[ About the Festival ]

A Century of the Music Shed

A Family Affair

The story of the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival begins, as do so many great stories, with family history. Two remarkable Norfolk families, both linked to Yale and both passionate about music, came together to make Norfolk the first musical center of its kind in New England.

The story begins with the twenty-one-year-old Reverend Ammi Ruhamah Robbins, a Yale College graduate, who arrived in Norfolk in 1761 to be the first pastor of the Church. A year later, he married Elizabeth Le Baron of Plymouth, and she moved to live with him in the tiny settlement. The hills were densely forested at the time, and the roads primitive, so travel and communication were rare luxuries for the settlers. The family made its own wool and linen, but there was no cotton, and the first mail-rider through Norfolk didn’t appear until 1789. The post horses were changed on the four-horse stage line between Hartford and Albany at the top of the hill in Norfolk.

The Robbins’ daughter, Sarah, married Joseph Battell, who built the square Battell mansion, Whitehouse, next to the Norfolk Village Green in 1799. The Battells had nine children of their own and raised a niece as well. The family began a great legacy of supporting music at Yale. They were, in fact, the sole supporters of music at Yale for most of the 19th century.

The Battells hosted musical soirées at their home as early as the 1820s. Irene Battell Larned established the first endowment at Yale in the field of music, and her brothers and sisters contributed generously. Soon after, their brother Joseph Battell sponsored the construction of Battell Chapel at Yale, which remains among the University’s most beautiful landmarks and concert spaces.

Thanks in large part to the Battell family, 19th-century Litchfield County was steeped in music like no other rural area in New England. Robbins Battell, the seventh child, graduated from Yale in 1839, and although he managed the family business affairs, his passion was for the musical life of Norfolk. He created a singing school and was an expert flutist. He also conducted many concerts of the Litchfield County Musical Association in Norfolk and Winsted. He was also a skilled composer and arranger who composed hymns and set a great deal of poetry to music, including many Negro spirituals. An expert on church bells, it was he who donated the chimes to the Congregational Church and composed the tune that still marks the hours for the town of Norfolk.

Robbins Battell’s daughter, Ellen, was born in 1851 and, as an only child, she was quickly caught up in the passion for music that captivated her father. She loved voice and piano as a child, and as she grew older, she played the organ for the Norfolk church and followed the musical scene in New York City. Ellen and her father traveled frequently to Europe to add to their collection of art. They were accompanied often by her father’s secretary, Carl Stoeckel, the son of Gustave Stoeckel.

Gustave Stoeckel was a German musician who had studied composition and worked as an organist in Bavaria. When he arrived in America, he found his way to New Haven and met Irene Battell Larned, a sister of Robbins Battell. She recognized his extraordinary ability and qualifications. European-trained classical musicians were rare gems in Connecticut in those days. Before long, he became the first Professor of Music at Yale and the first person to receive a Doctor of Music degree from the University. He directed the Yale Choir and Glee Club and composed orchestral works as well as six complete operas in his spare time. When he retired, it was to Elmslea, his home in Norfolk, where he spent the last years of his life. Ellen fell in love with his son Carl, but her father didn’t approve of the relationship, so it went no further until Robbins Battell died in 1895. That same year, Carl and Ellen married. Together they would create one of the greatest musical legacies in the history of this country.

The Music Shed Is Born

Mr. & Mrs. Stoeckel decided to honor Ellen’s father by founding a local musical society that would bring a cascade of musical excellence to their town. Choral and musical societies already blossomed around the region. Every town had a club and a quorum of musicians. Mrs. Stoeckel had long hosted informal evenings in her home, first in Whitehouse and later in the church. A great musical Festival in Norfolk would provide a natural center for a region steeped in music.

After the Litchfield County Choral Union came into being in 1899, the concerts became more and more popular and came to be known collectively as the Norfolk Festival. It soon became the first internationally known music Festival of its kind in America and inspired the array of music centers that have since appeared across the Berkshires. The founders dedicated the Festival to “presenting to the people of Litchfield County choral and orchestral music in the highest forms.” As a gift to their community, the Stoeckels assumed the entire expense of the concerts.

The Stoeckels invited musical societies from the surrounding towns to join the Union and in all, more than seven hundred musicians joined the forces of the group. Two conductors served the Union during most of its existence: Richmond P. Paine for choral works and Arthur Mees for orchestral works. During the winter, the local clubs rehearsed the choral works separately. The Stoeckels paid the conductor to travel from town to town to direct the rehearsals.

