'Dangerous Melodies' Examines Classical Music And American Foreign Relations

Dec 14, 2019
Originally published on December 14, 2019 10:40 am

At the height of the Cold War in 1958, Van Cliburn, a curly-headed kid from Texas, won the International Tchaikovsky Competition. He was hugged by Nikita Khrushchev and heralded like Elvis Presley when he returned.

Classical music figures were once stars in America. They were pursued, recognized and gossiped about — people who had popular and cultural impact. Jonathan Rosenberg, a professor of history at Hunter College, has a new book that examines this phenomenon. It's called Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from The Great War through the Cold War.

NPR's Scott Simon talks to Rosenberg about some of the genre's influential figures, including Van Cliburn, Richard Strauss and Aaron Copland. Listen in the audio player above and read on for highlights of their conversation.


Interview Highlights:

On Van Cliburn's popularity during the Cold War:

Van Cliburn went off to Moscow and won the [International Tchaikovsky] Competition. This was seen as a victory for the American system — the idea ... that he could go over there and win this competition and receive praise from Russians suggested to people that perhaps the United States was not comprised of a bunch of materialists and barbarians. In many circles, that was how we were seen.

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On the public denouncement of German classical music in the U.S. during World War I:

There was, throughout the country, tremendous anti-German sentiment. Classical music was swept up in this anti-German sentiment — quite distressingly, I might add. The Metropolitan Opera company, for example, banned all German opera starting in the 1917-18 season. The music of living German composers was banned in most places in the United States, including the music of Richard Strauss, and musicians in the orchestra also lost their jobs. This happened across the country. Obviously, it manifested itself in different ways, but the world of classical music in the United States — East, Midwest, West — was affected adversely by this.

On the significance of Arturo Toscanini's concert in April 1933:

Toscanini and a number of other musicians in the United States sent a cable to Adolf Hitler, basically saying that Hitler ought to the stop the depredations against musicians in Nazi Germany. There were some who were not Jewish musicians, but in the eyes of the Nazi regime, they were transgressives. Toscanini was asked to become part of this effort and he said "Absolutely, I will certainly do that." It was seen as quite an important event in the United States at the time.

On Aaron Copland's experience during the McCarthy era:

I think an Illinois congressman came to understand that Aaron Copland's political sentiments were, let us say, questionable. This congressman made quite a fuss about it and in fact, [his piece "Lincoln Portrait"] was taken off the "play list" for [Dwight Eisenhower's] inaugural. Copland was exorcised about it. Others were as well, but there was worse to come for Copland. He was interrogated, if you will, by McCarthy and Roy Cohn. The larger point is: he was a person who, as you said earlier, represented in his music America's highest patriotic aspirations. And nevertheless, he was drawn into the toxic quality of the McCarthy era, being called before that committee, and after that, in fact, he was banned from performing and he suffered.

On the role of classical music today:

I'd like to think that in a culture that is often distracted, that seems at times to be spinning madly out of control, that it allows people the opportunity to appreciate music that was produced in another era — which can be, I find, uplifting. Quite frankly, to me, it would be desirable if people were open to listening to it, because I think it can be really rather enriching to sit down and listen to a symphony or a string quartet. I think that would be nice, if classical music could yet again become something that people were willing to devote at least a little time to.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There is another American who once got a great, big ol' bear hug from a Russian leader...

(SOUNDBITE OF VAN CLIBURN PERFORMANCE OF TCHAIKOVSKY'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 IN B FLAT MINOR")

SIMON: ...Van Cliburn, curly-headed Texas kid who won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, the height of the Cold War. He was hugged by Nikita Khrushchev and heralded like Elvis Presley when he got back home to America. Classical music figures were once stars in America - pursued, recognized, gossiped about, people who had popular and cultural impact on America.

Jonathan Rosenberg, a professor of history at Hunter College, has a new book, "Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music In America From the Great War Through the Cold War." He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

JONATHAN ROSENBERG: It's a great pleasure to be here.

SIMON: Help us understand Van Cliburn's popularity at the height of the Cold War.

ROSENBERG: Well, that's how the book begins. He won the competition in the spring of 1958, the Tchaikovsky competition. When he came back, Cliburn-mania swept the country. People were deeply interested in everything about him. They wanted to read about him. There was a ticker tape parade in New York. A hundred thousand delirious New Yorkers watched the parade snake its way up Broadway. Cliburn was in the back of an open car, waving to people, blowing kisses.

