Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall, 1946–1948; photo by William Gottlieb (Library of Congress)
There was a time in the 20th century when classical music stood at the center of American life, occupying a prominent place in the nation’s culture and politics. As a result, the work of renowned conductors, instrumentalists, and singers—as well as the activities of orchestras and opera companies—were intertwined with momentous international events.
Julliard-trained musician and Hunter College professor Jonathan Rosenberg delves into the singular and complicated decades-long relationship of classical music and political ideology in America.
He examines the politics behind classical music as he discusses how German musicians were dismissed or imprisoned as that country’s music was swept from American auditoriums during World War I. Yet, during World War II, those same compositions were no longer part of the political discussion, while Russian music, especially Shostakovich’s, was used as a tool to strengthen the US–Soviet alliance.
That relationship dissolved in the Cold War, and Van Cliburn’s triumph in the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow became cause for America to celebrate. In the 1950s, accusations of communism were leveled against members of the American music community, including Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. At the same time, the State Department sent symphony orchestras—and a notable multi-year tour of Porgy and Bess—to perform around the world, even behind the Iron Curtain.
Rosenberg’s book, Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War (W.W. Norton), is available for sale and signing.