary Gallery for a cafeteria.

The school grew. The concert schedule drew ever-increasing audiences, especially because the school required that students attend all concerts. The transformation expanded the festival’s reputation, yet fame changed its relationship with the community.

Aspen’s neighbors traded gossip at a central post office in the Webber building downtown. As they joined dozens of acquaintances during habitual pick-ups of the day’s mail, residents conducted business on a first-name basis. Town meetings took on little urgency because Aspen developed consensus and organized to get things done in twos and threes. When the post office moved, the web of interaction broke down.

The festival also stretched apart at the seams. With student dorms in the Independence Building and the cafeteria nearby, the town served as the student hub. They practiced in their rooms and walked to the post office with locals. When the orchestra rehearsed in the Brand building, passersby listened in and felt attached to the festival.

In 1965 a new structure replaced the tent and nearly doubled its capacity. But more significantly, it provided a backstage area with room for lessons. The student orchestra moved practice from downtown to the tent.

The dorms and cafeteria moved to the mountain edge of town, to the Mountain Chalet and Holland House, just far enough away to divorce students from locals. And in the same year, the festival acquired the current Castle Creek campus. Very quickly most music school action moved out of town.

Internal debate continued to pit school against festival when Gordon Hardy became the music school dean, though more in cost and fundraising than in concept. The festival had thoroughly integrated students into its orchestra. But Hardy wanted more for the school. He believed if you ran a great school and festival, money would follow.

James Cain assumed the role of executive director for the festival. He viewed the festival as the leading component rather than the school. Cain favored the festival in the budget and wanted money raised in advance.

Hardy’s influence grew and he became the executive director. With the addition of another orchestra, the chamber symphony in 1968, performances filled the calendar nearly every day of the week. Music devotees and 500 students packed the town. Within four more years the Aspen Music Festival’s students, crowds and programs nearly doubled again.

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