The Goethe Bicentennial Convocation and Music Festival was a three-week celebration of the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 200th birthday in 1949. Held in Aspen under a huge canvas tent designed by Eero Saarinen, the event was organized largely by Walter Paepcke and attracted some 2,000 people to the small mountain town. Participants including Albert Schweitzer, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, and American writer Thornton Wilder spoke about Goethe’s relevance to the modern world, while the Minneapolis Symphony anchored the accompanying music festival. The event launched Aspen’s international reputation as a cultural hub and gave rise to both the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival and School.
The idea for the Goethe Bicentennial started soon after World War II with three professors—Victor Lange at Cornell, Carl Schreiber at Yale, and Arnold Bergstraesser at the University of Chicago—who wanted to hold an academic conference to honor the 200th anniversary of the German writer’s birth in 1949. The plan changed drastically after the three men mentioned it to Giuseppe Borgese, a Chicago professor who was enamored with the idea of world government. Borgese discussed the conference with University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins, and they decided to expand it into a celebration that would promote world unity in the wake of the war while also bringing Germany back into the global cultural conversation.
Hutchins, Borgese, and Bergstraesser believed these goals would be best achieved if the Goethe Bicentennial were held somewhere out of the way so that participants would have to make a special effort to attend and would be isolated while there. Hutchins knew that Chicago business executive Walter Paepcke was busy redeveloping the Colorado mountain town of Aspen, and at lunch in February 1947, Hutchins floated the idea of holding the Goethe Bicentennial there. Paepcke was thrilled; he had just opened the world’s longest ski lift in Aspen but was still casting about for ways to increase the remote town’s cultural offerings. The Goethe Bicentennial promised to solve that problem in a single stroke.
The Goethe Bicentennial Foundation was formally established in October 1947 to plan and administer the festival, with former president Herbert Hoover as honorary chairman and Hutchins and Paepcke among the directors. A year later, on November 9, 1948, the foundation held a press conference to announce the festival and started a public relations campaign to promote it, which partly involved explaining to Americans exactly who Goethe was.
Paepcke soon took on a major role in planning the event. He had already been considering a summer music festival in Aspen and successfully pushed for music to become part of the Goethe Bicentennial program; Goethe had an interest in music and many of his poems had been set to music over the years. Paepcke signed up the Minneapolis Symphony and its conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos, as well as pianist Arthur Rubinstein, violinist Nathan Milstein, and several singers from the Metropolitan Opera.
Paepcke’s main problem was that Aspen’s only real venue, the Wheeler Opera House, was crumbling, still charred from a fire decades earlier. He brought in Eero Saarinen, then still a relatively young architect, to design a cheap, temporary solution. For about $55,000, Saarinen came up with a giant canvas tent that could seat 2,000 people. It would be put up on Paepcke’s 120-acre property at Aspen Meadows, the site of a former racetrack on the northwest side of town.
Paepcke and the other festival planners scored their biggest coup in early 1949, when Albert Schweitzer—the theologian, physician, Bach scholar, and future Nobel Peace Prize winner—agreed to attend as part of his first visit to the United States. The idea for inviting Schweitzer had occurred to Paepcke the previous summer, when his wife Elizabeth bought a copy of Schweitzer’s Two Studies of Goethe for him on vacation. With Schweitzer officially on the program, the festival started a big promotional campaign, which helped to establish Schweitzer’s American reputation. Time and Life ran features on Schweitzer, and newspapers and radio stations agreed to cover the festival that summer.
The Goethe Bicentennial opened in late June. Even though the closest railroad station was in Glenwood Springs, some 2,000 attendees arrived from every state except Alabama and Mississippi. Because there were few lodging options beyond the Hotel Jerome, many participants stayed in rented rooms in houses around town. The Paepckes hosted Albert Schweitzer, who was reportedly a difficult houseguest (he wanted to play the piano at all hours), as well as Dorothy Maynor, a Black singer, at a time when many public accommodations would not accept Black people.
On June 27, Governor William Lee Knous officially opened the festival under Saarinen’s orang-and-beige tent, and Erika Morini played a violin recital. Over the next three weeks, scholarly lectures mixed with general talks on Goethe’s relevance and musical performances. The festival’s third day featured a roundtable discussion on Goethe and Art with panelists including Saarinen, architect Herbert Bayer, and Denver Art Museum director Otto Karl Bach. José Ortega y Gasset delivered one address on “The Bicentennial Goethe” and a second on human life, with Thornton Wilder translating. Wilder also gave his own talk on Goethe, and Schweitzer spoke twice, once in French and once in German. The musical program included eight concerts featuring mostly German composers; each concert was performed twice in order to accommodate crowds. The festival concluded on July 16 with a final talk by Robert Hutchins on the theme of “Goethe and World Unity.”
The Goethe Bicentennial had operated at a deficit of some $30,000, but it generated a great deal of enthusiasm. At lunch after Hutchins’s concluding speech, Hutchins chatted with Paepcke, Wilder, and others about how to continue the festival the following year. Many of the musicians, in particular, were eager to return. Paepcke bought Saarinen's tent for future use, and in 1950 it hosted a music festival to honor the 200th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. This time nearly three dozen students accompanied their teachers to Aspen for the summer, and they arranged a student concert at the end of the official program. The arrangement was formalized the following year, launching the Aspen Music Festival & School, which quickly became one of the top American summer music festivals.
On the intellectual side, Paepcke and others spent the fall of 1949 figuring out what form their proposed continuation of the festival would take. They named it the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. Following up on a suggestion from Ortega y Gasset, Paepcke asked Great Books guru Mortimer Adler to draw up a summer program of lectures and discussions. The eleven-week session kicked off on June 26, 1950, under the Saarinen Tent. A seminar on Aristotle’s Poetics followed the next day at the Wheeler Opera House. Later that summer, Time publisher Henry Luce (whose wife, Clare, participated in some of the panels) suggested that business leaders would benefit from the sessions. This idea led to the start of the Executive Seminar in 1951 as the centerpiece of the Aspen Institute’s programs.
Both the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival and School were based at the same Aspen Meadows site where the Goethe Bicentennial was held. As they developed through the 1950s and the following decades, they attracted top musicians, composers, philosophers, writers, business leaders, and politicians to Aspen, securing the town’s status as a cultural hub while also establishing it as a favorite resort for wealthy American and international elites.