Dissertation

"Masters of the President's Music:' Cold War Composers and the United States Government" (2009)

Abstract:

As tensions between the U.S. and the USSR mounted following World War II, the American government increasingly turned to the arts to help promote democratic capitalism as a viable alternative to communism. Using evidence from interviews, personal papers, and government archives, this dissertation examines the participation of American classical composers in federally funded Cold War activities; particularly their contributions as advisors to international cultural programs, as artistic ambassadors overseas, and as creators of music to aid foreign policy agendas. While the roles of jazz, the visual arts, and dance in Cold War diplomacy have all been systematically examined, the involvement of classical musicians remains almost entirely neglected. This study addresses this omission, revealing the significance of the story of Cold War classical music diplomacy for cultural history, diplomatic history, and musicology.

The American government’s new interest in the arts presented many opportunities for composers, but their involvement also has ideological and practical implications. While government departments and agencies employed composers to help realize foreign policy goals, the musicians had agendas of their own. As I demonstrate, many found creative ways to use government programs to rise above political and social difficulties at home, to build international reputations for themselves, or to shape a new image for American concert music.

I begin by providing an overview of government programs involving classical music from the 1940s through 1970s. I then examine the contribution of composers to the Music Advisory Panel that between 1954 and 1979 advised the State Department regarding “representative” music and musicians to promote overseas. The remaining chapters function as case studies, reassessing the careers of four composers whose participation in government-led Cold War initiatives is revealing in multiple capacities: Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Virgil Thomson, and Ulysses Kay. These cases demonstrate the significant contribution made by American composers to the structuring and realization of American cultural diplomacy and propaganda campaigns, while also creating opportunities for new understandings of their biographies and oeuvres. As a result, a reassessment of the impact of government programs on America’s music scene becomes necessary.