A Conversation with Jonathan Rosenberg
For many of us, political discourse is difficult to extricate from the cultural lexicon that mirrors and helps define it. Movies, music, award shows, and much much more, help us understand our world, and even have the potential to influence it. This interplay between culture and politics is nothing new, even if the lexicon has changed. That is why Jonathan Rosenberg’s book, Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War through the Cold War, is such an original and necessary look at the United States on the political world stage.
Trained as a classical musician and educated as a historian, Rosenberg looks back at a time when classical music dominated much of the United State’s cultural discourse. Dangerous Melodies traces the history of classical music through both World Wars and well into the Cold War. In doing so, the book uncovers some important truths about the nature of political life in 20th century America.
Recently, BackStory had the opportunity to speak with Jonathan Rosenberg. The conversation below has been edited for clarity.
BackStory: What drew you to this approach of viewing the 20th century through the lens of classical music?
Rosenberg: Classical music has been a very important part of my life since I was quite young, and later, I pursued it professionally. After a number of years in music I went into academia and studied 20th century U.S. history. With this book, I wanted to see if there was a way I could pursue my love of classical music and meld that to my deep interest in history. I didn’t want to write about American composers or compositions; instead I wanted to explore the experience of classical music in the United States and see how that interacted with world affairs.
I began by scanning the 20th century by reading many decades of music journals and newspaper accounts, which gave me a sense as to the contours of the period. I began to see points of intersection between what was happening in the world of classical music in the United States and what was going on in the wider world. Over time, I recognized that this connection – this link – could be fashioned into a book that looked at the relationship between the classical music community in the United States and momentous affairs that were unfolding overseas.
World War I, the emergence of fascism in Italy and Germany between the world wars, World War II, and finally the Cold War were obviously enormously significant events in the history of the 20th century, and each had a powerful impact on the world of classical music. I then dug down more deeply into each of these developments in an effort to understand how they intersected in a meaningful way with the classical music world in America. What I began to grasp was that this classical music story, as it were, could be used as a lens through which to look at the way America engaged the world.
And what I saw in studying the world of classical music was something that’s quite important in the history of 20th century America aside and apart from music, that is, America’s increasing engagement with the world, and growing sense of insecurity or unease resulting from developments that were unfolding across the world.
BackStory: Reading the book, I felt so much sympathy for a figure like Shostakovich trying to navigate these events and insecurity.
Rosenberg: As a musician I knew Shostakovich’s music, I’d listened to it and played some of the symphonies. But what really came to interest me, and what the book shows, is that the way the way Shostakovich was perceived in the United States reflected, in a certain sense, the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union itself.
When the Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony received its American premiere in July of 1942 it became a huge national story across the United States. Shostakovich was lionized as a hero because he had written the piece in Leningrad when the city was under siege by the German army.
Shostakovich became a very, very important figure in the United States. He was discussed, people were playing the piece, there were countless newspaper and magazine stories about him. At that moment, of course, the United States was fighting World War II, and it was important to fortify the relationship between Washington and Moscow. So he became this heroic figure, an artist portrayed in heroic terms.
Seven years later, in 1949, Shostakovich visited the United States for the first time. He came to the Waldorf Hotel in New York for a peace conference which was organized by elements of the left of the United States, Europe, and to some extent, the Soviet Union.
Shostakovich was the most sought after and celebrated figure at the peace conference. He delivered a highly political speech, written for him by Soviet authorities, in which he excoriated the United States for its militarism, for causing the world to spin out of control in terms of East-West relations. Seven years after he had been held up as this heroic figure, he was now seen as a tool of the Soviet government, “an obedient instrument of the state.”
In Shostakovich’s experience here in the United States, one can see what had happened to the U.S.-Soviet relationship, which went from this crucial, if somewhat uncomfortable, alliance during World War II, to the deepening gloom of the Cold War in the late forties.
BackStory: Toward the end of the book, you write about how the United States’ attempts to impact world events through classical music didn’t pan out to much of anything. Did you find any conclusions about the relationship between politics and culture, and how they might have any power to influence each other?
Rosenberg: The book ends with the so-called Cold War tours, with the U.S. government sending American symphony orchestras across the world, particularly behind the Iron Curtain, to propagandize the American system.
I conclude that ultimately the Cold War tours were not a particularly effective way to do that. In the end, classical music was not capable of transforming the world. It couldn’t transform international relations. It couldn’t make world politics more humane or cooperative as some hoped it might. In that sense, classical music had its limits.
As far as the relationship between politics and culture is concerned, the fact that classical music did not have this transformative effect does not minimize the significance of the entanglement between music and politics. They are deeply entangled, deeply enmeshed, in each other. What struck me in writing the book was how over the course of the 20th century, people were acutely conscious of the political implications of music.
You have thousands of people demonstrating against the performance of German music in New York City in the aftermath of World War I. While those people might not have been able to provide a finely crafted explanation about the relationship between culture and politics or music and politics, that they were out on the street demonstrating, often violently, about the performance of German opera, is a clear illustration that culture and politics are linked. That same relationship was evident on any number of occasions.
One of the central points I do make in the book is that, while classical music didn’t help America overcome some of the challenges it faced on the world stage, it did help people understand those challenges. It helped people grapple with questions of war and peace, patriotism, democracy, tyranny, and oppression. So while I’m not going to say that people’s reaction to music helped America win World War I, it did help Americans reflect upon and understand what was at stake in the war.
Because people imbued music with political and ideological meaning, it helped them understand some of the great questions of the 20th century. Therein lies the importance of music and its relationship with world politics. It did not solve problems, but it helped people begin to try to understand a variety of challenges.
BackStory: These conversations about the power and influence of classical music were being had at the time as well. What did this debate look like?
Rosenberg: The other thing that I came to see as I did this research was this very interesting debate between these two groups that I call the musical nationalists and the musical universalists.
During in the 1930s, for example, when Wilhelm Furtwängler was invited to come and conduct the New York Philharmonic to replace Toscanini, there were those who thought it was an absolutely abhorrent idea. They believed he was an unsavory character, someone who should not come to the United States because he was seen as a tool of the Hitler regime. This was in the thirties. Then there were those who said, in fact, we must keep music and politics separate. Furtwängler should be allowed to come to the United States. He’s a great musician. He’s a great conductor. We want him here. These people believed the two things, i.e., music and politics, were distinct and should be kept apart.
Those sorts of debates reflect how meaningful classical music was in the life of the country. People were deeply committed to their respective positions, which further heightened the meaningfulness of classical music in American society.
Ultimately, one of the stories of the book is that classical music mattered a great deal over the course of the 20th century in a way that it does not matter anymore. It became entangled in these enormously consequential international events.
So when we think of a country being riveted by the performance of the Shostakovich 7th Symphony in World War II, that is a world that has disappeared. In that sense the book captures a kind of lost world, where classical music was once deeply meaningful, precisely because it became entangled in world politics.
Again, that’s a world that no longer exists, as far as I can tell, in the United States. You’re not going to have millions tuning into the premiere of a classical piece, or thousands demonstrating on the streets against performances of certain types of music. It’s unimaginable now. One of the things that I think is striking, and I’ve given lots of talks on the book in various places, and one of the things people find absolutely remarkable is how much classical music mattered to people in an earlier time. That is one of the things I was not particularly aware of when I began this project several years ago. But by the end of it, I became keenly aware of how important the music once was in the life of the country.
Jonathan Rosenberg, professor of twentieth-century history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is author of How Far the Promised Land?: World Affairs and the American Civil Rights Movement from the First World War to Vietnam, and coauthor of Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice: The Civil Rights Tapes. He lives in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.