Tough times are facing symphony orchestras these days. In a world of stagnating stocks, dwindling governmental budgets, and reluctant sponsors, trustees and managers struggle to maintain the musical caliber of their communities. Internationally renowned ensembles fight for dear survival. Curiously, at the same time, worldwide the political leverage of symphonies has risen continually during the past decade. Since 1999, Daniel Barenboim has been trying to soothe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the East West Divan Orchestra. In 2003, the Iraqi National Orchestra performed in Washington, DC, hoping to win the hearts of American audiences. In 2007, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez sent the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra on tour across Europe to spruce up the international image of his country.
These are huge political responsibilities on the shoulders of people who have dedicated their lives not to peace and conflict resolution but, say, to a perfect rendition of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. Nor has the strategy of winning hearts and minds with trumpets and percussion been an untainted pedigree of success. In early 2010, the Iranian government dispatched the Teheran Symphony Orchestra to Europe to solicit goodwill with Majid Entezami's Peace and Friendship Symphony. Did this win Teheran the hearts and minds of men? From Strasbourg to Rome, turnout remained conspicuously low. In Geneva, the Iranian consulate distributed free tickets while some three hundred people scattered in grand Victoria Hall, designed for more than a thousand. “At the end,” observed a reporter “protesters took to the stage, announcing (in Persian) that the bouquets of flowers they carried and then gravely laid on the conductor's podium were to honor the recently executed dissidents in Iran.”1
The United States is no exception in the surge of musical diplomacy. In early 2008, the U.S. State Department financed Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic's tour to Pyongyang to play a potpourri of Wagner, Bizet, Dvorak, Bernstein, and Gershwin in an effort to move forward the stalemated talks on trade and atomic weapons. “It does represent a shift in how they view us,” U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill mused, “and it's the sort of shift that can be helpful as we go forward in nuclear weapons negotiations.”2
Since World War Two, governments have consistently asked symphony orchestras to tour countries in an effort to improve relations. The question is, why? Why do policymakers in Washington, Carácas, Teheran, and elsewhere believe that touring symphonies playing mostly music by dead white European males can somehow sweeten relations gone sour? On first sight, the stories mentioned above merge well with what we have recently learned about the goals of public diplomacy: touring orchestras may help to initiate or continue a dialogue, exchange cultural information, signal cooperation, and reach “the people.”
But there are several problems with this interpretation. For one thing, there is no evidence that the strategy works. Cultural diplomats and their historians typically emphasize the potential of cultural policies but then wrangle with the challenge to prove the efficacy of such actions. That challenge is nowhere more obvious than in the context of symphonic performances because, and this is the second problem, orchestras often present culturally unspecific and outdated information about tradition instead of bringing tangible culture from the sender to the host nation. Third, as the authors in this forum stress, these nongovernmental actors often do not behave like they should, but rather pursue their own political or cultural goals. This is precisely the point at which analyses of cultural and public diplomacy become frustratingly opaque, admitting the limits of measuring intention and effect.
In this article, I seek to outline a conceptual framework for the interplay of power and cultural display by suggesting that symphony orchestras sent on tour by their governments serve, and continue to serve, to perform the nation.3“Performing the nation,” in this context, refers to ways of legitimizing the nation's political influence as well as the self-confidence to exert leadership abroad. Touring orchestras' performances do not merely reflect their sponsors' hopes for communication but also their desire to represent themselves as ambitious players in the world arena. Such ambitions can, but do not have to, coexist with efforts to initiate a dialogue and even with artists going astray. In ways very different from a ballet or an opera (where the musicians typically disappear into the pit), for the duration of a performance, state-selected delegates—conductors and orchestras—on stage symbolize a nation's legitimacy as prominent international actor.
Why does this matter? On the historical level, I seek to explain why nations as different as Iran and the United States send symphony orchestras abroad even though there is no proof of their efficiency. On a historiographical level, I wish to challenge the dichotomy and hierarchy between a somehow “good” soft (and subdued) diplomacy and “hard” or “real” politics on the other. Sending a symphony orchestra abroad does not merely manipulate cultural instruments for political ends. Instead, it constitutes an act of national performance similar to a speech at the United Nations, a banquet at an embassy, or a handshake on the White House lawn, complete with appointed dignitaries, self-representation, etiquette, protocol, and the display of power.
