A Researcher in the Archives

Rachel S. Vandagriff recently received her Ph.D. in music at the University of California, Berkeley. She spent time researching in the Fromm archives in 2011. Her research developed into her dissertation, "The History and Impact of the Fromm Music Foundation, 1952-1983." She is currently working on a book on this subject. 

Inside the Archives with Rachel Vandagriff: Interview Conducted by Monica Hershberger and Caitlin Schmid, Harvard Graduate Students

Tell us a little bit about your dissertation research. How did you decide to write a dissertation about the Fromm Foundation?

Initially, I was interested in researching and writing about private foundation funding for contemporary American music during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. I expected to write about the Rockefeller, Ford, and Fromm Music Foundations, all of which supported contemporary music activity in the public sphere and on university and college campuses, but in different ways. My general interest in this topic stems from my desire to understand current realities of the American contemporary music scene—by “current realities” I mean some of the factors that have led to composers writing the kind of music they do, how those composers make a living, what musicians they work with, and what institutional bodies aid and abet their artistic work.

Before I came to look at the Fromm archives, I conducted research in the Rockefeller and Ford Foundation archives. When I traveled to Cambridge to look at the Fromm material, I discovered that the records that Fromm kept are wide-ranging, rich in detail, and that Fromm played a much more involved and personal role in his foundation than did the officers of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations.

Could you briefly describe the scope of the collection? What kinds of materials did you encounter? Do you have a favorite archival object?

The collection consists primarily of letters and carbon copies of letters, as well as financial records (such as budgets) and contracts with various concert organizations, festivals, and music departments. There are numerous programs of Fromm Music Foundation-sponsored concerts—those that took place at Tanglewood, Harvard, the University of Chicago, in New York, and elsewhere. There are copies of press releases and other promotional material. There are autograph scores that are the result of Fromm commissions, as well as reel-to-reel tape recordings of some Foundation-sponsored concerts or other performances of Fromm-commissioned compositions. (Some of these are being digitized, or will be digitized in the near future).

Interspersed with the letters are photographs – either of Fromm and a particular composer, or personal and professional photos taken of a composer. I find the snapshots exchanged between a handful of composers and Fromm to be particularly endearing and humanizing. I also treasure any letter that was handwritten by Fromm or one of his close composer friends. For me, these artifacts help bring these people, and the recent past, to life.

We know that a number of major composers, performers, and institutions pop up in your research – these were Fromm’s colleagues and contacts, and often his friends as well. How would you describe Fromm’s relationship with some of these people and institutions?

Based on my research, I would say that Fromm built significant relationships with Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Leon Kirchner, Gunther Schuller, and Ralph Shapey. At various points in time, Fromm and his wife, Erika, became close with Babbitt and his wife Sylvia, Elliott and Helen Carter, Schuller and his wife Marjorie, and Roger and Liesl Sessions. Fromm’s relationships with each were individual, and influenced the composers and Fromm’s patronage in very important and different ways. Institutionally speaking, Fromm had close relationships with people in the music departments of Princeton University, the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, the University of Chicago, and later Harvard University.

Fromm’s relationship with Carter was arguably the most successful personal relationship Fromm built through his Foundation and a uniquely successful case of patronage of high modernism in the U.S. I believe that both Carter and Fromm were caught between European and American models of cultivation and support, and the concomitant ideas about artistic subjectivity and responsibility. These two models – in the case of Fromm, cultivated autonomous patron versus institution-building foundation-director working with a staff – are contradictory in ways that are difficult to resolve. Yet Fromm and Carter worked together in ways that were mutually beneficial.

Carter’s gratitude for Fromm’s support is made clear in much of what Carter wrote about the Double Concerto. In late 1955, Fromm had commissioned Carter to write a piece for chorus, winds, and percussion for the 1957 University of Illinois Festival for Contemporary Music. Carter did not fulfill this commission until 1961, and with his Double Concerto. Fromm was very understanding with Carter, even as he failed to meet deadline after deadline. Eventually Fromm helped secure not only the New York City, but also the Los Angeles premiere of the piece (the latter attended and written about by Robert Craft and Stravinsky). Fromm allowed Carter to choose the performers for these events and paid for extra rehearsals, required due to the new work’s level of difficulty. Thus, with these and subsequent similar gestures of support, Fromm enabled Carter to have a high degree of control over the performance of his music, and to create a community of performers attuned to the special complexities of his music. This led to good performances, which were more likely to be well received by music critics and other composers, and which would reflect positively on the Foundation, whose prestige rose alongside Carter’s. This prestige then circulated among the participants. Between Fromm’s 1955 encounter with Carter’s first String Quartet and the end of Fromm’s life, Fromm and Elliott and Helen Carter were in regular communication. Fromm also helped Carter arrange for performances at Tanglewood, where Carter had previously been persona non grata, and arranged for Carter’s reflections on his frequent trips to Europe to be published in Perspectives of New Music.

