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The Politics of Classical Music in the 20th Century

For much of the 20th century, classical musicians, composers, and conductors were international superstars, beloved (and sometimes reviled) by the masses. They made front-page news and were feted by world leaders.

But their fortunes were also shaped by political forces beyond their control: anti-German sentiment in World War I, the fight against Hitler and Mussolini in World War II, and the Cold War.

Professor Jonathan Rosenberg (Hunter College, The Graduate Center) explores this intersection of classical music and politics in Dangerous Melodies. The book draws on Rosenberg’s passion for both music and history: He is a Juilliard-trained trumpet player who performed and taught music in New York before becoming a historian.

Dangerous Melodies begins with the story of Van Cliburn, a Texan who won an important piano competition in Moscow in 1958. His performance earned him a bear hug from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev — despite Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Back home, Cliburn blew kisses to 100,000 cheering fans in a ticker-tape parade, the only parade ever held in New York to honor a musician.

Cliburn’s victory was more than a personal triumph, Rosenberg said in an interview with NPR. That an American “could go over and defeat the Russians … in classical music” suggested “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.”

During World War I, the Metropolitan Opera banned German opera. In the 1930s, conductor Arturo Toscanini was lionized for opposing Mussolini and made headlines for withdrawing from a 1933 German festival celebrating the music of Nazi icon Richard Wagner.

Musicians also faced judgment after World War II. In 1949, conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler withdrew himself from an apppointment to run the Chicago Symphony after critics painted him as a Nazi sympathizer — though his stance was more complicated than that.

In the McCarthy era, composer Aaron Copland was one of many Americans interrogated in Washington for alleged Communist sympathies. Copland “represented in his music America’s highest patriotic aspirations,” Rosenberg said. But because of the McCarthy hearings, Copland “was banned from performing. And he suffered.”

TV and digital distractions, the rise of pop music, and a lack of music education have all led to the decline of classical music in the U.S. But Rosenberg’s book takes us back to a time when “what happened in the concert hall and the opera house” helped Americans define “patriotism, loyalty, democracy, freedom, tyranny and oppression.”