Freer, Marlboro, and the Library of Congress: A Musical History

Clarinetist Anthony McGill faces right, holding clarinet.
Clarinetist Anthony McGill performs at the Library of Congress on January 20 as part of our Meyer Concert Series.

As our first concert during the Freer closure approaches, we can appreciate how apt it is for the performance to take place at the Library of Congress and to feature artists from the Marlboro Music Festival. These three institutions share a history that originates in the early twentieth century and continues to bear fruit today.

The Freer Gallery opened to the public in 1923. In February 1924, arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who was looking for an outstanding venue to host a new music series, held three concerts at the museum. She eventually settled on the Library of Congress as the site for her series, which launched the following year.

In museum founder Charles Lang Freer’s later life (he died in 1919), two of his closest friends and collaborators had been Eugene and Agnes Meyer. The three traveled on a joint collecting trip to Asia, and they frequently acquired art together. During World War II, Agnes Meyer intervened with the State Department to secure visas for German violinist Adolf Busch and pianist Rudolf Serkin to come to the United States. These virtuosos made their American debuts in concert at the Library of Congress and went on to found the Marlboro Music Festival in 1951.

Eugene Meyer and family of six stand for traditional family portrait.
Agnes Meyer (far left), Eugene Meyer (far right), and their children in 1926, in a portrait by Edward Steichen. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © The Estate of Edward Steichen / © Joanna T. Steichen

A few years later, Eugene and Agnes Meyer donated most of their Chinese art collection to the Freer in a gift that was the largest presented to the museum since its opening. When Eugene Meyer died in 1959, his personal papers, documenting his career as a financier, owner of the Washington Post, chair of the Federal Reserve, and first head of the World Bank, were donated to the Library of Congress.

In 1965, the Marlboro Festival began touring its ensembles across the country. The Library of Congress hosted many of the festival’s legendary artists in the succeeding decades.

When the Freer’s auditorium reopened in 1993 after a five-year renovation, it bore a new name: the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium. The Meyers’ daughter, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, and grandchildren helped fund the renovation and established the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series. Named for the son and daughter-in-law of Eugene and Agnes, the Meyer Concert Series has featured Musicians from Marlboro every season since then.

Lastly, if you’ve looked closely at labels in our special exhibitions, you may have noticed that important books and manuscripts from the Library of Congress often complement the artwork. For example, we featured early twentieth-century yoga manuals from the library in our recent exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation.

Please note that advance tickets to the Musicians from Marlboro concert on January 20 are sold out.  However, all unclaimed tickets are distributed to standby patrons five minutes before the concert begins. Looking ahead, tickets to our April 26 concert with Wu Man and the Shanghai Quartet go on sale Monday, February 1, at 9 am, via the Smithsonian Associates.

Michael Wilpers

Michael Wilpers is the manager of performing arts at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. He oversees the museum’s chamber music series, which focuses on Asian composers and music inspired by Asia, as well as other programs that explore genres from traditional Asian music to new music, jazz, and fusions. Many of these concerts are featured in podcasts on our website, where listeners can enjoy more than one hundred high-quality audio recordings. During the museum’s closure due to COVID-19, he developed our Look & Listen series, which brings together top performers and curators to explore the intersections of art and music. He also produces concerts with studio-quality video recordings made especially for the museum. Wilpers received his master’s in music from the University of Maryland and was formerly the president of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology. He has played a variety of music, including jazz and Indonesian gamelan, in ensembles such as a Ugandan xylophone quartet, the Washington Toho Koto Society, and the Thomas Circle Singers.

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