The Music of Dumbarton Oaks

Dumbarton Oaks Music Room

Dumbarton Oaks Music Room

The Friends of Music program has long made Dumbarton Oaks a staple of the Washington music scene. Started in the 1930s when the Blisses informally invited guests to enjoy performances in their wonderful music room and formalized in 1946 with the creation of the Friends of Music program, Dumbarton Oaks was known for sponsoring some of the best musicians and had the uncanny ability to bring in lesser-known artists who would go on to become world famous artists (for example, Leontyne Price and Joan Sutherland).

After one of her performances, Price sent then-Director John Thacher a card thanking him for the gift of an orchid and remarking on the wonderfulness of Dumbarton Oaks.



Kenneth Pasmanick, who had been the principal bassoonist with the National Symphony Orchestra, remembered his first time meeting Joan Sutherland at Dumbarton Oaks —

This woman [Sutherland] came into the room and standing next to the conductor said, “I want to apologize right off the bat for my voice…. My throat is dry and I’m sure I’m not going to be able to sing very well.” And she started to sing, and it was breathtaking. I found tears coming down my face. It was just overwhelming. It was so beautiful.

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky

In addition to the countless artists who performed at Dumbarton Oaks, a number of works were also commissioned by Dumbarton Oaks. Among the more important commissions is the 1938 Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra (Dumbarton Oaks, 8.V.38) by Igor Stravinsky. The work was commissioned by Mildred Bliss on the occasion of the Blisses’ thirtieth wedding anniversary. Elizabeth Sgalitzer Ettinghausen was one of the people who attended a performance of the piece when it was later conducted by Stravinsky. Glen Bowersock noted one unintended effect of the piece on Dumbarton Oaks’s reputation to scholars abroad —

Dumbarton Oaks, partly for…reasons like Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto…[has] a certain prestige which made Europeans apply [for fellowships]. So it’s always straddled the Atlantic, and I think that is one of its great, great strengths.

Aaron Copeland

Aaron Copeland

Dumbarton Oaks commissioned another composition from Aaron Copland in celebration of the Blisses’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. The piece, Nonet for Strings, was completed in 1960 and was dedicated “to Nadia Boulanger after forty years of friendship.”  Boulanger was a friend of the Blisses, and it was she who conducted the 1938 premiere of the Stravinsky concerto because Stravinsky was too ill to come to the United States.  She was also Copland’s composition instructor at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau.

Joan Tower

Joan Tower

To “round out the Bliss musical legacy,” Edward Keenan, director of Dumbarton Oaks, commissioned Joan Tower, Grammy award-wining composer, to compose a piece on the hundredth anniversary of the Bliss’s wedding, for which she wrote the Dumbarton Quintet.  All three pieces were played in April 2008 at the Bliss Symposium Concert as a tribute to the Blisses and their collecting and music patronage legacy.  Joan Reinthaler of the Washington Post reviewed the Dumbarton Quintet 

In short contrasting sections of reflection and exuberance, the quintet (in one 14-minute movement) moves inexorably toward heightened tension as its quiet moments become more active and encompass an increasingly expanded scale. Tower’s admiration for Shostakovich is reflected in the dark Slavic flavor of its melodic material and in the abruptness of its declamation, but her textures are more varied than Shostakovich’s and a lot more interesting. French colors surface from time to time almost as a reminder that there are other ways to be contemplative, and Tower seems equally at home with the two musical languages.

The Friends of Music program is not as well known as other Dumbarton Oaks programs, but this does not mean it is not well developed.  Dumbarton Oaks has long been regarded as one of the premier private concert series in Washington, D.C.

The Oral History Project is excited to interview Valerie Stains in the near future.  Ms. Stains has directed the Friends of Music program for some time, and will be sure to provide a greater deal of insight into the program and its history.


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