America on the World Stage: Music and Twentieth-Century U.S. Foreign Relations



In 1946, Arnold Schoenberg, one of the twentieth century's most consequential composers, wrote that in music there is “no story, no subject, no object, no moral, no philosophy or politics which one might like or hate.”1 Although one is reluctant to cast doubt on Schoenberg's musical meditations, I would suggest that in this instance, he was, quite simply, wrong. (Whether Schoenberg was misguided about more crucial musical matters is a subject for another article.) Had the great man encountered the contributions in this forum, he would have learned that music and politics are often tightly interwoven, and that musicians, composers, and government officials have all recognized the extent to which the world of music can indeed be enmeshed in the world of politics. The scholarship presented here also suggests that the study of music can deepen our understanding of the activities of the United States on the international stage, a notion that can now be understood rather differently than in the past. It is worth emphasizing, moreover, that writing about music is difficult. By its very nature, the subject—whether one focuses on composers, performers, or listeners, or on the interactions among them—has an elusive quality that does not lend itself to ready analysis or straightforward conclusions.2 However challenging the topic, it must be said that these four articles are altogether stimulating and significant.

Jennifer Campbell's contribution demonstrates that American musical diplomacy, which saw Washington try to extend its cultural and political influence beyond the shores of the United States, was not a product of the Cold War, though that is often assumed to be the case. As Campbell makes clear, even before America entered World War II, the U.S. government, in an effort to “counter Nazi propaganda and anti-American sentiment” in South America, had developed a policy of cultural diplomacy. Significantly, this pre–World War II effort set the stage and established a model for subsequent Cold War programs.

While work has been done on this South American cultural initiative, Campbell examines the subject in greater detail and with more insight than have others.3 As she demonstrates, years before Washington began to worry about winning the world's hearts and minds during the Cold War, the fear of an alien ideology—fascism—drove Nelson Rockefeller and others to use music to “woo Latin-American republics” to the side of the United States. Campbell's exploration of the workings of the OIAA Music Committee is notable for the way she traces the committee's inclination to favor North American (and some South American) music, while it was less willing to support works written by Europeans. Interestingly, this anti-European bias points to a difference between the tours Campbell considers and Cold War symphonic tours. On those later journeys, while at least one U.S. piece was included on each program, the repertoire comprised mainly European music because this was thought the best way for the United States to demonstrate its cultural prowess. But in the period Campbell considers, the principal goal was to establish the significance of (North) America's creative impulse, which was seen as the most effective way to persuade the country's southern neighbors to direct their ideological affection toward Washington rather than Berlin.

In her contribution, Emily Abrams Ansari analyzes how and why music was deployed during the Cold War in order to advance American interests. Ansari's work impressively combines research done in archives typically used by Cold War historians with sources utilized by musicologists. Beyond ranging over a broad archival landscape, Ansari offers acute musical insights, as in her discussion of the varied compositional styles that are central to her argument. Not unlike Jennifer Campbell, Ansari looks closely at the deliberations of a handful of composers who were charged with determining which ensembles would travel overseas and what they would play. (Especially noteworthy is Ansari's illuminating examination of the marginalization of jazz, which complicates our understanding of “jazz diplomacy” in this period.4)

Arguing that there was more to these decisions than meets the eye, Ansari asserts that the composers had a distinct agenda. Indeed, she observes, in backing American classical music, the leading members of ANTA's Music Advisory Panel (comprised partly of distinguished American composers) aimed “to promote the kind of music they wrote and supported.” According to Ansari, this was part of a larger effort to “rescue contemporary nonserial concert music from its communist associations and transform it,” by making it a politically neutral form of American achievement.

This bold explanation for the composers' motives is largely conjectural, as Ansari's language suggests when she writes that the three composer-panelists (Thomson, Schuman, and Hanson) “may well have seen an opportunity . . . to rescue” nonserial music for political reasons. In assessing the composers' perceived need to “rebrand their style of music,” Ansari advances a position, which, in my view, demands more concrete evidence. Absent that, what is needed to fortify the argument is a more complete consideration of the historical and political context in which the composers operated, which would more fully explain what motivated them to act as they did. Nevertheless, Ansari's genuinely significant contribution deepens our understanding of the inner workings of Cold War cultural diplomacy and illuminates how and to some extent why certain genres and repertoire were privileged above others.

Jessica Gienow-Hecht's provocative and intellectually energetic article examines why governments deploy symphony orchestras to achieve foreign policy aims, especially since, as she notes, there is little concrete evidence to show the strategy works. According to Gienow-Hecht, a pioneer and a preeminent figure in the study of cultural diplomacy, governments send symphony orchestras overseas to “perform the nation,” an idea that is central to her analysis. The sponsoring nation supports such initiatives, she observes, in order to position itself as an ambitious global actor, and to fortify its political influence and self-confidence to lead.

Gienow-Hecht suggests that orchestras on government-sponsored international tours—wherever they hail from—are driven by a singular, if complex, impulse. Such ensembles, and her list includes groups from the United States, Iraq, China, Iran, and Venezuela (along with Israeli and Palestinian musicians) are all engaged in “performing the nation.” Without question, a government sends a symphonic ensemble across the globe in order to improve the country's status in the world's eyes. One wonders, however, whether this framework (“performing the nation”) can explain the motives of an extraordinarily diverse set of governments, each occupying a distinct place in the hierarchy of nations, as they have sent (and continue to send) ensembles overseas, an approach that began many decades ago. It seems reasonable to ask whether the U.S. government, in “performing the nation” during the 1950s, was really driven by a desire to represent itself as one of the “ambitious players in the world arena.” Similarly, did U.S. policymakers hope to bolster America's “self-confidence to exert leadership abroad” in these years?

