No one ever writes about Tanglewood without using the word magic, without raving about the perfect blend of artistry and natural beauty. This glorification of the land began 100 years before the music festival when the same place inspired painters, poets and prose writers. More than a hundred years ago, the contiguous 330 acres in the northeast corner of Stockbridge was Native American common ground – land set aside by the Muh-he-con-neok or People of the Waters for the benefit of the entire community.
In 1736, the Boston General Court authorized a mission to “civilize and Christianize” the natives in the village of Stockbridge and granted 400 acres to each of the first six white settlers. The middle ground of Muh-he-con-neok (sounded like Mohican to European ears) was granted to Elijah Williams.
White settlers brought with them a vehement belief in private property and little understanding of land held in common. Among the settlers, Elijah Williams and his son, Ephraim Jr., stood out as the most greedy. As the Stockbridge-Munsee community of the Mohican Nation was increasingly dispossessed, not by war but by acerbic practice, they gave up the county of Berkshire. The Williams family continued to survey and claim land as far north as Hoosac (later called Williamstown).
One hundred years later Caroline Sturgis Tappan, a Boston Brahmin and transcendental poet, purchased 210 of those 330 acres. She built her summer estate and called it Tanglewood. One hundred years later, his unmarried daughter, Mary Aspinwall Tappan, and her niece, Mrs. Gorham Brooks, gave Tanglewood to Serge Koussevitzky, maestro of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Walking onto the pitch excited by the spectacular view, Koussevitzky said: “We [will] make great music here. Music festivals grow… on a scale proportional to their environment.
Koussevitzky was not the first or the only artist to be inspired by what he saw. As Tappan purchased the land for his estate, the same location attracted and inspired many American writers and artists. Overlooking the same body of water, gazing at the same mountain backdrop, standing on the same ground – Ralph Waldo Emerson discussed nature with Samuel Gray Ward (1846). George Inness painted “Storm Clouds” (1847) and “A View Near Berkshire” (1848). Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went to court a house “a little off the village street” in Pittsfield (“The Old Clock on the Stair”, 1845) then went south to the Oxbow at Stockbridge stopping to visit friends and exclaiming in his journal, “What a lovely place!” (1848). Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote “The House of Seven Gables” (1851) and “A Wonder Book” (1852), opened a bottle of champagne, and discussed the Great White Whale with Herman Melville (Moby Dick 1851).
In 1940, Serge Koussevitzky realized his dream and founded his music school on the same land, where Aaron Copeland taught and Leonard Bernstein studied. There, in 1941, Randell Thompson wrote his “Hallelujah” dedicated to “Berkshire Music Center, and all the Angels therein, 21.VII.’41.” These creators of American prose, poetry, art and music shared the same outlook and point of view: the grounds themselves were a source of inspiration, and perhaps most importantly, a place to gather for them.
It might seem unbelievable so many important writers, thinkers and artists have gathered on the same few hundred acres of land in the semi-rural village of Stockbridge whose population never exceeded 2000. The reasons offer a unique glimpse of another age.
The 1840s were an era of great optimism, spirit, energy and success in America. Elias Howe invented the sewing machine, Nathan Appleton developed a method of printing on cloth, Morse invented the telegraph, and Cornelius Vanderbilt supported the development of the steamboat. There were 20 million American citizens of which about 15% were slaves. Reform was in the air: Frederick Douglass spoke out against slavery and Margaret Fuller in favor of women’s rights. There were societies against capital punishment and for temperance, mass education and humane treatment of the insane. It was trumpeted as a scientific age. The Smithsonian Institution was founded for “the increase and dissemination of knowledge”. At Massachusetts General Hospital, the use of ether during surgery was first demonstrated, but alas, more people were willing to believe in the “science” of phrenology and the effectiveness of one session. .
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “No people in the world have made so rapid progress in commerce and manufacture as the Americans; they arrived but like yesterday… and they have already changed the whole order of nature to their advantage. Trade progress was not enough. A desire arose from the combination of religious reform and nationalism to perfect America, to improve life through the pursuit and achievement of noble goals. By marrying Christian principles to business practices, America would be a model for the whole world. It was seen that the role of societies and churches was to push these reforms forward and to make America a model for the whole world.
These are also the formative years of American art and an American aesthetic. Born out of exuberant nationalism, the societies sought to advance and promote American art and literature and challenge the idea that all fine art and great literature was European. It was a bloodless war of independence against the tyranny of classical and European art forms and extended to American independence in art, literature, and architecture. In New York, a hundred men founded the Century Association in 1847 with the aim of “advancing American art”. In Boston, a literary group in search of the American voice formed around the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and his magazine Dial (1840-1844). Architectural critic Andrew Jackson Dowling wrote in 1846: “The disease of Greek temples has passed its crisis. People survived it. »
The progress and rapid growth of the mid-19th century had both positive and negative impacts. Success changed the landscape. The new urban and industrial centers bore little resemblance to the Jeffersonian ideal of the Agrarian Republic.
“In the minds of many Americans, Virgil’s pastoral ideal might have flourished in the United States, but city planning and industrialization were pressing them with attendant turmoil and anxieties.”
New industrialization and rapid urbanization have created a desire to return to nature to rediscover the mythical landscape situated between the opposing forces of city and nature, that pastoral sanctuary that is Arcadia. Arcadia represented more than an aesthetic and political ideal, there was a religious aspect.
“By the beginning of the 19th century, many Puritan dogmas – predestination, infantile damnation and the utter depravity of man – had been cast aside…and replaced by a God of love.” For Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Every natural fact is the symbol of a spiritual fact.” And in a letter, Asher B. Durand wrote that the natural landscape “is charged with high and holy significance.” Life was not predestined, but could be shaped, changed, improved by human effort. The God of love was found in nature; God was in the landscape.
200 years later, in 1937, the owner of 210 of the original 330 contiguous acres donated part of that landscape to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, securing a permanent home for the summer music festival. A close friend, Nany Keefe, remembers walking the floor with Mrs. Gorham Brooks. Brooks said, “This place should be for thousands of people.”
Incrementally, the land was returned not to the natives but to their purpose: common ground for the common good.
One could tire of the superlatives about Tanglewood, the mix of nature and culture, and all the attempts to write about the land in the northeast corner of Stockbridge without mentioning the word magic…except…it’s magic.
Final note: In December 1986, BSO purchased the 120-acre Highwood Estate for $1.75 million, and the 330 acres of native commons were once again intact.