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Dangerous Melodies: Classical music and US foreign

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Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War, W.W. Norton, 2019

Dangerous Melodies explores the relationship between US foreign policy and classical music over the course of the 20th century. Its author, Jonathan Rosenberg of the City University of New York, covers much territory that is both informative and relevant.

Of particular significance, in light of the US/NATO proxy war against Russia in Ukraine and its impact on musical performance today, are the sections of the volume dealing with the campaign against German composers and musicians in the wake of the 1917 US entry into the First World War, and also the manner in which composers ran afoul of witch-hunters in the early years of the Cold War prosecuted by Washington against the Soviet Union following World War II.

Dangerous Melodies

Both the First World War and the Cold War were accompanied by campaigns against “dangerous melodies.” In the case of WWI the “enemy” was a national one, and Germans were suspect because of their nationality and language. At the time of the Cold War, a similar superpatriotism was sponsored, this time on the ideological basis of anti-communism. 

There were 700,000 German-Americans, both foreign-born and of German parentage, in New York City in 1917, the year the US entered the war against Germany and its allies. It was almost three years after the conflict had begun, one motive for the delay being undoubtedly that rising American capitalism was waiting for its older rivals to exhaust themselves.

Amidst anti-German hysteria promoted by the ruling class and its political representatives, German classical music came under ignorant attack after the declaration of war in April 1917. Walter Damrosch, the famous German-born conductor who was himself of “mixed” ancestry (one of his grandfathers was Jewish), and for whom New York City’s Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center is named, felt it necessary to remind the public that Bach, Beethoven and Brahms (the famous “three Bs” of classical music) “belong to the entire civilized world.” Without these and other German composers, much of today’s standard symphonic repertory, and even more so that of a century ago, would disappear.

Contrary to Damrosch’s enlightened views, music of German composers was quickly removed from many concert programs after 1917. A distinction was eventually made between performances of work by dead German composers (including the abovementioned Bach, Beethoven and Brahms), and those like Richard Strauss, who were very much alive. As late as October 1917 Strauss was still being played by the New York Philharmonic, but in January 1918 this changed. The work of the composer of tone poems like Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel, as well as operas such as Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, was removed from concert halls throughout the country, and did not return until several years after the war.

Members of the board of the New York Philharmonic demanded the removal of its conductor, the Austrian-born Josef Stransky. Stransky survived, but others did not. Karl Muck, who had been the much-praised conductor of the Boston Symphony, was falsely accused of refusing to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” after a Boston concert. He was not only removed from his position, but also imprisoned as an enemy alien for nearly a year and a half. Muck was eventually deported, in August 1919, and never returned to the US.

Karl Muck

As in the case of the First World War, the second, even greater, global slaughter, was followed by preparation for another. In the post-World War II years, however, while the crusade against communism did lead to shooting war in Korea between 1950 and 1953, it eventually took the form of the Cold War between the US and USSR, lasting more than four decades.

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