November 1, 2015

When musical America sided with Hitler and Stalin

LIFE Magazine, Nov. 22, 1943, reporting on the fee for first performance rights paid by Columbia Broadcasting Corporation for Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony

The first performance rights fee of $10,000 [1] paid in 1943 for Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony may not seem impressive in relation to a single concert fee of $3,000-4,000 commanded in the 1940s by top performers like Vladimir Horowitz and Jascha Heifetz [2].  However, when compared to the typical first performance fee of $100 paid at that time for the music of American composers [3], the Shostakovich fee seems downright astronomical.

I have never encountered an explanation of this shocking disparity, but I am sure it cannot be explained by supposing that the princely sum paid for Shostakovich's symphony was a deliberately over-generous show of support for the music's role as a symbol of  struggle against Nazism.  Such an explanation would be doubtful for at least two reasons.

     First, already in 1938 the National Broadcasting Corporation paid $5,000 for the right to give the American premiere of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski.[4]   Although less than the fee paid for the Eighth, this was still  fifty times the typical amount paid to American composers.  And in 1938 the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were political and military allies who would jointly invade and partition Poland the following year. 
     Second, if musical America really wanted to show solidarity with the anti-Nazi cause, it could have done so most tellingly by supporting important living composers whose music was banned as degenerate by the Nazi regime.  With the music of Arnold Schoenberg - a Jewish composer high on the Nazi list of artistic degenerates - the moral and political statement against Nazism would have been especially powerful and would cost a lot less than the fees paid for Shostakovich's symphonies.  Yet when in 1940 the conductor Leopold Stokowski wanted to premiere Schoenberg's Violin Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the orchestra's management tried to prevent the performance by refusing to pay the performance rights fee as well as the soloist's fee.  (Stokowski prevailed by paying both fees out of his own pocket.  The audience, however, reacted to the music with barely contained hatred.  Some stomped out of the concert hall during the performance while many others greeted the end of the performance with hissing and booing.)  Four years later, in 1944, Stokowski was fired by the NBC Symphony Orchestra for having insisted on performing Schoenberg's Piano Concerto against the objections from the orchestra's management and its music director Arturo Toscanini. [5]

To my mind, a plausible explanation of Shostakovich's American bounty is this:  For those in charge of running the American 'Arts-and-Leisure Industry', classical music has always been a business, whether it involved selling records, advertisement time on symphony broadcasts, or tickets to fill seats in concert halls.  It was simply a sound business decision on the part of major broadcast networks to pay high premium for the Shostakovich Brand because the brand offered something no music by an American composer could match: the excitement of exotic novelty combined with tremendous mass appeal.
     What has gone unremarked, however, is that the enthusiastic embrace of the Shostakovich Brand by the American musical public, and that public's intense and unwavering hostility toward modernist music, amounted to an implicit endorsement of the totalitarian musical aesthetics enforced in both Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union: To earn the right to be heard, new music had to be tonal, vividly thematic, formally uncomplicated, and readily intelligible to a wide audience.[6]  These musical features, so beloved by totalitarian regimes, were packaged in the Shostakovich Brand with considerably greater skill than in the music of traditional tonal composers working in America; and this was enough to assure the brand's stellar success in the American musical marketplace despite its largely tepid [7] reception by American music critics.

I do not suggest that the American love affair with the Shostakovich Brand has the character of a moral flaw, if only because the totalitarian ideals of music as an art neatly coincide with the business ideals of music as a consumer product.  And there is nothing morally objectionable in preferring products which offer comforting familiarity and reassuring simplicity of design, be they romance novels, Hollywood films, or Shostakovich's symphonies.  But it is dishonest to hide such preferences behind pretentious talk about one's love of music as an art.  To love music as an art is to love a continually evolving discipline whose evolution is driven by unconstrained intellectual curiosity and fearless creative imagination. This love takes more than regular happy encounters with the familiar music of Mozart, Chopin, or Wagner.  One also has to invest time and effort in trying to understand what in the still unfamiliar music by composers like Birtwistle, Carter, or Stockhausen attracts and inspires a significant number of respected musicians.  Those who refuse to make this investment are not music lovers.  They are consumers of music whose preferences can be equally well satisfied by the totalitarian and the market-based criteria of aesthetic value.


[1]  According to the Consumer Price Index inflation calculator of the U.S. Department of Labor, this fee is equivalent to $137, 540 in today's dollars.

[2]  Tawa, N.E. (1987): Art Music in the American Society, Scarecrow Press, London, p.123.  Schoenenbaum, D. (2012): The Violin: A Social History of the World's Most Versatile Instrument, W.W. Norton, p.411.

[3]   Meyer, F. and A.C. Shreffler (2008): Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents, Paul Sacher Foundation, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk, p.161.

[4]  Rodzinski, H. (1976): Our Two Lives, Scribner, New York, p.175.

