For half a century, classical music reflected America’s identity on the world stage.
In a thoroughly researched and engrossing history, Rosenberg (Twentieth Century U.S. History/Hunter Coll. and CUNY Graduate Center; How Far the Promised Land?: World Affairs and the Civil Rights Movement From the First World War to Vietnam, 2005, etc.) reveals the surprising connection between classical music and world politics from the early 1900s until the end of the Cold War. During these years, classical music became imbued “with political and ideological meaning” that helped Americans “decide what was worth fighting for and why. It helped to illuminate the meaning of democracy, freedom, and patriotism” as well as “tyranny and oppression.” Because music seemed so potent a force, debate raged over which music and which performers should be heard in concert halls: Musical nationalists believed that certain composers, performers, or conductors could contaminate the nation and should be banned; musical universalists held that music transcended politics and “could speak to the hopes and dreams of all humanity.” The two positions became violently opposed during World War I, when “uncontrolled xenophobia and hypernationalism” focused on Germans. Concerts and contracts were canceled, two acclaimed maestros were imprisoned, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” became a requisite part of an orchestra’s repertoire. Americans, Rosenberg writes, “came to see Germans as demonic, whether they were fighting on a European battlefield or directing symphony orchestras.” By the next war, however, universalists prevailed, and the idea of “enemy music” disappeared, replaced by “the notion that classical music, German compositions included, could help vanquish malevolent regimes.” As Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitsky put it, “of all the arts, music is the most powerful medium against evil.” That sentiment continued during the Cold War, when the American government sent symphony orchestras and performers throughout the world “to display the fruits of liberal democracy to friend and foe.” Among the stars of that effort was New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein, who believed that classical music “might play a part in building a more compassionate and cooperative world.”
A richly detailed and freshly illuminating musical/political history.