To elaborate on this idea, below I outline the theory that has informed my thinking on this subject. Drawing on drama studies I show how a stage serves not only to show and entertain but to establish a relationship and a hierarchy, defined by the audience, performance, and the mediation and control of a leader. In a second step, I apply the theory to state-sponsored U.S. symphony orchestras, which I take to be a picture book example of the nexus between power politics and culture: retracing the development of orchestras since World War I and paying particular attention to Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic's world tour, in 1959, I argue that during the last one hundred years, these orchestras have changed from places of international encounter to stages of national self-representation.
In diplomatic history, we often talk flippantly about an “international stage,” or a “staged conflict.” But in the argot of theater studies, the stage is the subject of much political debate.4 The stage is a clearly marked, designated physical space characterized by intensified attention and ostentation. Unlike day-to-day routine observation, a stage is a cultural situation where something happens while others watch. Students of drama believe, with Shakespeare, that “all the world's a stage”; they argue that any situation involving the act of looking, showing, and listening—a courtroom, a wedding ceremony, a parliament, an execution chamber—constitutes a stage where audiences practice participation.5 Regardless of its location, the stage requires the sublimation of the act of looking and listening as well as someone to manage the process of separation who mediates between silence and sound. To create that kind of order and harmony is the job of the director (or the judge, minister, warden, or speaker of the house): he or she directs both the actors on stage and the audience off stage.6
The function of a stage is central to the scenario of touring symphony orchestras as a setting in which nations can establish a moment of performance. In the ideal case, an orchestra will command the attention of an audience while a preferably charismatic and internationally renowned leader will manage both the audience and the orchestra. The foreign audience, in turn, will listen and, ideally, rise and applaud.
To break down what happens on and off concert stages, we may consider three different actions involved with any kind of show, including concerts: listening, performance, and control. First of all, the moment of listening: a stage needs an audience to listen; otherwise there is no stage. Second, there is the moment of performance. Audiences pay attention because something happens in a designated space. Third, and most importantly, there is the moment of control. Even though strong nineteenth-century norms rule concert behavior in many parts of the world, someone needs to control the scene, determine when a piece begins, when (and how long) audiences may clap; without a mediator, disorder prevails.
Classical music has recently moved into the limelight of political history.7 One of the things that this research has shown is that on the political and scientific level, music bore more meaning prior to World War One than it did later on. Much like some contemporary scientists and politicians consider technologies, such as genetic manipulation, as the key to the solution of future problems, in the late nineteenth century, musicians, politicians, philosophers, and scientists were convinced that music held the key to progress, knowledge, and harmony. Music, they believed, could cure physical and social ills (including wife beating), improve humanity, and prevent wars: in 1852, French scholar François Sudre introduced a new language titled Solresol, built entirely on the seven syllables do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, in an effort to turn music officially into the international instrument of communication to avoid miscommunication among nations.8
This belief in the power of music triggered the formation of numerous symphony orchestras throughout the United States: their function was to spruce up the image of cities, such as Cincinnati and Philadelphia, but also educate their respective communities across all strata of society. To staff U.S. symphony orchestras between Boston and San Francisco, and to ensure their quality, managers lured hundreds if not thousands of European conductors, instrumentalists, and soloists across the Atlantic.9 As a result, nineteenth-century symphony orchestras were highly international affairs, drawing players from all over Europe and America. In October 1917, the Boston Symphony Orchestra comprised players from Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Belgium, France, Italy, Romania, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States, a makeup proudly recorded in the press.10 The cosmopolitan makeup of symphony orchestras and their international repertories reflected the cultural openness of prewar Americans as well as their interest in joining transatlantic culture at large. Orchestral performances transcended nationalism and created the vision of a world aloof from power politics, spheres of influences, and hegemonic aspirations. When Americans looked at their concert stages, they perceived an ideal world of universal beauty, utter harmony, and international cooperation.
The story how all of this ended has been told before: it is the story of an increasing antagonism of American audiences and critics toward the preponderance of imported music and musicians in the United States long before World War I. In the years prior to the war, American music critics called for more American music while local unions sought to bar the immigration of foreign artists, a resistance that climaxed during World War I.11
Three changes characterized the symphony scene during the interwar period and affected the function of the stage in terms of listening, performance, and control. First, audiences expanded: in the United States the growth of musical education in schools, the temporary use of entire symphony orchestras in motion picture theaters, the improvement in reproduction techniques, and the availability of phonographs and recordings for mass audiences all created a music audience outside of the concert hall. By 1940, there were about three hundred orchestras in the country, sixteen of which counted among the top orchestras in the world. In 1953, thirty million concert goers made for a gross revenue of approximately $45 million per year.12
Second, performance eclipsed repertory: the international makeup of orchestras as well as the originality or “newness” of their repertory became increasingly marginalized by the star cult surrounding soloists and conductors. The rise of classical music in America in the twentieth century, writes Joseph Horowitz, mirrored a growing interest in the performance of familiar European works. It was not the music but the stage and the performance that helped American orchestras become top players in the world. Third, a conductor's control became a central element of the show: indeed, the reputations of conductors like Arturo Toscanini depended on their ability to reveal eccentric individualism (free-hand performance, baton-technique, intensity, body language, charisma).13 Such prominence lent more visibility and control to the musical director. In sum, concert halls changed from places where audiences encountered something new and foreign to places where people went to see a predictable if charismatic maestro conducting the familiar Western canon.
