Mary Duke Biddle Music Building under construction
The Mary Duke Biddle Music Building under construction, 1974 (Duke University Archives)

A Living Space for Music: The Mary Duke Biddle Music Building Turns 50

In the summer of 1974, a walk down the length of East Campus’ central quad and a left turn between Pegram and Alspaugh residence halls would lead you to the most astonishing building at Duke University.

Or so it might have seemed, that summer 50 years ago. Gleaming in the sun, its light-colored walls incongruous amid the red brick Georgian architecture of East Campus, the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building was nearing completion. Twenty-one arches ran the length of its long, low front. If you passed under their shadow and peered through the broad glass doors, you would see a two-level atrium, sunlight streaming from round skylights in the ceiling above.

exterior of biddle building in 1974
The Mary Duke Biddle Music Building, designed by Edward Durell Stone. (Duke University Archives)

It was a breath of modernity on a campus that embraced the architectural styles of the past, except for one interior detail. A life-size portrait of Mary Duke Biddle, hanging in the central lobby, harkened back to the glamour of the early 20th century, when Duke itself was new to the Durham landscape.

Constructed specifically to meet the needs of student and faculty musicians, renovations of the Biddle Building through the past five decades mirrored changes in the breadth and depth of Duke’s Music department. This September, a celebration of the building’s 50th anniversary gives that academic community a reason to pause, remember and celebrate.

‘… a family’s abiding affection’

“Mary Duke Biddle and her daughter Mary D.B.T. Semans have gifted musicians at Duke with a beautiful home,” said Elizabeth Byrum Linnartz, Duke alumna and current Instructor of Music.

painting of Mary Duke Biddle by Francois Flameng
Portrait of Mary Duke Biddle by François Flameng (1856-1923) (Courtesy of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation)

Mary Duke Biddle (1887-1960), the granddaughter of Washington Duke, graduated from Trinity College in 1907 before it became Duke University and maintained strong ties to Durham throughout her life. In 1956, she established the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, ensuring that her patronage of education and the arts would endure for generations to come. The foundation’s creation came at a fortuitous time. Music, formerly part of the Department of Aesthetics, Art and Music, was established as an independent department in 1960.

Thanks in no small part to the foundation’s support, the newly created Music department expanded significantly in the following decade.

Famed British composer Iain Hamilton joined the faculty in 1962. In 1965, Italian violinist Giorgio Ciompi formed the Ciompi Quartet, Duke’s resident string quartet, enhancing the university’s prestige as a world-class destination for music students, scholars and visiting artists. In 1969, a graduate program was established with the introduction of M.A. degrees in composition and musicology.

Long before the end of the 1960s, it was apparent that the aging Asbury Building, where the department was currently housed, was woefully inadequate to support the needs of a rapidly expanding, modern music department.

To Durham by way of the Kennedy Center

By the 1970s, architect Edward Durell Stone was at the height of his fame. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., also designed by Stone, opened in 1971. It was but one icon of architecture in Stone’s lengthy career, which include Radio City Music Hall (1932), the North Carolina State Legislative Building in Raleigh (1960) and the United States Embassy in New Delhi, India (1959) — which Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have considered one of the most beautiful buildings he had ever seen.

Endorsed by Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, chairman of the Biddle Foundation, and her husband,  James H. Semans, Stone and his firm were selected to design a new, state-of-the-art building specifically for the Music department, which would be named in honor of her mother, Mary Duke Biddle

Having secured financial support from the Biddle Foundation and The Duke Endowment, as well as Alyse Smith Cooper and grants from the U.S. government, crews broke ground for the new building on February 28, 1972. The designs looked so modern, so different from any other building on campus, that there was much anticipation — and speculation — in the local press as the features of the Mary Duke Biddle Building slowly took shape.

A dedication to remember

The opening of the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building on October 19, 1974, coincided with Duke’s celebration of its first 50 years. It was a star-studded affair. Terry Sanford, who had already served as governor of North Carolina and was currently the president of Duke, sat on the platform with Mary D.B.T. Semans.

Allan Bone, professor of Music and former chair of the department, gave the opening remarks. He called the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building “a fourth-generation manifestation of a family’s abiding affection for Duke University.”

Nancy Hanks, an alumna of Duke’s Women’s College and the second chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, delivered the Dedication Address.

Mary B.D.T. Semans speaks at the grand opening of the building
Mary D.B.T. Semans speaks at the dedication of the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building on October 19, 1974. Nancy Hanks, seated on the platform behind her, delivered the Dedication Address. (Duke University Archives)

“Nancy Hanks' dedication speech captures a timeless truth about the integral role of the arts here at Duke,” said Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant, current chair of the Music department.

It began, fittingly, with a grateful nod to the past and a profound hope for the future.

“There will be more celebrations, but in my view none more important than this one. [...] I am thrilled that the very first thing we do to honor our University's past 50 years and look toward its next 50 is to dedicate the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building. This act represents our University's recognition of the importance of music — and all the arts — in its past and for its future.”

The dedication ceremony concluded with Iain Hamilton’s Te Deum, commissioned for the occasion by the Semans and performed by the Duke University Chorale and Wind Symphony. “We shook the Chapel arches with the eight movements of the Te Deum,” remembered Linnartz, the instructor who sang with the Chorale as a first-year student that day. “It was an ecstatic experience.”

