Some of the rarest musical instruments in the world are located right in the Capitol’s backyard, inside the Library of Congress.
In a room open to the public only by appointment — the Whittall Pavilion inside the Thomas Jefferson Building — alongside two Rodin sculptures, a portrait of Beethoven as a young man, a rare flute collection and a medieval tapestry, are five violins, a viola and a cello.
The library’s stringed instrument collection was started in 1935 by philanthropist Gertrude Clarke Whittall, who decided that the library needed rare instruments worthy of playing in its Coolidge Auditorium, which is considered one of the best acoustic environments in the world.
The auditorium was built in 1925 with funds from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (no immediate relation to President Calvin Coolidge). The decor is plain, with no ornamentation on the solid yellow walls or ceiling. Coolidge wanted concertgoers to focus on the music, not on the decorations.
Coolidge established the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation at the library, resulting in hundreds of free public performances, many of which were broadcast nationally over radio equipment that Coolidge insisted be installed during construction.
A decade after opening the auditorium, Whittall invested in getting unique instruments to be played onstage, Janice McKelvey, an LOC visitor services coordinator, said on a tour of the pavilion. Whittall sent agents to Italy to purchase rare stringed instruments for the library — three violins, a viola and a cello, all made by Antonio Stradivari of Cremona.
The “Castelbarco” cello was made in 1697 and was part of a quartet of Stradivari-created violins owned by a count from Milan, Cesare Castelbarco. The “Ward” violin was made in 1700 and named after J. Ward, a Londoner who owned it for 40 years. The “Cassavetti” viola was made in 1727. There are only around a dozen remaining Stradivari violas in the world.
The most famous instrument donated by Whittall is the “Betts.” It was made in 1704 and is reportedly one of the most famous and photographed violins in the world, McKelvey said. It was sold to John Betts, a Londoner who owned an instrument shop, in 1820 by an unknown individual for just one guinea (or pound). After passing through the hands of a few other owners, it came to the United States. John T. Roberts of Connecticut sold it to Whittall.
Whittall’s terms dictated that the five instruments must be played regularly, and must not be transported out of the library.
After the initial donations, the Library’s Music Division was given more stringed instruments, including ones made by Nicolo Amati and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu.
The Amati violin from 1654 is called the “Brookings,” named after Robert Somers Brookings, the economist who founded what is now the Brookings Institution in 1916. He reportedly bought it in Europe, and his widow gave it to the library in 1938.
The Guarneri “Kreisler” is named after 20th century musician Fritz Kreisler, who acquired it in 1926. Kreisler gave it to the library in 1952 after he came to the U.S. during World War II. The Kreisler’s twin, made from the same piece of wood, is known as the “Goldberg-Baron Vitta” and is not currently on display.
The Whittall Pavilion is one of the only places in the world where such rare Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri instruments are housed together, McKelvey said.
Contact the Music Division of the library to see the pavilion.