The Music Room at Yaddo
— Aaron Copland
Located on the first floor of the Yaddo Mansion, the spacious Music Room is one of the primary social spaces at Yaddo. Following the communal dinner and the end of quiet hours, artists in residence are free to explore the rooms of the estate. For those with musical inclinations, the Music Room is a favorite spot to congregate. The focal point of the room is, without a doubt, the custom-built Steinway grand piano, crafted specifically with the proportions of the room in mind.
One of the most famous individuals to play on that particular piano was Aaron Copland, the “Dean of American Composers.” Copland first came to Yaddo in the summer of 1930 to put the finishing touches on his Piano Variations, composing primarily in the Stone Tower studio. While at Yaddo, Copland met and quickly befriended Theodore Chanler, another composer by way of Boston. Copland and Chanler bonded over their shared delight in escaping from their cities as the Great Depression took hold. Together, they lamented the deplorable state of American music; symphonies and other pieces from the Old World filled the music halls of America’s cities rather than compositions from their own citizens. The two composers toyed with the idea of organizing a conference for composers before they realized that the real problem with American music lay in its inaccessibility—it simply wasn’t being performed in America, for Americans. What composers needed was to share their music with the world rather than simply discussing it. Copland and Chanler began to organize a music festival where composers would write music specifically for Yaddo, and perform those pieces at Yaddo.
The Music Room thus served as the main stage for Yaddo’s nine music festivals, held between 1932 and 1952. These music festivals included performances from American composers as well as public discussions between sets. Subsequent days were taken over by conferences for musicians only. The first few Festivals of Contemporary American Music were dogged by accusations of elitism; the fact that very few music critics attended the events did little to help stem these controversies. In an effort to quell the negative press, the Yaddo festivals came to be known as “Music Periods” starting with the 1936 event, with the participating composers part of the “Yaddo Music Group,” thereby dropping all references to “contemporary” and “American” music. The Yaddo Music Group was accompanied by a twenty-two-piece chamber orchestra, pianists, vocalists, and a separate string quartet. The Music Period also brought with it a new sense of communality; three weeks before the start of the festival, members of the Music Group and the musicians themselves would live and work together at Yaddo to foster good relations and the spirit of creativity. While the Yaddo Festivals of Contemporary American Music and Music Periods did much to foster the development of distinctly American music, the Corporation of Yaddo determined by 1952 that the festivals should end. Yaddo was never meant to be a public institution in the way that the music festivals made it out to be—not to mention that the influx of jostling visitors and members of the press proved detrimental to the concentration of other artists in residence at Yaddo. Though the official Music Period ended in 1952, Yaddo has provided a supportive, serene environment for composers and musicians to hone their work.