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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

The Sound of Political Dissonance

National Post, 21 July 2001

Aaron CoplandOn Tuesday, May 26, 1953, composer Aaron Copland appeared before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy. For two hours, McCarthy grilled Copland about his associations with Communists and Communist front organizations. “You may have been so naive that you didn’t know they were Communist controlled,” the Senator suggested skeptically, “or you may have done it purposely.” Copland denied everything and named no names. A footnote in U.S. history? Perhaps.

But some scholars now believe Cold-War McCarthyism may have had a much broader influence on American culture — it may even have shaped the very sound of American music. According to this view, some U.S. composers responded to the political pressures of the Cold War by abandoning popular, folk-inspired works — such as Copland’s own Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring — in favour of atonal, audience-alienating works. McCarthy has been accused of a lot of misdeeds in the past. But ruining American music?

telegramLet’s back up a little. In July, 1921, Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote excitedly to one of his pupils that he had “discovered something that will assure the supremacy of German music for the next 100 years.” His discovery was “dodecaphony,” an “emancipation of dissonance” that undermined the hierarchical structure of Western tonal harmony. Schoenberg’s compositions were based on a distinctive “row” or “series” of each of the 12 pitches in the Western scale.

What followed is now the stuff of bitter legend: As serialism (as it is often called) spread from Europe to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, twelve-tone composers in the American academy allegedly “tyrannized” the remaining cowering tonalists. Works by Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich were critically scorned. “Every musician who has not felt … the necessity of the serial language is USELESS,” sneered French composer Pierre Boulez. The tonal system “is no longer employed by serious composers of the mainstream,” wrote the American composer Charles Wuorinen, as recently as 1979. “It has been replaced or succeeded by the twelve-tone system.”

What does all this have to do with the Cold War? After all, Joe McCarthy probably would have had a hard time pronouncing “dodecaphony,” much less listening to it. Richard Taruskin, a musicologist at the University of California, Berkeley, is working to answer that question in a massive new history of Western music to be published next year by Oxford University Press. Part of the answer, he believes, has to do with the Allied victory in the Second World War. “In post-war America,” Mr. Taruskin says, “there was tremendous optimism about technology, and a belief that science had won the war.” The scientistic aspect of twelve-tone music attracted numerous followers, none more formidable than Schoenberg’s American disciple Milton Babbitt, a mathematician and composer, now professor emeritus at Princeton.

Musical developments in the Soviet Union provide another link to the Cold War. While cultural commissars denounced dodecaphony as “formalism alien to Soviet art,” they championed works having a “deep, organic connection with the people and their legacy of music and folk song.” Soviet composers were terrorized into composing joyful melodic works. Babbitt responded by urging composers — in a 1958 article infamously titled “Who Cares if You Listen?” — to withdraw from social engagement, so that they “would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.” By aiming for the “complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition,” Babbitt turned unpopularity into a badge of freedom.

Does this suggest a Cold War influence on Babbitt’s music? “Good heavens, I’ve never thought of it,” he says, speaking from his home in Princeton, N.J. He admits the political rhetoric of leftists in the 1930s disgusted him — “I found myself a little Mississippi boy in the middle of Trotskyites, Lovestoneites, groups of people you’ve never even heard of anymore.” But while such experiences profoundly influenced his politics and philosophy, “it certainly didn’t have any influence on me in any musical way.”

Copland, however, may be another story. University of Maryland musicologist Jennifer DeLapp believes there is plenty of evidence to suggest Copland modified his style at least partially in response to Cold War pressures. Ms. DeLapp, who is completing a book on Copland in the 1950s, points out the frequent use of folk music in his composition arose naturally from his leftist political sympathies and his deep love for the United States. His 1942 Lincoln Portrait called for a narrator to intone words from the late president’s speeches and letters.

But during the late 1940s, Ms. DeLapp says, Copland “slowly became aware of the strength of the anti-Communist movement, and its potential threat to his career.” A turning point came in March, 1949, when delegates to the World Peace Conference, widely viewed as a Communist-front gathering, gathered in New York City. Life magazine dismissed the gathering as a “Red Rumpus,” and included Copland’s photo under the heading, Dupes and Fellow Travellers Dress Up Communist Fronts. “The amount of negative publicity overwhelmed him,” Ms. DeLapp says, “and it certainly got him into government data bases.” The FBI opened a file on Copland in 1950 and the composer was secretly being followed.

As if this wasn’t enough, Copland came under attack from Schoenberg himself, who had by then emigrated to California. Furious at the tepid support his music had received in his adoptive country, Schoenberg lashed out at those he believed had obstructed its progress. “You cannot change the natural evolution of the arts by a command,” he thundered in a radio broadcast in late 1949. “Even Stalin cannot succeed and Aaron Copland even less.” This was shocking political rhetoric, and Copland protested. They resolved their differences in February, 1950, the same month McCarthy waved his famous piece of paper with its nonexistent “list” of 205 Communists in the State Department. The following month, Ms. DeLapp observes, Copland began sketching the Piano Quartet — the first work he wrote using a twelve-note tone row.

Was there a connection? Some scholars are skeptical. “I don’t really see any direct correlation at all,” says University of Houston musicologist Howard Pollack, who wrote a 1999 biography of the composer. “Trends were changing, and Copland always responded to that — he wanted to stay topical and fresh.”

Ms. DeLapp concedes the point but suggests other concerns might also have been in play. It had become politically risky, ironically, to write popular music. Patriotism had become a red flag in the 1950s. As an informant suggested in Copland’s FBI file, just as Communists used “the names of great Americans for their clubs and schools, Copland titled one of his compositions ‘The Abraham Lincoln Symphony’ [sic].” Copland’s political reliability had become so suspect by 1953 that the Lincoln Portrait, which was supposed to have been performed at Eisenhower’s 1953 inauguration, was suddenly dropped from the concert after protests from Illinois Republican Representative Fred Busbey.

Mr. Taruskin acknowledges many twelve-tone composers may not have embraced the technique for political reasons. “Of course, there were plenty of people who had no idea of [the Cold War] as a motive or as a reason for the appeal of twelve-tone music, but who were just educated within an academy that was already committed to it.”

Yet, with the passing of the Cold War, few are mourning the decline of twelve-tone music. Copland might even have predicted it. “My ‘politics’ — tainted or untainted — are certain to die with me,” he once told his detractors, “but my music, I am foolish enough to imagine, might just possibly outlive the Republican Party.”