The festivities continued with the presentation of an Honorary Degree to renowned singer Marian Anderson in Duke Chapel and a gala jazz concert featuring alumni and current students.

‘Biddle building brings music to students’ lives’

So read the headline of an article published by The Chronicle on October 25, 1983. By then, the unusual architecture that had caused so much comment had become familiar. Although on the edge of East Campus, the Music building had become a central part of many students’ Duke experience.

Since its opening almost a decade earlier, the facilities in the building had been available to all Duke students, regardless of whether they were majoring in Music. An entire hallway on the lower level was devoted to individual practice rooms, many equipped with grand pianos. In addition, there were four organ practice rooms, several harpsichord practice rooms, ensemble rehearsal studios and a large rehearsal hall.

glass case of music instruments
The Duke University Musical Instrument Collections are on display in the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building’s lower lobby. (Elizabeth Thompson/Trinity Communications)

Looking toward the future, the Music building had been constructed with both a recording studio and an electronic music studio. The on-site Music Library and listening lab placed resources within easy reach of not only undergraduates and faculty, but also the new doctoral students who arrived when the department began offering a Ph.D. in Musicology in 1981.

A living space for music

“I have seen a lot of changes in the building in these 20 years,” said Linnartz, who returned to the Music department as a lecturing fellow in 2004. The improvements to the building and its facilities began long before then, though.

In 1995, the large rehearsal hall on the lower level was renovated and named in honor of Professor Allan Bone, who passed away in 1992. Today, the Duke Jazz Ensemble and Chamber Music Program hold regular rehearsals there, and many masterclasses and recitals take place within its walls.

The central fountain area on the lower level of the Biddle Music Building changed dramatically in 2001 with the arrival of the Duke University Musical Instrument Collections (DUMIC). The backbone of the Collections was a bequest from alumnus G. Norman Eddy, comprising over 500 late 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century instruments, including a ca. 1805 Clementi grand piano which is often used in monthly public concerts performed beside the fountain.

The Music graduate program has continued to grow with the introduction of the Ph.D. in Composition in 1992 and the recent addition of a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology. The Music Library, integral to the success of the graduate students, underwent an extensive renovation in 2011 to provide more study areas and space for books and journals.

With continuous support from the Biddle Foundation, the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building continues to evolve to meet the needs of each successive cohort of students.

“In recognition of her mother’s love of music, Mary D.B.T. Semans directed ongoing support from the Biddle Foundation that helped the department grow in quality and reputation,” said the foundation’s executive director Mimi O’Brien. “We are particularly pleased with the accomplishments of the Music Composition Graduate Fellows, as well as the many ways the Music department engages the Durham community.”

Stephen Jaffe, Mary D. B. T. and James H. Semans Distinguished Professor of Music Composition, appreciates the role the foundation has played in the development of the Composition program. “Growing needs and program quality required a model more reliant on professional quality recordings,” he said. Support from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation brings ensembles such as Alarm Will Sound, Sō Percussion, JACK Quartet, the North Carolina Symphony and others to campus, allowing graduate students to “emerge from rigorous studies with CD-quality recordings,” he said.

Jaffe and Linnartz also reflected on the ways in which Music students have changed over the decades, just as the Biddle building has evolved. “And what students!” said Jaffe. “They now come to Duke to study from all over the world, including China, Brazil, Italy, Japan, South Africa and Iran.”

Elizabeth Linnartz

Elizabeth Byrum Linnartz

Elizabeth Byrum Linnartz has taught in the Duke University Department of Music for 20 years. She is also a Duke alumna who, as a first-year student in 1974, participated in the opening ceremonies for the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building. 

Read more from Linnartz

Jaffe and Kelley

Stephen Jaffe

Stephen Jaffe, Mary D. B. T. and James H. Semans Distinguished Professor of Music Composition, joined the Music faculty in 1981. He served as the Chair of the department on numerous occasions and has been instrumental in the growth of the Composition program.

Read more from Jaffe

They also come to engage with multiple disciplines. Linnartz noted the many STEM students who straddle the arts and sciences. “[These students] are serious musicians, attracted to Duke for strong academics AND the opportunity to sing or play all four years of college,” she said. “Biddle has been a wonderful home for students and faculty who need music for their fullest expression of life and love and soul.”

Celebrating 50 years

Nancy Hanks concluded her Dedication Address on October 19, 1974, with the following words:

“As I view the beauty of this building, I am reminded that Winston Churchill said: ‘We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.’ The wisdom and generosity of Mary and Jim Semans and the creative genius of Edward Durell Stone and his associates have shaped this building. With its beauty, with its foundation firmly in North Carolina soil, with its program in the hands of a wonderful faculty and eager students, with its acceptance as part of a great university and as a resource for a growing community — this building will ‘shape us.’ Isn't that a wonderful way to begin our second 50 years?”

“The dedication 50 years ago, and the upcoming celebration in September — which coincides with the University’s Centennial Celebration — symbolize an enduring recognition that the arts are essential to the holistic development of both the individual and the academic community,” said Chair Mösenbichler-Bryant.

We would like to acknowledge the assistance of Duke University Archives, where many of the documents referenced in this story are held. Thanks also to the staff and faculty of the Department of Music, particularly those who shared their memories, greatly enhancing the story of the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building’s first 50 years.