Classical composers seeking to create an American sound enjoyed unprecedented success during the 1930s and 1940s. Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson and others brought national and international attention to American composers for the first time in history. In the years after World War II, however, something changed. The prestige of musical Americanism waned rapidly as anti-Communists made accusations against leading Americanist composers. Meanwhile a method of harmonic organization that some considered more Cold War-appropriate–serialism–began to rise in status. For many composers and historians, the Cold War had effectively “killed off” musical Americanism.
In The Sound of a Superpower: Musical Americanism and the Cold War, I offer a fuller, more nuanced picture of the effect of the Cold War on Americanist composers. The ideological conflict brought both challenges and opportunities. Some Americanist composers struggled greatly in this new artistic and political environment. Those with leftist politics sensed a growing gap between the United States that their music imagined and the aggressive global superpower that their nation seemed to be becoming. But these same composers would find unique opportunities to ensure the survival of musical Americanism thanks to the federal government, which wanted to use American music as a Cold War propaganda tool. By serving as advisors to cultural diplomacy programs and touring as artistic ambassadors, the Americanists could bring their now government-backed music to new global audiences. Some with more right-wing politics, meanwhile, would actually flourish in the new ideological environment, by aligning their music with Cold War conceptions of American identity.
The Americanists’ efforts to safeguard the reputation of their style would have significant consequences. Ultimately, I show, they effected a rebranding of musical Americanism, with consequences that remain with us today.
“The Sound of a Superpower is a bracing study of how American classical music, far from an apolitical art, became a Cold War weapon. Thanks to Ansari’s meticulous research and engaging storytelling, we have a richer understanding of the relationship between aesthetics and politics during this period of global ideological conflict. This excellent book is a welcome addition to musicology and Cold War studies.”
– Mark Katz, Professor of Music, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Director of the U.S. State Department’s Next Level program
“We have long known that the Cold War containment also contained creativity at the U.S. American home front. But as Emily Abrams Ansari shows in this fine study, its mechanism went far deeper than we have hitherto known. The Sound of a Superpower reveals the extent to which anticommunism and the quest for a unified nation challenged and channeled U.S. American composers’ efforts to develop a postwar American sound. As international tensions escalated, composers found it increasingly difficult to reconcile progressive composition with the demands of cultural programs extolling U.S. society’s commitment to “high culture.” The six artists portrayed in this book reveal the different responses to and, indeed, utilisation of U.S. governmental efforts to seize national culture in the service of international politics. A must-read for all students of Cold War music.”
– Jessica Gienow-Hecht, Chair, Department of History, John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin
“The Benign American Exceptionalism of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man,” The Musical Quarterly, forthcoming.
“Musical Americanism, Cold War Consensus Culture, and the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Composers’ Exchange, 1958-1960,” The Musical Quarterly 97/3 (Fall 2014): 360-389.
“‘Vindication, Cleansing, Catharsis, Hope’: Interracial Reconciliation and the Dilemmas of Multiculturalism in Kay and Dorr’s Jubilee (1976), American Music 31/4 (Winter 2013): 379-419. Winner of the ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award and the Kurt Weill Prize.
“Shaping the Policies of Cold War Musical Diplomacy: An Epistemic Community of American Composers,” Diplomatic History 36/1 (January 2012): 41-52.
“Aaron Copland and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy,” Journal of the Society for American Music 5/3 (2011).
“Serialism in North America” in Martin Iddon (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Serialism (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).
“Music Diplomacy in an Emergency: Eisenhower’s ‘Secret Weapon,” Iceland, 1954-1959,” in Jessica Gienow-Hecht (ed.), Music and International History in the Twentieth Century (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015).
“‘A Serious and Delicate Mission’: American Orchestras, American Composers, and Cold War Diplomacy in Europe” in Carol J. Oja, Anne C. Shreffler, Felix Rathert, and Wolfgang Meyer (eds.), Crosscurrents: American and European Music in Interaction (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2013).
“Aaron Copland on Television: An Annotated List” in Carol J. Oja and Judith Tick (eds.), Copland and his World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
“Transcript of Aaron Copland Meets the Soviet Composers” (ed.), in Carol J. Oja and Judith Tick (eds.), Copland and his World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
Review of James Wierzbicki, Music in the Age of Anxiety: American Music in the Fifties. Journal of Cold War Studies 19/4 (Fall 2017): 268-70.
Review of Danielle Fosler-Lussier, Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy. American Music 34/1 (Spring 2016): 273-7.
Review of Orpheus in Manhattan: William Schuman and the Shaping of America’s Music Life by Steve Swayne. Journal of the Society for American Music 9/2: 232-5.
Review of Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era by Lisa Davenport. Journal of the Society for American Music 7/2 (2013): 211-214.
Review of “The City” DVD (music by Aaron Copland). American Music 29/4 (Winter 2011): 536-538.
Research for Norberto Amaya [Songwriter], a 30-minute documentary film about 84-year old Salvadoran musician, Norberto Amaya, made by Juan Bello/Triana Media. Premiered April 2018.
“The Cold War” in Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd ed.
“Ulysses Kay” in Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd ed.
“Music helps us remember who we are and how we belong during difficult and traumatic times,” The Conversation, May 7, 2020. Republished on the website of the World Economic Forum.