When Classical Music Was a Cold War Battleground
Jonathan Rosenberg on the Time Shostakovich Came to America
In late March 1949, newspapers across the country tracked the New York arrival of a group of foreign delegates, who had journeyed to the United States for the ostensible purpose of advancing the cause of world peace. Czechs, Poles, a Briton, an African, and, most notably, seven Russians reached New York, where a horde of reporters and photographers met each foreign contingent as it landed at the city’s airports.
Upon touching down at LaGuardia, a Polish representative shared his thoughts: “We are happy to land on the soil of Jefferson and Lincoln as guests of American friends of peace,” he said. “We hope the conference will have some effect on diminishing international tension.” When the Czechs arrived, one delegate said they wanted to “prove that what is called the Iron Curtain does not divide the world.” Instead, the world was divided by those trying to “foment” war and the millions who were seeking peace. Asked when democracy would return to his country, the Czech delegate snapped, “We have democratic government.”
The greatest excitement was reserved for the arriving Soviet delegation. Surrounded by New York policemen and plainclothes officers, the Russians were quickly escorted to customs and immigration officials, but not before hearing the photographers’ cries: “Hey, Shosty, look this way! Wave your hat!” As readers learned, the celebrated Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, visiting America for the first time, looked “dazed,” though he managed a nervous smile.
But “Shosty” waved his hat for the cameras, as did his compatriots, and before disappearing into the cars that would whisk them away, the Russians were greeted by two talented Americans affiliated with the upcoming Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace: a young novelist named Norman Mailer and the composer Aaron Copland.
Despite these benign airport encounters, considerable opposition would attend the arrival of the conference delegates, as several groups expressed distress about the impending gathering. Representatives from the Catholic War Veterans, the Jewish War Veterans, and the People’s Committee for the Freedom of Religion prepared to join the growing effort to oppose the meeting, as did groups of exiles from Eastern and Central Europe. The spokesman for the People’s Committee for the Freedom of Religion, Joseph Calderon, expressed his hostility about the influence of Stalin and the Soviet state: The time has come to take “the initiative away from Stalin and his Communists.”
The strategy was clear: “to strike back with prayer and protest—a prayer that liberation will come soon for the Russian-enslaved millions.” The goal, Calderon explained, was to arrange large-scale demonstrations around the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the main site for the gathering. The group would flood the sidewalks, he said, to “show Stalin what we think.” To that end, the placards of the People’s Committee would proclaim a variety of messages: “Communists are not welcome here. We don’t want you. Get out.” “Stalin must free the 15,000,000 slave workers in Russia.” The Catholic War Veterans even singled out Russia’s most famous delegate: “Shostakovich, we understand.”
If the questionable histories of Furtwängler, Gieseking, Flagstad, and Karajan had caused distress in the postwar music community, the country’s gaze now shifted to a more palpable threat, which many believed emanated from the Soviet Union. The growing American obsession with communism, driven by developments that saw the Soviets expand their power and influence into the heart of Eastern and Central Europe, would quickly sweep across the American landscape and transform the United States in a variety of ways. Perhaps most significant was the construction of the national security state, which would vastly expand the size and scope of the federal government.Stalin’s crackdown on musical expression inside the Soviet Union was covered extensively in the American press.
Equally important, the competition between Washington and Moscow would touch the lives of virtually every American by transforming the economy, reconfiguring housing patterns, influencing religious beliefs, and affecting the lives of women, gays and lesbians, and African Americans. Film, literature, and television would all be touched by the Cold War. Even transportation would be transformed, as the government devoted billions to improving the interstate highway system to move troops around the country quickly in the event of a “national emergency” (a phrase everyone understood meant a Soviet attack on the United States).
That the world of classical music in the United States would be drawn into the global struggle was not surprising, and not even the solitary existence of the composer could be insulated from the conflict. The highlight of the 1949 peace gathering at the Waldorf, which was organized by left-wing elements in America and overseas, was a lengthy speech by Shostakovich in which he reflected upon the relationship between music and Cold War politics, and excoriated the United States for its alleged belligerence.
A few years earlier, the Russian had been lionized when his Seventh Symphony received its American wartime premiere; but with the Cold War’s intensification, he became the focal point of a polarizing conference that exposed tensions between Washington and Moscow, and between those Americans who backed the Soviet Union and those who believed Moscow threatened freedom around the world.
At the same time, Stalin’s crackdown on musical expression inside the Soviet Union was covered extensively in the American press, which helped illuminate the character of the Soviet regime. Such discussion of Soviet repression highlighted the profound differences between the two countries, an idea kept under wraps during the war when a common enemy made it essential to emphasize their purported similarities. Indeed, throughout the war, press coverage of Russian musical developments had been generous, as befitted the cooperative spirit that marked the wartime partnership.
Even after the war, for a short time, US reports on Soviet musical life continued to paint a bright picture. Such accounts depicted an environment that fostered creative activity in which leading composers were ensconced in a state-supported setting that would have made them the envy of their American counterparts. In November 1945, the US premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, given by the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky, was reported in Time and Newsweek.
Both publications highlighted the composer’s apparently untroubled life in his native land. Time’s subscribers encountered a bespectacled Prokofiev on the magazine’s cover and learned that he was blessed with a plentiful income. In Newsweek, one read that the esteemed musician spent his days in Moscow juggling his passion for chess with a commitment to his art, as he resided in a seemingly problem-free society.
That same month, Americans learned about a government-sponsored home for Soviet composers, which provided a tranquil environment in which they could do their work. This creative space, “in the midst of woodland,” allowed some 30 composers and scholars to live like a “large, happy family.” Reinforcing this inspiring tale were the reflections of writer John Hersey, whose piece in New York’s Herald Tribune sketched a similarly appealing portrait of Soviet cultural life, describing how the country’s composers labored together, supporting and encouraging one another.
