Friday, September 08, 2017

from Arts Journal Copland and the Cold War

As someone who's never actually been a fan of Copland it's hard for me to think of him as "the dean of American composers".  I've loved way more music by Duke Ellington and Charles Ives than by Copland.  Still, interesting ... .
This Cold War chapter concludes a fascinating and at times chilling three-part compositional odyssey charted by “the dean of American composers.” He began as a high modernist in 1930 with his lean, hard, and dissonant Piano Variations – a breakthrough in American music. Then, spurred by Mexico and the Depression, he turned himself into a populist and composed the ballets by which we know him best. It was during the beginning of this period that he addressed Communist farmers, scored The City, and won a New Masses contest for the best workers’ song.
These political adventures returned to haunt Copland in the fifties – during which decade he was bluntly interrogated by McCarthy and observed by the FBI (we now know that the switchboard agent at Tanglewood Festival was an informant). His Lincoln Portrait was dropped by from the Eisenhower inauguration following protests from Republicans in Congress who marked him as a former fellow traveler or worse. Copland now turned his back on the “new audience” he had once wooed, returning to his modernist roots in a series of non-tonal compositions beginning with the bleak Piano Quartet of 1950.
The result is a veritable American fable – suggesting, among other things, that the US is less hospitable to political artists than was the Mexico of Diego Rivera, from which Copland drew instruction. Copland’s Mexican colleague Carlos Chavez at various times conducted Mexico’s first permanent orchestra, ran the National Conservatory of Music, and directed the National Institute of Fine Arts.
Looking back at his Mexican visits of the 1930s, and doubtless reflecting upon the American prominence and influence of such outsiders as Arturo Toscanini, Copland said: “I was a little envious of the opportunity composers have to serve their country in a musical way. When one has done that, one can compose with real joy. Here in the U.S. A. we composers have no possibility of directing the musical affairs of the nation – on the contrary, I have the impression that more and more we are working in a vacuum.”

Shostakovich had plenty of opportunities to write music that served his country but whether it was a joyous opportunity is, at best, debatable.  I often get a rather general vibe from Artsjournal contributors that they feel it would be nice if the empire would subsidize and validate the arts rather than considering that art subsidized by an empire is serving the empire. 

What if working in a vacuum can, under some circumstances, be the more appealing path? 

Given the general tilt of contributors to Artsjournal (Teachout being an exception) I'm not sure I'd say the United States is less hospitable to "political artists" than it is less hospitable to artists who were considered actually communist in their sympathies. But a lot could depend on what the extent of activity and interest was.  Terry Teachout's Ellington biography noted that the bandleader and composer was a part of a communist party at one point but was still given honors by the Nixon administration.  While it's been entertained by some that the administration did the honor as a formality Teachout has countered that given how anti-communist Nixon's sympathies were, why would he have had Ellington received at the White House if Ellington was believed to be actively communist? 

I can't help but wonder whether the grass is always going to be greener on the other side for American artists, musicians, composers and writers.  They love the idea of European state-funded arts but it's easy to love that if you imagine that your preferred style of artistic activity will assuredly benefit from such a state patronage system.  I just finished reading a book recently by a Dutch composer who emphatically dissents from business-as-usual in state patronage for the classical music world but that's something to save for some other time for the time being.

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