However one answers such questions, Gienow-Hecht's contribution glows with fascinating ideas, including her examination of the meaning and purpose of the stage, a space where culture and power come together. Drawing on work in drama studies, Gienow-Hecht suggests that onstage activities are critically important for understanding symphonic diplomacy, and she offers a luminous tripartite formulation (listening, performance, and control), which, she asserts, explains what occurs when orchestra and conductor perform.

Probing the history of overseas symphonic tours, Gienow-Hecht considers the government-sponsored performances of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in the 1950s. Immensely gifted and charismatic, Bernstein was a native-born American (a rare bird in the conducting world), making him the perfect man for the job. (Solti's star would not shine in the United States until considerably later, and Stokowski, surely too exotic, no longer headed a major ensemble.) As Gienow-Hecht accurately observes, such tours showed that high culture and American democracy were “compatible.” Whether by the mid-1950s the United States was also motivated by a related desire to prove it was “qualified” to be an “international and desirable leader,” as she seems to suggest, is an open question; its world leadership status had been established considerably earlier. Critically important to the Eisenhower administration was Moscow's growing support for cultural diplomacy, which caused U.S. officials to worry that the Soviets were gaining ground on the cultural front. The totalizing competition that was the Cold War seemed to require that Washington step up its own cultural initiatives.5

A primary aim of the symphonic tours was to convince friend and foe that liberal capitalism—of which the United States imagined itself the supreme exemplar—was superior to communism in every respect. In an era when mass consumption became a key element in American life, few questioned the capacity of capitalism to produce an abundance of automobiles and kitchen appliances.6 Manufacturing virtuosic orchestras demanded something different, and many doubted capitalism could accomplish much in that realm. Thus, Washington sent Bernstein's ensemble (and many others) overseas to prove it could do just that.

Let me offer a final observation on Gienow-Hecht's contribution. She asserts, quite sensibly, that it is a mistake to construct articles on cultural diplomacy by employing a conventional “cause-and-consequence” approach. And she writes (ironically, to be sure) that we cannot know whether listeners to a Bernstein concert later “plotted to blow up the Kremlin.” But in sponsoring musical programs (behind the Iron Curtain, in particular), the U.S. government's goal was, of course, more subtle. Over the long term, U.S. officials were convinced that musical outreach could help persuade the Russians (and others) that the American political and economic system was neither malignant nor shallow, as they had been led to believe. Such an attitudinal change, if it could be effected, might drive a wedge between the Russian people and their government, thus weakening Moscow's hold over its citizens. While there is no definitive answer to the question, it is worth pondering to what extent that strategy, over time, influenced the contours of international politics.

Danielle Fosler-Lussier's fascinating contribution challenges us to think expansively about cultural diplomacy. In examining the activities of less-celebrated American ensembles that journeyed overseas during the Cold War, Fosler-Lussier focuses on the personal contacts forged between American performers and peoples abroad, writing that the music was often “subsidiary to the relationships that were created.” As one participant observed, these relationships had the potential to create “conditions for understanding,” which might prove constructive. (Jennifer Campbell also discusses such interactions, noting that artists were seen as “off-stage ambassadors.”) One is captivated by Fosler-Lussier's suggestion that a jazz trombonist's willingness to share samples of his homemade slidegrease with fellow instrumentalists in the Middle East might strengthen the bonds between peoples divided by national boundaries and cultural differences, and that this, in turn, might lubricate the gears of interstate relations.

Significantly, Fosler-Lussier questions the regnant idea that cultural diplomacy is synonymous with cultural imperialism by considering how the notion of “push and pull” can explain the way music traversed state borders. Clearly, nations have pushed music across frontiers when they deemed it useful, but Fosler-Lussier also shows how music was pulled into place by peoples who, for their own purposes, desired it. Thus, in certain situations, local forces can exercise considerable agency, which might alter the way musical diplomacy operates, and which, more broadly, challenges our understanding of the relationship between cultural diplomacy and cultural imperialism.

Toward the end of her incisive article, Fosler-Lussier asks us to consider how the push and pull of music across borders might be part of a nascent form of globalization, as “networks of musical and political relationships” are constructed on the ground across the world. While she touches on this only briefly, one looks forward to learning more about this phenomenon, which is worthy of further study.

No politics in music, Mr. Schoenberg? I would suggest offering the composer a subscription to Diplomatic History. What is the policy on posthumous discounts?


  • 1

    Quoted in Lawrence Kramer, Interpreting Music (Berkeley, CA, 2011), 97.

  • 2

    On the complexity and importance of music, see Philip Ball, The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It (New York, 2010); Lawrence Kramer, Why Classical Music Still Matters (Berkeley, CA, 2007); Christopher Small, Musicking: The Meanings of Performance and Listening (Middletown, CT, 1998), prelude; Thomas Turino, Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation (Chicago, 2008), chap. 1.

  • 3

    See Richard T. Arndt, The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century (Washington, DC, 2005), esp. chap. 4.

  • 4

    On jazz diplomacy, see Lisa E. Davenport, Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era (Jackson, MS, 2009); Penny M. Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge, MA, 2004).

  • 5

    See Kenneth Osgood, Total Cold War: Eisenhower's Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (Lawrence, KS, 2006), 216–18.

  • 6

    See Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York, 2003).