Given that Fromm did create so many formal and informal networks having to do with every aspect of contemporary music, did you consult other archival collections for your dissertation? If so, how do you see the Fromm archives as intersecting with those collections?

I did consult other collections, but not in depth. For instance, at the Rockefeller Archive Center (www.rockarch.org), I cross-checked the Rockefeller and Ford Foundation archive indexes for some of the people who figured prominently during my period of interest. From research I had already conducted at the RAC, I had information from their files on the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center, where Babbitt was a key actor. In a subsequent trip, I found small bits of information about Elliott Carter and some references to Gunther Schuller. For instance, Carter, Schuller, and Luciano Berio were all Ford Foundation Artists-in-Residence in Berlin, and thus I found some information about their time in Germany.

What was more useful was the fraction of the Princeton University Department of Music records that I was able to access (these are held in the Princeton University Archives). The records there include those pertaining to the Princeton Seminar in Advanced Musical Studies and Perspectives of New Music. Many of these are not in duplicate in the Fromm archives. From the small amount of material that I was able to see (and use), I determined that I should schedule a follow up trip. It was not possible to make that visit before I filed my dissertation, but I plan to visit these archives soon, now that I am turning the dissertation into a book.

Before Fromm moved the Foundation to Harvard in 1972, the archival collection was kept in the back rooms of his wine importing office (it’s interesting to think about the fact that he saved so many artifacts so early on – it seems like he was already thinking about the Foundation’s legacy). Can you tell us a little more about the relationship between Fromm (the man, the foundation) and Harvard?

Fromm’s relationship with Harvard stems from his friendship with Leon Kirchner, who joined the Harvard University Department of Music faculty in 1961, and the FMF’s move to Cambridge owes to changes made in 1969 to U.S. income tax law.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, United States income tax law has been integral to the operation of American private foundations and philanthropies. According to Charles T. Clotfelter, as tax policies for private foundations evolved, “the legal form of the foundation received several distinct advantages.” These advantages included the “considerable autonomy and freedom from the hand of government,” which allowed, for instance, the tax-free accumulation of income. This autonomy “has been defended as essential to the basic function of foundations in society” as “a vital independent source of support for new ideas."[1]

The Tax Reform Act of 1969 was the first to define private foundations, and the first to distinguish operating foundations from non-operating ones. The Fromm Music Foundation, along with other large foundations like the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, were defined as non-operating because they were not-for-profit charitable institutions most of whose grants were for purposes other than the operation of charitable organizations (such as schools, churches, or hospitals) and because their endowments came mainly from a single individual or family rather than from the continuing support of multiple contributors.[2] The 1969 Act also imposed an excise tax on investment income accrued by private foundations.

Fromm was made uneasy by the changes mandated by the Act, perhaps because of how informally and flexibly he had been operating his Foundation. With the help of his legal counsel, Fromm concluded that the easiest and perhaps best way for the FMF to satisfy the new law was to affiliate with an institution that already had 510(c)3 (not-for-profit) status. Fromm sought a 501(c)3 institution that was financially healthy and well-managed, attributes all the more important as he began to see this move as an opportunity to arrange for his Foundation to continue operating after he died - to “assure the continuity and dynamic growth of the work which has been so important to me in my lifetime,” as he put it. Kirchner, whom Fromm had known since around the time he established the Foundation, convinced Fromm to move the Foundation to Harvard University. Carter, among other friends, agreed that this was a better home for the FMF than Princeton University, where, until he ended his sponsorship of Perspectives, Fromm had been intimately involved.

On a more practical note, what advice would you give to someone interested in the collection?

My main piece of advice is to use the fantastic tools offered by this website. Professor Anne Shreffler and hard-working and generous Harvard University Department of Music graduate students collaborated to create spreadsheets that detail the contents of the archives and their various holding locations. These documents tell you the names of folders and their location. It is important to know that, like any archival collection, the Fromm records are organized in a number of different ways. Consequently, if one were to go to the archives to find out information about Kirchner, for example, not only would one need to go to the Houghton Library to look at the material in his individual files, but I would also consult the FMF Administrative Records and Records of Grants in Pusey Library, and the records pertaining to the FMF-sponsored concerts at Harvard, which began in 1972. I suppose my advice is similar to the advice one gets before traveling to any archive: spend a good amount of time looking at whatever catalogs and finding aids are available, and spend some time figuring out what makes most sense to look at, where those things are, and what you will have to do in order to gain access to those records (the requirements are different depending on the holding location).


[1] Charles Clotfetler, Federal Tax Policy and Charitable Giving. (Chicago: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1985), 260.

[2] According to the H.R. 13270 report cited above, an “operating” foundation was one that used 50% or more of their assets and all of their income for the active conduct of the activities that are their purpose, and that operating foundations tend to be those who lack general support and do not give grants except to educational, charitable, or religious organizations (Clotfelter, 60, 254).