The picture was one of gifted artists, plying their craft in a society that valued their contribution. Shostakovich was accorded the same degree of respect as the most distinguished political and military figures in the country, a circumstance, the headline suggested, that would have been unimaginable in America.
American readers would also have learned of Yehudi Menuhin’s travels in late 1945, a musical odyssey that seemed to reveal how well artists lived in the Soviet Union. Menuhin spoke of the “hospitality” of his Russian hosts and advised Americans to jettison their fear of the Soviet Union. The two lands had much in common, the violinist observed.
New Yorkers had heard similar reflections at a conference on American-Soviet Cultural cooperation. Focusing on music, theater, and literature, the 1945 gathering was organized by the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, a left-wing group. Among the musicians attending were Serge Koussevitzky; composers Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein; and an already well-known young conductor named Leonard Bernstein. Koussevitzky spoke about the need to overcome mistrust, declaring, “Let art help forge peace and unity” between both countries.
But such declarations would have little impact on US-Soviet relations, which deteriorated swiftly. No amount of positive preaching from the Koussevitzkys of the world would alter the downward trajectory of what had been a formidable if fragile wartime partnership. Indeed, within months of the war’s end, the relationship began to fray and the United States and the Soviet Union would descend into a decades-long conflict that neither side seemed able or willing to resolve.
After the war, many Americans came to believe that the Soviet Union, under Stalin’s leadership, began to pursue brutal, antidemocratic policies in Eastern and Central Europe, which threatened the security of the rest of the continent, the autonomy of which the United States was determined to defend. Americans were convinced, moreover, that the Communist threat was not limited to Europe or Asia; thus the idea developed that this pernicious ideology imperiled the safety of the United States, a view that disfigured the nation’s political culture and left few corners of domestic life untouched by what came to be known as McCarthyism.
As the decade unfolded, the American public, whether reading a newspaper or a music journal, encountered stories suggesting that the world of classical music was not immune from the emerging tension. In the fall of 1946, Americans learned that two Soviet singers from the Kirov State Opera, members of a delegation to the all-Slav Congress in New York, had been ordered by the Department of Justice to register as foreign agents. This unexpected decision led a group of distinguished American musicians to express outrage in a public letter to Attorney General Tom Clark, which suggests the East-West struggle was seeping into the nation’s musical life.
Two years later, Americans read that Soviet leaders were putting pressure on several eminent composers, a group that included Shostakovich and Prokofiev. They had fallen into disfavor with Stalin’s regime and were charged with engaging in “formalism.” It was said that they had forgotten how to compose for “the people” and substituted “neuropathic combinations,” rather than the finest “traditions of Russian and Western classical music.” As musicologist Richard Taruskin explains, the accusation of formalism emanated mainly from Leningrad party leader and politburo member Andrey Zhdanov, who was tasked with “taming the arts,” a responsibility he embraced first in literature, then in film, and finally in music. Formalism, Taruskin writes, was a “vague term with a checkered history,” which was “code for elite modernism.” Zhdanov put it rather differently, as Americans learned in 1948, declaring that Soviet music, which sounded “something like a dentist’s drill,” was “simply unbearable.”
The saga was reported widely in the American press, which explored the story in news accounts and opinion pieces. Readers learned that three of the composers whose music was under attack, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Khachaturian, were especially popular in the United States. Indeed, just days after the Soviet decision became known, New York’s WQXR radio presented a special broadcast of their music, while the Metropolitan Opera announced that it would perform Prokofiev’s War and Peace the following season.
Americans read that figures like Shostakovich and Khachaturian had been ousted from key academic and administrative positions because of their creative transgressions. According to the Los Angeles Times, several Soviet composers had confessed to “writing antidemocratic music” and Shostakovich had bowed before his accusers. Several weeks later, Americans again heard from Shostakovich, who admitted his failings as an artist.
Beyond such oppression, the absurdity of Soviet policies would have been clear to American readers who learned that Khachaturian had been bitterly attacked for his “bourgeois” work, while at the very same moment the “Information Bulletin” published by the Soviet Embassy in Washington was praising his music. As one newspaper opined, an attentive American would have recognized that even in a totalitarian state, sometimes the right hand did not know what the left was doing.
While this was not the first time Shostakovich had fallen out of favor with the regime, he was a far more consequential figure in 1948 than he was in 1936, when his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was excoriated for its stylistic failings. From an American perspective, such repression was intolerable. Music critics, especially, were outraged. In the pages of the New York Herald Tribune, composer and critic Virgil Thomson observed that Soviet composers were expected to “edify . . . and instruct.” Whether they accomplished this, he explained, was a decision made by the Communist Party. Such states reminded one of “the great slave-owning empires of antiquity.”
But critics were not the only ones commenting on Soviet artistic life. Writing to the Christian Science Monitor, Klaus Roy of Cambridge, Massachusetts, compared Soviet musical policies to those of the Nazis. It was a “sad commentary” that for the second time in the 20th century, a regime aimed to halt “musical progress.” In the New York Times, novelist James T. Farrell, author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy, contended that Stalin’s regime sought to control “writers, thinkers, [and] musicians.” Claiming that Soviet propaganda was more destructive than that of the Nazis, Farrell lamented that many Americans had fallen for the “Soviet myth.”
For months after the story broke in early 1948, the repression of Soviet composers garnered attention. Late in the year, Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times asked why the composers had been “chastised like a group of unruly children.” Clearly, the party aimed to “inoculate” the “Soviet intelligentsia against Western” influence.
Excerpted from Dangerous Melodies. Copyright © 2020 by Jonathan Rosenberg. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.