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Book Review: Dangerous Melodies- Classical Music in America from the Great War through the Cold War

Dangerous Melodies - Classical Music in America from the Great War through the Cold War

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by Jonathan Rosenberg

(WW Norton & Company)

(published December 10; available for pre-order now)

A glorious and utterly engrossing book, telling a story that everybody should be aware of, and might dimly believe they are, but whose true panorama is so vast, and labyrinthine, that the reality beggars belief.

The title implies that the book’s focus is on classical music, and so it is.But the forces that were brought to bear on that aspect of the arts were no less convoluted, hypocritical and even toxic in most other fields too, from comedy to Hollywood to jazz.

It is the story of simple working musicians being buffeted by the forces of politics - how, in one age, they are lionized as heroes, and in the next as potential traitors.Of how different composers and compositions could be swept in and out of fashion, not by the changing of musical tastes, but by events in a political arena on the other side of the world.

The idea that art should be beholden to the politics of the day is of course one that we best associate with regimes such as the Soviet Union, with its outlawing of rock music, or Hitler’s Germany, with its assault upon what was decreed “degenerate art.”

Rosenberg, however, writes of similar events, with similar consequences, being a part of American life as well - the virtual outlawing of German music and musicians during the First World War; the popularity of Russian composers during the second; and then the scorched earth policy of the McCarthy era, during which it sometimes felt as though simply inserting the wrong note into a symphony (let alone the wrong word into an interview) could bring down the full weight of an investigative committee.

And these are simply the events of which, again, most of us are dimply aware.Rosenberg digs deeper, however, to paint a world in which American classical music found itself walking an ever-less clearly defined path between propaganda, on the one hand, and censorship on the other.And how it came through the other side.

Some of it did, anyway.But even a war of words has its casualties.

reviewed by Dave Thompson