After five years of concerts in Winsted and at makeshift halls at the Estate, the Stoeckels decided to build a hall worthy of truly great music. A New York architect, E.K. Rossiter, designed the building on the Estate, and the Music Shed opened on June 6, 1906. The Shed is built of cedar and lined with California redwood, which likely accounts for its brilliant acoustics and certainly for its rustic beauty. The original hall seated 700 audience members, but after several expansions it was enlarged to hold 2,100. (Fire regulations have since reduced its capacity back to 900.) At the Shed’s inaugural concert, the great American soprano Lillian Nordica sang “Dich, theure Halle,” the glorious paean to the hall of song from Wagner’s opera, Tannhäuser.

At first, the rule was that 50 cents and no more should be charged for tickets, so that the price would be prohibitive to no one. To the displeasure of the Stoeckels, enterprising audience members began to sell their tickets to the highest bidders. To preserve the wholly non-commercial quality of their Festival, the Stoeckels stipulated that attendance would be by invitation only. There was not one cent of income from the concerts; every one of the attendees was an invited guest of Mr. and Mrs. Stoeckel.

Audiences began to clamor for invitations from all over New England and as far away as Texas, Chicago and California, and within five years they could easily have filled a building many times as large. The Music Shed had begun its reign among the premiere concert halls in New England.

Mr. and Mrs. Stoeckel spared no expense in making the Festival concerts extravagant musical events. They recruited a 70-piece orchestra of players from the Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera orchestras in New York, and paid for a special train to transport the instrumentalists through the Litchfield hills. The appointments were eagerly sought; apart from the honor, the musicians had the pleasure of spending a week in the mountains, and the lawn parties that spread across the Estate after rehearsals were famous.

The repertoire included major works for chorus and orchestra as well as pieces for the orchestra alone. A typical Festival might have included Gounod’s Redemption one night, Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony the next, and a recital by the soloists on a third day. The vocal soloists were the preeminent singers of their time: Emma Eames, Louise Homer, Frieda Hempel, Alma Gluck, and countless more. The instrumental soloists were just as renowned: the violinists Fritz Kreisler and Maude Powell and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff all drew throngs to the Shed.

Specially-hired trains would bring audiences to the concerts from Winsted, Torrington, Litchfield and Hartford.  No cars were allowed in the two rustic roads leading through the Whitehouse grounds to the Music Shed, and the only carriages allowed were those containing the artists. The cars that did arrive were directed to parking spots by special constables, and their occupants would walk perhaps a quarter of a mile through shaded park paths lighted by torches. In the soft twilight, the immaculately dressed guests would wend their way down the winding paths of the Estate to prepare for the feast of music.

The colossal chorus – as many as 420 singers – would settle around the stage in the amphitheatre, the women wearing white dresses striped with diagonal ribbons of red and blue. By tradition, composers wore red flowers and poets white flowers in their breast pockets. On some nights, the program would begin with a chorale by Robbins Battell, Mrs. Stoeckel’ s father. Neither Carl Stoeckel nor Mrs. Stoeckel appeared publicly during the concerts. Mrs. Stoeckel occupied a hidden box above the stage, while Mr. Stoeckel entered casually to stand at the side of the hall after the program had begun.

The crowd spilled over to the outside, where more lanterns and torches lit the grounds, lights swathed the trees and mingled with the lilacs and azaleas, and people watched and listened through the open doors. As many as three thousand audience members settled in irregular lines outside the shed on the rocks called “the ledge.” Some would bring small electric lamps in order to follow their scores during the performance. This outside gathering was even quieter than the one inside. When the weather was good, many in fact preferred outside seats.

The town of Norfolk bubbled with life during the Festival. For those four days, 10,000 visitors would pour into a village with a total population of 1,500. The hundred-odd professional musicians who took part strolled the streets and walked through the hills gathering plants and flowers. Frederick Landau, the concertmaster, organized a popular fishing expedition every year. Each afternoon, after morning orchestra and solo rehearsals, the Stoeckels held lawn parties for the performers.

New Music

From the early days of the Festival, Mr. and Mrs. Stoeckel were devoted to the contemporary music of their time. The Litchfield County Choral Union had promised in its dedication to “honor the composer and his work, under the most elevated conditions,” and the Festival lived up to that promise at the highest level. They commissioned new works and sponsored composers’ visits to the Festival to conduct their own premieres.

