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Arts & Culture

Meet the woman who helped lay the foundation for the Aspen Music Festival and School

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Courtesy of John Seelen
The caption of this photograph uses the name of Beatrice Spachner's husband to identify her as "Mrs. John V. Spachner."

Businessman and philanthropist Walter Paepcke is remembered as the creator of Aspen’s cultural institutions — the Aspen Skiing Co., the Aspen Institute, and the Aspen Music Festival and School — but some major contributors have been forgotten by history, barely seven decades later. A set of recently rediscovered documents sheds light on a key figure in the formation of the music festival.

You can find an Spanish-language version of this story here.

Seventy-three years ago, more than 2,000 intellectuals, industrialists and musicians came together in Aspen to celebrate the 200th birthday of German thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

They discussed philosophy, literature and commerce, and they listened to music.

The Goethe Bicentennial Celebration was a success. And it led to the creation of the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival and School.

“It was a really big event that put Aspen on the map as a cultural destination,” said Lisa Hancock, vice president and curator of collections for Aspen Historical Society. “Even before we were well known for skiing, we had this event that was on the cover of Life magazine and really promoted Aspen as a summer cultural destination.”

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Courtesy of John Seelen
Beatrice Spachner is remembered with her husband's first name, "John," for her role in organizing music for what would become the Aspen Music Festival and School.

A 46-year-old violinist from Chicago oversaw music programming as chair of the music committee for the Goethe celebration.

She was, Hancock said, "a really interesting character that we didn't know much about because they never lived here — because we didn't have any collections from the family.”

That recently changed.

John Seelen, Spachner’s grandson, last month discovered a trove of home movies, photos and other materials. They were in his parents’ house on the East Coast — in a very lucky section of the basement.

“In 1991, when the perfect storm hit their house on the shore on Cape Cod, flooded their basement with 4 feet of seaweed, saltwater and mud and destroyed everything up to 4 feet — just by luck, all these materials were on a top shelf,” he said. “Not intentionally, just by good luck, and were saved from that disaster.”

Spachner is also credited with leading the effort to restore the historic Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, and she worked with the theater for many years.

Seelen remembered her as gentle and quiet with her family.

“But when I saw her in the office, it was like, I didn't recognize this person,” Seelen said. “It was not the grandma that I recognized. It was ‘Mrs. Spachner,’ and she was fully in command. … People clearly respected her tremendously and loved her.

“She was a very unusual woman of her time.”

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AHS Spachner Collection
Pianist Arthur Rubenstein sits with Beatrice Spachner, chair of the Goethe Bicentennial Foundation Music Committee.

Seelen donated the materials to the Aspen Historical Society last month, after giving a presentation about his grandmother at Explore Booksellers. Among the many items were home movies, in color, of that first festival in 1949.

“In talking to the people at the historical society, they don't have anything like this,” Seelen said. “It doesn't exist.”

“The entire history of what happened in 1949 is not all that well recorded,” said Steve Wickes, who was director of the Aspen Institute’s Society of Fellows program for several years before 2011. While there, Wickes became a kind of informal resident historian.

More recently, he was one of the first people to see the materials from that flooded basement at Seelen’s parents' house.

“Oh, it was special,” he said. “When John Seelen first contacted me and said he'd found this treasure trove and was coming to town, I said if I had a time machine, I think the first place I would go is 1949 in Aspen. And I have to say, watching his grandfather's home movies of 1949 in Aspen was probably the next best thing to having a time machine.”

Anyone with an internet connection can step into that time machine soon.

The decades-old photographs, newspaper articles, brochures and home movies that capture the birth of Aspen’s main summer institutions will be available on the Aspen Historical Society’s online archives in about a month.

That story was produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association editor corps, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. 

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