And this was seen as a victory for the American system in some sense, the idea that Van Cliburn, an American, could go over and defeat the Russians, among others, in classical music, which was not seen as something that the United States particularly excelled at, that he could go over there and win this competition and receive praise, in fact, from Russians while he was there suggested to people that perhaps the United States was not comprised of a bunch of materialists and barbarians because in many circles, that was how we were seen. Cliburn seemed to put the lie to that.

SIMON: Let me ask you about another period much earlier.

ROSENBERG: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD STRAUSS' "ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA")

SIMON: The United States entered World War I in 1917. And across the country....

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD STRAUSS' "ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA")

SIMON: ...There were calls for the music of Richard Strauss and other great German composers not to be played. What happened?

ROSENBERG: There was throughout the country tremendous anti-German sentiment. Classical music was swept up in this anti-German sentiment quite distressingly, I might add. The Metropolitan Opera Company, for example, banned all German opera starting in the 1917, '18 season. The music of living German composers was banned in most places in the United States, including the music of Richard Strauss. And musicians in the orchestra also lost their jobs. This happened across the country. Obviously, it manifested itself in different ways, but the world of classical music in the United States - East, Midwest and West - was affected adversely by this.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN E-FLAT MAJOR")

SIMON: Let me ask you about another period.

ROSENBERG: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN E-FLAT MAJOR")

SIMON: Maestro Arturo Toscanini conducting Beethoven's Third.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN E-FLAT MAJOR")

SIMON: Let me get you to tell us about the concert he conducted in April of 1933 and its significance.

ROSENBERG: Toscanini and a number of other musicians in the United States sent a cable to Adolf Hitler basically saying that Hitler ought to stop the depredations against musicians in Nazi Germany.

SIMON: I mean, to be plain, they were Jewish musicians - not just...

ROSENBERG: Not exclusively.

SIMON: Yeah.

ROSENBERG: There were some who were not Jewish musicians, but they were in the eyes of the Nazi regime transgressors. And Toscanini was asked to become part of this effort. And he said, absolutely, I will certainly do that. And it was seen as quite an important event in the United States at the time.

SIMON: Another period I want to ask you about - the McCarthy era in the United States and a story - I'm afraid I didn't know - about a composer who, in many minds, is the author of quintessential, irreplaceable American music.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF AARON COPLAND'S "LINCOLN PORTRAIT")

SIMON: Of course, that's Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait."

ROSENBERG: Lovely, lovely to listen to.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF AARON COPLAND'S "LINCOLN PORTRAIT")

SIMON: It was struck from the playlist, if I might call it that, of Dwight Eisenhower's inaugural concert.

ROSENBERG: That is correct. I think an Illinois congressman - I write about this in the book...

SIMON: He was, yeah.

ROSENBERG: ...A man by the name of Busby came to understand or was given to understand that that Aaron Copland's political sentiments were, let us say, questionable. This congressman made quite a fuss about it. And, in fact, the piece was taken off, as you said, the playlist for the inaugural. It was taken off. Copland was exercised about it. Others were as, well. Then there was worse to come for Copland, which we might discuss.

SIMON: He was called before Joseph McCarthy's Senate committee.

ROSENBERG: He was interrogated, if you will, by McCarthy and Roy Cohn. The larger point is that he was a person who, as you said earlier, represented in his music America's highest patriotic aspirations. And nevertheless, he was drawn into the toxic quality of the McCarthy era, being called before that committee. And after that, in fact, he was banned from performing. And he suffered.

SIMON: I find it astonishing that Aaron Copland lost gigs.

ROSENBERG: He did. Eventually, he sort of returned to favor, as it were, but it was...

SIMON: And it was on the Nixon inaugural...

ROSENBERG: That's right. But it was a grim period for many, including Copland.

SIMON: You reflect toward the end of this book on the fact that classical - the classical music audience in America...

ROSENBERG: Yes.

SIMON: ...Is smaller than it once was. What do you think classical music might do now for American culture if more people just picked up the habit?

ROSENBERG: Well, I'd like to think that in a culture that is often distracted, that is seems, at times, to be spinning madly out of control that it allows people the opportunity to appreciate music that was produced in another era, which can be - I find - uplifting. And, you know, quite frankly to me, it would be desirable if people were open to listening to it because I think it can be really rather enriching to sit down and listen to a symphony or a string quartet. I think that would be nice if classical music could yet again become something that people are willing to devote at least a little bit of time to.

SIMON: Jonathan Rosenberg - his book "Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music In America From The Great War Through The Cold War." Thank you very much for being with us.

ROSENBERG: Pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.