In 1906, Carl Stoeckel offered $1000 for an orchestral composition to be played by the Litchfield County Choral Union, “the theme to embody some idea suggestive of the enterprising Connecticut county which is doing so much musically.” The composition had to be written especially for this occasion, and the composer had to be a resident of the United States. This began a great tradition of sponsoring new works; by 1918, the summer Festivals in Norfolk had sponsored and premiered 30 new large-scale orchestral works by many of the great American composers of the era.

The composers who wrote for the Litchfield County Choral Union were the most respected American composers of their time: Percy Grainger, Henry Hadley, David Stanley Smith, Edgar Stillman Kelley, Horatio Parker, and many more.

Distinguished Guests

It wasn’t only American composers who spent time at Norfolk. Mr. and Mrs. Stoeckel were conscious from the outset that Europeans had much to offer their musical venture. The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns was an honorary member of the Choral Union when it formed, and it was he who recommended some of the repertoire the group sang during its first years. The great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, Max Bruch, Vaughan Williams and Sergei Rachmaninov are just a few of the others who visited Norfolk during the next two decades. As early as 1910, Mr. and Mrs. Stoeckel arranged to have the eminent British-African composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor transported from London to America to conduct one of his own premieres, and he wrote several major works for the Festival over the next decade.

Jean Sibelius made his single voyage to the United States in June of 1914 at the invitation of the Stoeckels. He spent a month at Norfolk and conducted the world premiere of his tone poem, Aallottaret (Nymphs of the Ocean), in the Music Shed, as well as an entire program of his. In his biography of Sibelius, Karl Ekman writes that the composer said the orchestra at Norfolk was the best he ever conducted.

In 1920, Sergei Rachmaninoff visited Norfolk – not for a premiere but to perform his own second piano concerto, as well as to conduct his tone poem Isle of the Dead.  He, too, was delighted with the scenery and air of Litchfield County, which he compared to certain parts of Switzerland. He spoke French fluently but knew little English, so his 12-year-old daughter, who had studied English in school, acted as his interpreter. Since his contract stipulated that he be provided with a Steinway
piano for his performances, Steinway & Sons sent a fine concert grand. The great pianist’s performance at Norfolk was heralded far and wide, and his piano continues to be used to this day.

The War Years

In 1918, Mr. and Mrs. Stoeckel opted to hold the Festival despite the war, although they imbued the concerts with a special spirit of patriotism. One of the programs consisted entirely of new works by American composers, including a work called The Red Cross Spirit Speaks by Horatio Parker. “It was surely a wise decision not to give up the Norfolk Music Festival this year because of war conditions,” observed a writer from the Litchfield Enquirer. “To the hundreds who traveled to the Music Shed Tuesday evening, the horrors of war were not less terrible, but they were given new hope and a more determined spirit to endure to the end…”  The program also included a performance of Verdi’s Requiem in honor of the dead, with the eminent singers Florence Hinkle, Sophie Breslau, Lambert Murphy and Herbert Witherspoon as soloists.

In the fall of that year, Mr. and Mrs. Stoeckel invited the Garde République, the French army band consisting of 70 war veterans, to stay and perform on the Estate as a symbol of the cordial feelings between France and the United States. Finally , in 1919, the Stoeckels celebrated with a “Festival of the Allies,” featuring music composed by natives of England, France, Belgium, Italy and America.

A Gift To Last

The elaborate annual Festivals ended when Carl died in 1925, but Mrs. Stoeckel continued to sponsor Sunday evening concerts, when the audience sang, and annual concerts of the Choral Union. A large-scale concert of hymns often rounded out the summer. Ellen Battell Stoeckel died on May 5, 1939, at the age of 88, after a remarkable tradition of music-making on her Norfolk Estate. Her last wish was that this tradition should continue and, after 85 years of her family’s generosity to music at Yale, the University was an apt beneficiary. Her will contained instructions that the bulk of her estate be used “for the benefit and development of the School of Music of Yale University and for extending said University’s courses in music, art, and literature.” Three Trustees were appointed: Ellen Stoeckel’s brother-in-law, Robbins Battell Stoeckel, Arthur P. Day, and Clemens Scott, of the Hartford-Connecticut Trust Company. The buildings on the picturesque 60-acre Estate included the elegant Whitehouse manor, the 1,200-seat Music Shed, the brick stable in which her father housed his prize-winning Arabian horses, Battell House and Eldridge Barn. She also left nearly $2 million in financial assets to support the music school. Her will stipulated that, if Yale failed to carry out its terms to the satisfaction of the Trustees, the Trust could transfer the gift to another educational institution.