Nationalist Anthems

Remembering a time when composers mattered more

Van Cliburn performing
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.

The Darmstadt-born conductor Karl Muck, the man responsible for molding the Boston Symphony into one of the world’s finest ensembles, was one victim of the anti-German hysteria spreading across the nation. In Muck’s case, the trouble started with a debate over aesthetics. It became common in those days—indeed, necessary—for orchestras to include “The Star-Spangled Banner” on programs of symphonic music. But for Muck (and for his boss, Henry Higginson, the Boston Symphony’s founder and chief administrator), patriotic tunes had no place in the rarefied environs of the concert hall. Although “The Star-Spangled Banner” would not become the national anthem until 1931, it nevertheless turned into a wartime litmus test: the failure to perform it, on whatever grounds, was to risk being accused of treachery. Theodore Roosevelt bluntly demanded that any musician who didn’t play the tune be deported at once. Sure enough, after failing to conduct “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a concert in Rhode Island, Muck was arrested, branded a civilian enemy alien, and transported to an internment camp at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Among the internees there was another eminent artist, the Viennese-born Ernst Kunwald, who had until recently been the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony.

This historical period, Rosenberg argues, exposed a cultural divide in the nation: between those who believed that art transcended politics and those who countered that art was an instrument of nationalism. The pitting of the musical universalists against the musical nationalists, central to so much 20th-century American cultural history, is the leitmotif of Rosenberg’s book, though the terms of the debate were not always as black and white as they were during the First World War. In the immediate postwar years, for example, Wagner was rehabilitated, his operas performed again at the Metropolitan Opera. Even with the rise of Nazism and the outbreak of the Second World War, German music continued to be heard with considerable enthusiasm. The policies that had demonized German artists not long before were now thought to be needlessly punitive and unethical. The appetite for Wagner, in particular, remained healthy, no matter how strongly his music nourished and invigorated the Nazis. At the end of Act III of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Hans Sachs sings a passage in praise of the purity of German art while warning against a “false, foreign rule” that might one day use “evil tricks” to bring about the state’s demise. The musical nationalists, to use Rosenberg’s paradigm, would have discerned in that passage the roots of 20th-century anti-Semitism, but not the universalists. All they heard was an ennobling music, an exalted paean to the arts, a hymn resounding in glorious C major.

Such charity had its limits. It was one thing to venerate the art of a composer who had died in 1883, quite another to countenance an artist who lived in Germany during the Nazi era. The decision to appoint Wilhelm Furtwängler to the position of music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1936 led to considerable rancor. At issue, Rosenberg writes, was the extent to which “Furtwängler supported and was complicit in the policies of Nazi Germany.” Other prominent German musicians had moved abroad when Hitler came to power. Furtwängler remained, continuing to lead the Berlin Philharmonic. That decision dogged the conductor even after he was forced to say no to New York. In 1948, he was offered the music directorship of the Chicago Symphony; public outrage led to yet another withdrawal. Furtwängler was one of the many artists—including the pianist Walter Gieseking, the soprano Kirsten Flagstad, and the conductor Herbert von Karajan—who could not easily remove the taint of their association with the Nazis. Their appearances in America led to vigorous protests, though they were not without their share of defenders, universalists who argued that banning an artist for political reasons was an un-American thing to do.

A new idea, Rosenberg writes, emerged toward the end of the Second World War, that classical music could be so inspirational to a nation that it might help win a war. Thus was Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony—its first three movements composed in Leningrad as the city was besieged by the Germans—championed in this country as a symbol of freedom and antifascism. The symphony’s artistic merits were less important than its inherent political value, and a national radio audience, hearing the work for the first time on July 19, 1942, was held in a fevered thrall. With the advent of the Cold War and fears growing about the spread of communism, music was increasingly seen to be “interwoven with the democratic aspirations of the American people.” It was, sometimes in not so subtle ways, weaponized. How else to explain the dispatch of symphony orchestras on diplomatic missions abroad? This exporting of American culture to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, where artistic freedoms were brutally suppressed, was both a means of promoting democracy and a master stroke of propaganda. And when the pianist Van Cliburn won first prize at the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, he was feted with a ticker-tape parade in New York City. His triumph went far beyond the realm of art; Cliburn, the tall, handsome Texan who had melted Russian hearts with Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, had scored one for the West.

The larger point that Rosenberg makes here is that once upon a time, classical music in America mattered. Yet as he leaves behind the height of the Cold War, Rosenberg notes the decline of classical music’s importance in the wider culture, the tone of his narrative becoming more pessimistic:

To be sure, the dwindling interest in classical music in the latter part of the twentieth century flowed from a number of sources, not least the ubiquitous appeal of more vernacular genres such as rock and other forms of pop music; a decline in music education curriculums, which no longer offered a broad musical education in elementary through high school; and the pervasive attraction (and distraction) of television and digital culture. At the same time, the end of the convergence between the world of classical music in the United States and international political developments meant the music no longer exercised the powerful hold on the American people that it had from the Great War through the Cold War.

As a common language of celebration or eulogy, as a means of expressing collective joy or sorrow, classical music is indeed a dying tongue. Would 2,500 people cram into the nave and transept  of the National Cathedral today to hear Haydn’s Mass in the Time of War, as they did in January 1973, when Leonard Bernstein conducted a concert in protest of President Nixon’s second inaugural? Would a radio broadcast of the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony overwhelm a national audience, as it did on November 22, 1963, when Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony gave an impromptu performance of the piece just hours after President Kennedy was assassinated? At least we seem beyond a time when a performance of Parsifal could be perceived as a national threat, or when conductors could be fired for failing to play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s not that such tests of loyalty and patriotism don’t exist. They just happen to take place in America’s sports stadiums and arenas, not in our concert halls or opera houses.

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Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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