Copyright © 1999 Henrietta W. Hay
Fifty Years at Aspen
August 6, 1999
Fifty years ago this summer an idea conceived in Chicago was born in
Aspen, and a sleepy little mining town with a couple of dirt streets
and an aging hotel became for two weeks the cultural center of
America. Robert Maynard Hutchins, President of the University of
Chicago and Walter Paepcke, a wealthy Chicago businessman, had a vision
-- a vision of a place where the body and the mind and the spirit could
come together and soar -- great ideas, great music, and a superb natural
setting. The Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival came into
being that summer. Now 50 years later that vision is still drawing
musicians and intellectuals from all over the world each summer to what
is no longer a sleepy little mining town.
The theme that first year celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth
of Goethe, who "endowed the world with the model of universal man upon
which future generations could base their standards of human conduct."
The opening speaker was Albert Schweitzer, physician, musician,
There he stood -- the great man himself -- with his shaggy hair and his
great drooping mustache. He wore an old fashioned long black frock coat
and a high stiff winged collar with a bow tie. He looked tired and
frail and every one of his seventy-four years. But his two hands had
built a hospital in the African jungle at Lambarene and could play Bach
on the organ as perhaps only Bach himself had played before. His face
was lighted from within by the serenity that one sometimes sees in those
who find their life work in service to others.
That was pretty heady stuff for some of the locals who were in Aspen
that summer just fifty years ago. Musician Melba Schmidt was there to
hear the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and the world famous soloists.
John Ziegel was a little boy learning for the first time the excitement
of ideas. I was covering the opening event for KFXJ radio (now KREX)
and Mildred Shaw was there for the Sentinel.
Melba Schmidt was a young musician who especially loved listening to
the great pianists. In the accompanying picture she is interviewing one
of the greatest, Artur Rubenstein, for KFXJ. We're not quite sure what
either one of them said, but he was obviously as impressed with her as
she was with him. She attended all the concerts, and after one of them
Walter Paepcke saw her taking notes and invited her to "join our
regional board with Pussy, my darling wife." Melba agreed and promised
to bring along the Colorado Federation of Music Clubs and some Mesa
Holding the microphone and trying to look professional rather than
overwhelmed was your eager beaver young reporter - me. But while Melba
was being impressed by Rubenstein, I was hyperventilating because I was
breathing the same air as Albert Schweitzer.
In the press conference which I taped he spoke in German, but even had
been speaking English I would have been too awe-struck to understand a
word. So much for my career in radio.
Meanwhile a 12 year old kid from Collbran was taking in everything.
John Ziegel's father had hauled their house trailer to Aspen and parked
it behind the big tent. John and his mother spent two wonderful weeks
attending all the rehearsals and concerts, and the lectures by some of
the great brains of the century. He says, "I caught the excitement of a
world of ideas that had survived Hitler and World War II. Years later I
realized that what the Goethe Convocation really had celebrated so
exuberantly in Aspen in 1949 was the Western Enlightenment tradition of
free inquiry and living that had come so perilously close to demise
under totalitarianism in Europe."
Mildred Shaw shared my awe at the whole event. A yellowed clipping
from the Sentinel with her by-line says, "A program built around Goethe
reaches the spiritual and intellectual heights, and soars into the
philosophical distances. Few if any of those who attended failed to
come away without some inspiration, some hope, some strength to meet the
challenge of our troubled world."
I will never forget those sunny days in Aspen fifty years ago, and the
excitement and stimulation of being present at such a magnificent
gathering -- and seeing Albert Schweitzer. It is a long way from the
jungles of Africa to Aspen, Colorado, but wherever you are, "The goal of
man is to become more human."