THE WAR ON MUSIC: Reclaiming the Twentieth Century

By John Mauceri. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022. 232 pp.

When a book appears that purports to deal with the mid-20th-century estrangement of classical music audiences from the fruits of their own time, which has largely continued since then, I become very interested, as I feel that this is one of the critical issues for those of us who value the vitality of the art form. So as soon as this book came to my attention, I grabbed it and decided to review it. Although I no longer write regularly for Fanfare, editor-publisher Flegler grants me the opportunity to re-surface occasionally.

My reaction to this book is quite mixed: On the one hand, Mauceri—an American conductor perhaps best known for his championing of film music and the music that had been deemed “degenerate” by the Nazis—presents an explanation for this estrangement that strikes me as perhaps unwittingly biased in some strange directions. On the other hand, the book is extremely compelling—hard to put down, in fact—as its questionable emphases nevertheless result in the presentation of some fascinating anecdotes and other information that no one interested in the music of the last century would want to miss.

It strikes me that the book Mauceri has written might be more accurately entitled How World War II, Anti-Semitism, and the Cold War Brought About the Suppression of Great Music Composed After 1945. But his thesis is so fraught with inner contradictions, important omissions, and inconsistencies that he must erect a needlessly complex theoretical structure in order to contain and support his contentions. It is in the process of doing this—and indulging in some digressions that are interesting but only tangentially related—that he provides a good deal of fascinating information.

The essence of his thesis is this: Shortly before World War I there was a belief, especially in Germany and Austria, that both tonal music and the romantic aesthetic had run their course. In an effort to ensure that their culture maintained its position as the pre-eminent source of great music, the Viennese Arnold Schoenberg developed the “twelve-tone system” as a replacement for the tonal system that had allegedly been the basis of all prior music. Some composers followed Schoenberg’s path, despite the fact that his music proved to be displeasing to audiences. Other composers preferred to follow a more evolutionary approach, following in a direct line from Wagner and Strauss. Because of Adolph Hitler’s brutal anti-Semitism, the years leading up to World War II saw the immigration to America of many of Austria’s and Germany’s most gifted composers—among both the “modernist” revolutionaries and the more traditionally inclined group. The former group cultivated followers in the academic world while the latter group found a place for their compositional gifts in the Hollywood film industry.

In the aftermath of the war influential European composers and their supporters sought to distance themselves as far as possible from the romantic nationalism that had linked Wagner to Hitler. They had nothing but scorn for the composers of film music whom they viewed as both reactionary and complicit in a purely commercial endeavor—a double-barreled crime. American taste-makers, then as now intimidated by the Austro-German presumptuous pretensions of superiority, echoed their scornful attitudes. So the situation at the time came down to this: The atonal music that was viewed as exciting and new by the academic community was despised by audiences; the tonal music composed for films was viewed by the critical community as commercial garbage, and not worthy of consideration as serious music. The notion of “beauty” itself was trashed, and could only be experienced as “a guilty pleasure.” The result: Music written after 1945 was simply not performed (for the most part). “The amount of twentieth-century music and the number of composers who were discredited,” Mauceri writes, “remains one of the great mysteries—and tragedies—of that century.” Many people argued that after 1945 popular music had replaced classical as “music representing our times.”

OK. So what’s wrong with this? For one thing, Mauceri is an American conductor, and his book is in English, and the situation he describes uses the United States as a crucible. So where do American composers fit in? They are barely mentioned, and when they are, the references are largely to film composers, while the rest, comfortably ensconced in academia, were presumably writing the music no one wanted to hear. So again there is the dichotomy between atonal modernists and tonal composers of film music. As for American composers of tonal concert music, the names Copland and Barber are given only passing mention.

Secondly, there are these pesky holes and inconsistencies in Mauceri’s explanation that require a whole scaffolding of conspiracy theories, complex escape clauses, and exceptions, and this is where the fun really begins. He claims that during the late 1940s and afterward, the American government, through the CIA, Voice of America, et al., was promoting atonal and experimental music as evidence of the “free world’s” encouragement of the avant-garde, while the Soviet Union and its satellites forced their composers to embrace the values of “socialist realism,” i.e., comprehensibility to the masses, a basic expressive framework of triumph through struggle, etc. (Of course, American composers weren’t really free, because if they refused to follow the message of the avant-garde, their music was suppressed, but Mauceri ignores all that completely.) I have heard this line of argument before, but I haven’t found any convincing evidence for it.