It was this very capacity to perform past cultural celebrations on stage that gave U.S. symphony orchestras a new face in the early stages of the Cold War and made them close allies of U.S. information and cultural programs. One of the foremost driving forces behind the government's postwar interest in the American concert scene was the Cold War and the Kulturkampf between East and West that came with it.14 U.S. propagandists gambled that they could beat the Soviets with their own cultural weapons if they managed to convince Europeans of the special transatlantic relationship.15 Sponsored by the prestigious funds and cultural anxieties of the Cold War, in the 1950s, American officials intensified their efforts and their expenses by sending entire symphony orchestras across the Atlantic. They created an abundance of information programs to convince Europeans that Americans possessed European highbrow culture. The American National Theater Academy (ANTA), founded in 1935 to raise funds for independent theatrical productions, became the State Department's foremost agent for presentations abroad, selecting and vetting shows, approving budgets, and making arrangements with foreign managers.16 Much of this musical thunderstorm focused on Europe, where, from the late 1940s on, renowned philharmonics from Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and elsewhere headed.17 And their sponsors were ecstatic. “I remember the enormous joy I got,” the CIA's senior culture officer, Thomas Braden, reminisced in the Saturday Evening Post, in 1967, “when [in 1952] the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) won more acclaim for the US in Paris than John Foster Dulles or Dwight D. Eisenhower could have bought with a hundred speeches.”18
It is ironic that Braden felt such “enormous joy” when the BSO, conducted by Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux, won “more acclaim” than U.S. top leaders. After all, symphony orchestras differ from theater productions, jazz concerts, exhibitions, or shows in that they offer nothing new. They are not culturally peculiar; instead, they conform to the international norm of performance and repertory. During the Cold War, orchestras both east and west of the Iron Curtain played the same music on similar instruments according to the same scores. While a trained ear might have been able to figure out a different level of virtuosity, most people in the audience probably did not. The foremost difference was the nationality of artists, their pedigree, their style, and their demeanor. Braden may have been genuinely happy with the BSO's attempt to establish the United States in the lexicon of Western cultural civilization. But his pride still focused on a political comparison—Eisenhower and Dulles—not on a cultural one (a rivaling orchestra). In his eyes, the BSO scored a political point: it triumphed because it performed the better concert, the better system and, thus, effectively presented the United States as the better leader.
It is no coincidence that it was the charismatic Leonard Bernstein—not the intellectual Leopold Stokowski or the aristocratic George Solti—who became the most prominent figurehead of U.S. musical diplomacy.19 Bernstein was keenly interested in the popularization of symphonic music.20 Between the end of the 1950s and the early 1970s, he and the New York Philharmonic aired a series of Young People's concerts accompanied by instructive talks eventually broadcasted on TV by CBS. In these lectures, recorded on stage in front of hundreds of whispering children, the conductor approached music virtually as a storyteller. Music, he told audiences in January 1958, did not mean anything. It was just fun to listen to. Drawing on dynamic rhythms from Rossini's Overture to Wilhelm Tell, he explained that “it's the way music makes you feel when you hear [it]” that mattered. Most importantly, listeners did not need to know anything about music to understand it—just listen and relax.21
Bernstein's projected and inclusive populism made him an attractive American cultural envoy: he could show to audiences abroad that, first, high culture was compatible with American democracy and, second, that this qualified the United States as an international and desirable leader. In 1959, President Eisenhower sent the New York Philharmonic on a mission all across Europe. While this was not Bernstein's first international gig on the payroll of the U.S. government nor the first time a U.S. symphony orchestras traveled abroad in the name of Cold War propaganda, to this day Bernstein's tour with the New York Philharmonic remains the one that policymakers and observers refer to most when pondering the use of orchestras for political purposes.22
The event took place under the auspices of the President's Special International Program for Cultural Presentations, administered by ANTA, and it provided a maximum of performances: in the course of its two-and-a-half-month tour, the orchestra played a total of fifty concerts in some thirty cities in seventeen countries, including Istanbul, Saloniki, Warsaw, Leningrad, Kiev, Moscow, Belgrade, Zagreb, Helsinki, and Gøteborg, often giving up to five concerts in one locale. In Russia alone, the Philharmonic gave eighteen concerts, in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev within the span of three weeks. And listeners were jubilant: according to Bernstein, “Russian audiences screamed and stamped and all but tore the seats out of the floor.” Outside the Leningrad music hall, over a hundred people would stand in the rain often an hour or so after the concert, “waiting for a chance to touch us, to embrace us, even to kiss my hand.”23Time magazine declared the Philharmonic's voyage the most successful tour of all times.
