Book Reviews - Winter 2020

Nationalist Anthems

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Remembering a time when composers mattered more

By Sudip Bose | December 2, 2019
Van Cliburn performing at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory-both a musical event and a Cold War victory.(Alamy)
Van Cliburn performing at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory-both a musical event and a Cold War victory.(Alamy)

Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War through the Cold War by Jonathan Rosenberg; Norton, 512 pp., $39.95

If you had wandered into an American concert hall in the late 19th century, the odds of your encountering a work of German symphonic music would have been astonishingly high. Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Wagner were the lifeblood of American orchestras, with Wagner also reigning in the opera house. American conservatories, meanwhile, were run according to the German pedagogic tradition, and American composers largely wrote tone poems and symphonies in the manner of their continental cousins. With every major conductor of German extraction, and with so many German musicians making up the ranks of symphony rosters—from New York to St. Louis, Boston to Chicago—the lingua franca of orchestral rehearsals was, more often than not, the language of Goethe, not Thoreau.

This state of affairs persisted through the early 20th century, but with the entrance of the United States into the First World War, in the spring of 1917, the national disposition toward German music and culture turned temporarily sour. As the historian Jonathan Rosenberg writes in his illuminating new book on classical music in 20th-century America, this enmity led not only to the proscription of German composers (both living and dead) but also to the forced resignations or dismissals of many prominent musicians. Even those who pledged allegiance to their adopted land were viewed with increasing suspicion, their loyalties called into question. Sometimes a mere unsubstantiated rumor was enough for an enraged public to turn on a once-beloved musician.

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