Mauceri argues that Italian opera essentially ended with Turandot in 1924. What about Italian opera after that?, he asks. Presumably of Italian origin, Mauceri does not seem to know much about Italian-American composers. He mentions Menotti, Italian-born, again only in passing. But there is no mention of the many Italian-American composers who continued composing operas, picking up where Puccini left off: Vittorio Giannini, Dominick Argento, Nicolas Flagello, Thomas Pasatieri. That’s where Italian opera migrated after Turandot. Instead, he writes, “If one looks for a continuous line of Italian melody in the post-war years, it sang in the popular songs and the film scores heard throughout the world—having escaped the watchful eye of those who wrote about serious music in the ‘free’ West.” Time and again he fails to mention the many American-born composers who continued contributing to a valuable repertoire of tonal, accessible music. Their omission is blatant and inexplicable.

One notable factor is that the year 1945, though historically convenient, is inaccurate regarding the points Mauceri is trying to make. The fact is that during the 1930s an American repertoire began to develop at a high artistic level—one that held considerable appeal for both audiences and musicians. Composers like Howard Hanson, Samuel Barber, and, later, Aaron Copland were the most prominent at this time. During the 1940s, Paul Creston, Leonard Bernstein, and Peter Mennin added their voices to the group. And during the 1950s, Vincent Persichetti and Vittorio Giannini were among the most prominent to discover the symphonic wind ensemble as a viable medium that was hungry for new repertoire, which these composers eagerly suppled. The works of these composers were championed by conductors like Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski, George Szell, Artur Rodzinski, and others of similar caliber. The end for these composers came during the mid 1950s—not the 40s—when serialism and other avant-garde approaches, promoted by arrogant and condescending Europeans like Pierre Boulez and the American followers of Schoenberg and Anton Webern, achieved sufficient influence to suppress performances of new tonal music and disparaged those that slipped by. But the best of these tonal composers had no intention of abandoning their artistic values. They continued to write the music that had meaning to them. While the older ones saw their music, once so highly regarded, now dismissed as worthless, many of the younger ones were demoralized to the point where they gave up composing altogether. Ironically, it was during the 1960s—often assumed to be the nadir of American composition—that much of the finest tonal American music was written. In confronting what was essentially “blacklisting,” Mauceri writes, “Some might say that this is a normal process. After all, many nineteenth-century symphonies, chamber works, and operas have fallen by the wayside, and we accept that as a normal weeding out of the crop. The difference, however, is that the mid-century weeding was done in spite of the continued successes of the works and the composers.” Indeed, that anti-traditional propaganda has been so deeply absorbed by the critical establishment that even today, concerts resurrecting such music are often not even covered in the press, or are dismissed with a few contemptuous words.

Yet this is not the story that Mauceri is presenting: His focus always comes back to film music. I have no gripe with film music per se, although I have discussed its limitations frequently elsewhere, and I have nothing against composers like Korngold, Steiner, Waxman, and the others that Mauceri admires. But these were all composers imbued with the sounds and values of Austro-German music—what Mauceri describes as the direct line from Wagner and Strauss. This was still essentially German music that happened to be composed in America. Composers like Hanson, Barber, Copland, Creston, and Mennin were writing music that sounded American, and thus offered something new, without being inaccessible. Mauceri appears to have unwittingly bought into the notion that Austro-Germanic musical values must always reign supreme. Perhaps the most shocking omission is Ernest Bloch, a Swiss-born composer, at least as formidable a talent as the film composers he venerates—one who immigrated to America, and wrote intensely expressive tonal music both before and after he arrived here. But he didn’t compose film music, so his name doesn’t even appear! Mauceri’s Germanic perspective becomes fully apparent in an appendix in which he writes short essays about the composers of concert music who have meant the most to him: Paul Hindemith, Kurt Weill, Erich Korngold, and Arnold Schoenberg.

While mourning the continuing disregard of tonal composers, Mauceri acknowledges the enormous effort involved in distinguishing the superior from the ordinary when confronting this vast unperformed repertoire. “Is there anyone willing to do the work and let us hear the most likely candidates for rescue?” he asks. This is an important point. Knowing the repertoire and its most valuable works is presumed to be the responsibility of an orchestra’s music director. But the notion that music directors have the time—not to mention the inclination—to fit sorting through this unknown repertoire into their jet-setting lives is preposterous. What is needed is an established position within every major orchestra’s staff as “repertoire advisor,” just as the librarian is. But in the absence of such a specialized consultant, choices are drawn from the works of composers performed by other conductors and major ensembles, those who have won prizes, those who represent a hitherto neglected ethnic or gender identity, and those whom they may have happened to hear on their own. What’s wrong with this?, you may ask. What’s wrong is that the status quo becomes a self-limiting tautology—essentially, what gets performed is what has already been performed by others or recommended by others with the same limited frame of reference.

I know that there are some listeners who are perfectly happy with a repertoire that extends from 1700 to 1945. If the existence of classical music depends on those listeners, others of us are likely to confront an art form that appeals largely to those seeking the reassuring comfort of the overly familiar, but boring for those seeking the excitement of discovering great works. For Mauceri the future is in the music for video games, which already finds itself on concert programs. I am less than enthralled with this prospect.

Walter Simmons