The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When classical music had a place on America’s political stage

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Tim Page is a professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997 for his writings about music for The Washington Post.

Not so long ago, music education was considered an essential part of a young person’s training in America. Children learned to sing scales, recognize modes, and play rudimentary piano or recorder; were introduced to the music of the great composers — Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner, at least; and were invited to go further if they were interested. Indeed, when Leonard Bernstein conducted his televised New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts in the 1950s and 1960s, the musical knowledge among the youthful audiences probably exceeded that of some adult ticket-buyers standing in line tonight at the Kennedy Center.

Now, classical music has taken up a rarefied spot beside serious poetry and philosophy and is no longer considered among the truly popular arts. Its following is small but passionate. All of this makes it hard for us to imagine the world that Jonathan Rosenberg explores in his engaging and authoritative new book, “Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America From the Great War Through the Cold War.”

That was a time when a new symphony by a Russian composer merited cover treatment in Time magazine, multiple performances and national broadcasts throughout the country. The composer was Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), and his music merited attention, then as now. His Seventh Symphony, dubbed the “Leningrad,” came to the United States during the decisive battle of Leningrad, which would stretch on for another year after the premiere (the Soviet Union having recently been betrayed in its alliance with Nazi Germany and forced to join with Hitler’s other enemies).

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 was not just a work of art but a call to action — indeed, something like a musical editorial. As Rosenberg puts it: “It was hardly an exaggeration when, more than a year after the Seventh’s premiere, Newsweek claimed the ‘whole world knows about Dmitri Shostakovich’ and suggested that those who could not ‘spell his name [could] at least pronounce it.’ For his part, Shostakovich expressed satisfaction that Americans had enjoyed his composition, though what mattered most, he said, was that they understood it. Both peoples had ‘feelings in common about war and peace.’ ”

Some of the stories Rosenberg tells are familiar, even comfortable. There’s the unexpected triumph of the homespun Texas pianist Van Cliburn at the international Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, a victory that Premier Nikita Khrushchev himself had to sign off on before it was awarded. “In the South, if people like you, they go crazy about you,” Cliburn told reporters. “From the reception I received I think there’s a little bit of Texas in the Russian people.” (The pianist was given a ticker-tape parade when he returned to New York in 1958 and went on to play at the White House for every president through Barack Obama.)

But in general, this is far from a triumphalist study. Rosenberg painstakingly examines wartime jingoism in the United States. In one case, Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” was forced off an inaugural concert for the newly elected Dwight D. Eisenhower by a now-forgotten congressman from Kansas who objected to Copland’s leftist politics. Rosenberg also explores the vehement public protests against some great artists who had, for a variety of reasons, not all of them political, chosen to remain in occupied Europe during World War II.

This is not only valuable and fair-minded history but an unceasingly engaging series of tales. My favorite section is the examination of the anti-German hysteria (the word is not too strong) that overtook the United States during World War I, which has rarely, if ever, been examined in such detail. Richard Wagner’s music disappeared from the Metropolitan Opera, and the Philadelphia Orchestra dropped Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” from an opening-night program.

The German Karl Muck, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was jailed for his disinclination to conduct “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and his neighbors in Seal Harbor, Maine, reported that Muck’s summer cottage, “with its unobstructed hilltop view of the ocean, had allowed the maestro to transmit light signals to vessels at sea. Some declared they had witnessed alternating flashes of light emanating from the cottage, signals which they believed were part of a scheme designed to relay messages to German vessels located far off the coast.”

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Music Teachers’ Association in Oshkosh unanimously condemned the employment of foreign music teachers in wartime. As Rosenberg notes, “The list of violent episodes would grow throughout the period of American belligerency and included, according to one account, the stoning of dachshunds on the streets of Milwaukee.”

Rosenberg closes with the New York Philharmonic’s 2008 visit to North Korea, which created some controversy among those who thought it a misguided sop to a totalitarian country. With a certain mournfulness, he writes: “During those few days when a surge of interest erupted over the New Yorkers’ excursion, a handful of people might have recalled a time when classical music and the wider world converged. They might have remembered when the melodies of Beethoven, Wagner, Strauss, Copland, and Shostakovich, along with the work of the esteemed artists and institutions that performed such extraordinary music, were entwined with developments beyond America. However difficult to imagine, across those eventful decades, countless people embraced the idea that what happened in the concert hall and the opera house was inseparable from the destiny of the United States and the well-being of the American people.”

Classical Music in America from the Great War through the Cold War

By Jonathan Rosenberg

Norton. 485 pp. $35.95