[5]  Feisst, S. (2011): Schoenberg's New World: The American Years, Oxford U. Press, pp.164-165.  See also Smith, W.A. (1990): The Mystery of Leopold Stokowski, Fairleigh Dickinson U. Press, p.176.
     There is something faintly surreal in the fact that Schoenberg's twelve-tone music - hated by wartime American audiences and music administrators who did much to discourage, prevent or sabotage its performances - was used as a symbol of artistic freedom by the U.S. Office of War Information in the propaganda campaign against Nazi Germany.  In 1944 the OWI ordered a recording of Schoenberg's Piano Concerto - one made at the very performance for which Stokowski got fired! - to be broadcast on European radio.  The man tasked with producing this broadcast at the New York branch of the OWI was the American composer Elliott Carter ([3], p.51).

[6]  It is worth noting that more than a decade after the firing of Stokowski by the NBC Symphony, Dimitri Mitropoulos, who was the music director of the New York Philharmonic at the time, felt compelled to apologize publicly to the orchestra's manager Arthur Judson for including too many modernist works in his concert programs - a sin for which he had been savaged earlier in the Pravda-like New York Times music editorial “The Philharmonic: What's Wrong With It and Why” (29 April, 1956.)   The composer Elliott Carter, who witnessed Mitropoulos's self-abasing apology, thought the conductor's behavior was similar to that of the defendants at Stalin's show trials in the 1930s Moscow.  (Elliott Carter, letter to Nicolas Nabokov, 9 July, 1956, reprinted in [3], pp.127-128.)
     Episodes like these convince me that so long as modernist music remains a threat to the fiscal health of symphony orchestras and opera companies, its fate in a free society will be only marginally less depressing than under totalitarian regimes which deem it 'degenerate' or 'ideologically subversive'.

 [7]  Klefstad, T.W. (2003): The Reception in America of Dmitri Shostakovich, 1928 - 1946, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Texas at Austin.


Anonymous said...

Keep up the amazing job !! Lovin' it!

welker said...

Interesting- of course your point about the attitude to Schoenberg is well-taken. Has there ever been much enthusiasm for his works among the "musical public" anywhere, though? I still do not see many works of his programmed in German concert halls, for example (probably not in Austria either). However, I believe the Soviet-Russian reception of Shostakovitch's 8th symphony was not particularly rapturous and the work was then not performed for several years. I really cannot see Shostakovitch as a bien-pensant representative of Stalinism.

Boom said...


I am a firm believer in Charles Rosen's dictum that the popularity of a composer should be understood not in terms of enthusiasm of general musical public, but in terms of enthusiasm of a significant (if not large) number of respected musicians who are passionate about the composer's music and insist on performing it regardless of what the public happens to think at the time. As is shown by the reception history of the initially 'difficult' and 'unintelligible' music of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Mahler, etc., the general public will eventually follow musicians it respects. And if it doesn't, that's the public's loss

With respect to Schoenberg, one problem is that there are only 3 1/2 of his works for large orchestra composed in 12-tone style. Still, these few works always had advocates among important instrumentalists and conductors. Gould, Brendel, Aimard, Uchida, Emanuel Ax are some of the pianists with international careers who have programmed the piano concerto. Szering, Hilary Hahn, Pierre Amoyal, Michael Barenboim are some of the violinists who performed his violin concerto. And conductors who performed Schoenberg's post-tonal music range from Stokowski, Mitroupolos, Scherchen, and Rosbaud in the 1940s-1950s to Barenboim, Levine, Boulez, Maazel, Nagano, and Rattle in recent decades.

As for Shostakovich, what makes me think of his works as 'Stalinist' is not that they are tonal, thematic, and accessible. These qualities also apply to the music of Verdi and Beethoven. Rather, unlike Verdi and Beethoven, Shostakovich's symphonies, beginning with the Fifth were, composed under duress with these conservative criteria in mind. He was not creating new music according only to his artistic ambitions and creative impulses. That kind of creative independence could have easily cost him his life. Which is why I think of his music as little more than a skillfully manufactured totalitarian export.

laybl said...

Your article reminds me of an episode in New York 15 years ago. As background, I had been raised in a Bolshevik household as what was then called, "a red-diaper baby" filled with Marxist thought active in left-wing causes.
With time, and a few blows to the head in football games, I've grown ever more conservative. Having dined at the Union Square Cafe, one afternoon, I strolled down 16th Street, til I came to the Revolutionist Books shop (name uncertain)...the window featured large posters of Che and Mao, and I felt suffused with nostalgic thought.

I walked in, greeted by the clerk/manager appropriately dressed in guerrilla gear. We began a small talk conversation focused on the role of the artist. "Simple",he explained. "The artist must serve the needs of the people!"
"And if the don't?
Well, they must be punished!"

'nuff said"