Bernstein, on his end, made sure to exploit his leadership position to the maximum, frequently conversing with audiences on and off stage, much to the horror of both hosts and sponsors. Aleksandr Medvedev, music critic of the Cultural Ministry's own newspaper, Sovetskaya Kultura, scolded the conductor for breaking with the tradition and explaining music instead of letting the music speak for itself. Most importantly, he reprimanded Bernstein for putting on a show titled “Leonard Bernstein Is Lifting the Iron Curtain in Music.”24 At the end of the trip, on September 12, 1959, the New York Philharmonic played at a workshop at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music in Moscow. There the charismatic Bernstein lectured to hundreds of sober-looking Russians, including such luminaries as Boris Pasternak, on their musical heritage, comparing it to the American songbook and invoking a Soviet-American community of music lovers who must find peace.25 After his return to New York, Bernstein expounded the mission he and the New York Philharmonic accomplished in Europe. While he refrained from using politically charged words like propaganda or reeducation, there was no doubt that the trip, funded by Eisenhower's special fund, had a political subtext. “I humbly hope,” Bernstein concluded, “that we've made a contribution to that international understanding everybody always talks about.”26
This was not the end of American global symphonic propaganda,27 but as the case of Bernstein reveals, artists traveling in the name of the State Department rarely behaved as planned. Talking to the audience, pitching music and emotions against wars and weapons, questioning the entire Cold War scenario raised eyebrows across Washington. Much has been written about the FBI's file on Bernstein that revealed his support for socialists during the Spanish Civil War, opponents of the Vietnam War, as well as the Black Panthers.28 What matters here is not the question whether Bernstein was a spy or collaborator but the U.S. government's enrollment of his and many other artists' services despite the fact that they came in with questionable reputations and did not follow protocol.
State-sponsored touring symphony orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic in 1959, always perform for themselves, not just for others. As we have seen above, many nations—democratic and authoritarian—send touring groups around the world to highlight local talents and perform to silent audiences. During the Cold War, both Germanys, as well as the Soviet Union, likewise dispatched an armada of symphony orchestras throughout the world.29 Their actions differ from domestic concerts in that political state and nonstate sponsors of touring orchestras always identify with the orchestra and its leader—never with the audience (as local trustees and sponsors do). Whether hailing from New York, Moscow, or Teheran, they enact the desire to perform the country they represent in front of silent audiences by displaying hierarchy and leadership.
Of course, performing the nation on symphony stages abroad is no guarantee of success. The scheme worked for the New York Philharmonic in 1959 because along with its claim to leadership, it helped to counterbalance the image of the United States as indifferent to refinement. But it flopped in the case of the Teheran Symphony Orchestra in 2010 because audiences were unwilling to connect the country's proud cultural tradition to its political status as a repressive theocracy.
In regard to my analysis, specific repertories, the makeup of audiences, and their individual reactions remain secondary to the analysis. Sponsors and city officials and policymakers ascribe great political use to guest performances simply because they allow a city or a nation to assert itself on stage.30 Tours enable the gesture of political self-representation precisely because administrators, organizers, politicians, and musicians do not have to worry about the implications they face at home (such as comparisons to previous performances). The political function of symphony orchestras on tour abroad is not just that they play beautiful music trying to establish dialogue but that they seek to display leadership and symbolize the authority behind the orchestra in a foreign environment while audiences remain quiet and attentive. A state-sponsored guest concert is a way of saying adsum—I am present.
In the United States, orchestras were never just institutions of aesthetic performance. Instead, from the beginning they constituted places of political reflection and representation. Until World War I, they served as shining examples of internationalism; indeed, their function was to reflect the positive reception of foreign influences, be they personal or artistic. Control consisted in the conductor's ability to achieve harmony between foreign performances and performers, and native audiences. Similar to the world of arts, architecture, and décor, the more foreign, the more international an orchestra looked, the more appreciative audiences turned. Orchestras' tasks consisted of highlighting the United States' readiness to accept cultural imports.
The prolonged conservation of the nineteenth-century canon, the simultaneous expansion of the symphony scene, and the increasing cult of the performer during the interwar period dampened artistic visions of cultural internationalism. It also gave a decisive native twist to the production and dissemination of symphony music in the United States: works and artists might be international, but the setting, the sponsorship, and the culture of performance was not. As such, symphony concerts became increasingly American affairs, celebrating the stage and its actors more so than the works performed.
Cold War politics finally turned the internationalism of U.S. symphony orchestras on its head. Besides proclamations of cultural competition, “dialogue” and “understanding,” U.S. officials achieved a level of hegemonic self-dramatization unimaginable in the day-to-day routine of regular diplomacy. Now symphony orchestras mutated into exporters of American culture despite the fact that most of their repertory was composed by dead people who were not American. Rather than highlighting the United States' openness to outside imports, symphony orchestras were now supposed to export a specific segment of U.S. culture—highbrow performance—unknown to foreign audiences. Instead of reflecting the internationalism of the U.S. culture, they reflected U.S. ambitions to score points in the international arena by highlighting American cosmopolitanism and, hence, its qualification for world leadership.
No lack of evidence or any unwelcome turn of events could change this expectation: the stories told in this forum underline that musicians tend to be unwieldy pawns of political power. For all we know, Bernstein's artistic vision called for a rapprochement, reconciliation, better understanding, and an end of the bipolar competition—hardly in line with U.S. aspirations to the win the Cold War. Besides, scholars of cultural diplomacy are chronically frustrated when trying to present their findings and arguments along the traditional parameters of cause-and-consequence of diplomatic history. Simply put, we will never find out how many (if any) people plotted to blow up the Kremlin after they had seen Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic perform Billy the Kid.
The point is a different one: since World War II and contrary to the previous era, policymakers throughout the world, notably in the United States, began to believe that somehow, symphony orchestras could be employed to establish influence and leadership. Their thinking originated less in the ideals of public diplomacy but in the basic assumption surrounding a performance of an orchestra on stage, and the three-part concept of theatricality outlined above can help us understand this connection: first, audiences consist typically of people living in the host country who listen but do not speak. Indeed, guest concerts offer the perfect opportunity for members from both countries to congregate in the same room without the necessity of verbal communication, a useful alternative to continuous miscommunication. Second, performances can be controversial, but wherever they tour, symphony orchestras do not need to worry much about intercultural or political differences. They present a seemingly universal canon firmly entrenched in Western culture. Depending on their audience, their performance will be close, or not so close, to local culture but only rarely unknown or questioned. Third, there is the moment of leadership demonstrated in a foreign country. To Nobel Prize writer Elias Canetti, the quintessential incarnation of power display was the music director, a hegemonic master over life and death who directs a conglomeration of people with his unlimited command. While one can argue that music directors like Simon Rattle are slaves of the score and the repertory, there is no doubt who determines silence and sound, performance, and behavior in any given concert hall in the world: players perform at the conductor's will; audiences listen and express praise or disdain when he or she allows them to do so.31
Orchestras represent instruments, both literally and figuratively. Instruments can be used for many different purposes. “We may have been instrumental in opening a little door,” conductor Lorin Maazel stated after the overwhelming reception of New York Philharmonic by the Pyongyang audience, in 2008, and it is open to speculation whether he realized the double meaning of this sentence:32 instruments of music offer themselves seemingly as instruments of political influence precisely because they seem so apolitical and, thus, versatile.
At the same time, there are few cultural forms and forums that demand the same undivided attention from an audience as a symphony orchestra does. Audiences, in turn, are not required to bring any verbal cognitive skills; but they do need to shut up. In other words, regardless of the actual effect (political or otherwise), an orchestral performance represents a symbolic format for political ambitions: control is undivided; the audience listens in silence; the message is universally understandable; and the reception is, for the most part, enthusiastic. Such a setting inspires visions of leadership, however liberally observers may phrase it: “So let's keep talking to our adversaries and keep the Philharmonic on the road,” White House columnist Helen Thomas deliberated after the New York Philharmonic's visit to North Korea. “The world is ready to listen.”33 Symphony orchestras seem successful because they reflect the highest hopes of diplomacy: presence, visibility, influence, and effective unilateral communication. The United States may be a shining example of this. But, as noted above, it is not the only one. And mark your calendars: in 2000, the People's Republic's State Council founded the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra, and, within less than two years shipped it off to Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. Since then, the orchestra has also toured Europe and North America. Coming soon to a theater near you!