Music at the front lines of war

Musicians as soldiers intrigue UNC musicologist Annegret Fauser. 

During World War II,  the United States government believed in the power of music, Fauser says. So did musicians. And so did soldiers. Music as therapy. Music as entertainment. For morale. As a weapon. For Fauser, conductor Serge Koussevitzky said it best in 1942: “We, as musicians, are soldiers, too, fighting for the ever-growing spiritual need of the world. If music is our life, we give it joyfully to serve the cause of freedom.”

Take conductor Andre Kostelanetz and his wife, soprano star Lily Pons, who toured combat zones with their orchestra, often competing with noise from bombers at nearby airfields. In Germany, days after American troops stormed toward Berlin, Kostelanetz wrote to a friend that antiaircraft canons provided “a reasonable replica of the bass drums at the most unexpected moments during the concert.”

Kostelanetz was one of many conductors and musicians who toured the front lines during World War II. But tales of their adventures and their music have gone largely untold. UNC musicologist Annegret Fauser says, “Never before had classical music received so much financial and ideological support from the U.S. government.”

Fauser was born in Germany almost two decades after World War II. “I’m a very typical German in that I don’t want to be German,” she says. “My generation is still part of that postwar world where the idea of national identity is hugely problematic.” The first chance she got, in 1987, Fauser left Germany to study in Paris, which is where she discovered letters between French composer Nadia Boulanger and her star pupil, the American composer Aaron Copland. Years later, after Fauser arrived at UNC in 2001, she started researching Copland’s era to serve as context for a book about those letters.

“I kept coming across really interesting texts about American music in the 1920s, the 1930s, 1950s, the 1960s,” she says. “There was this big hole—the 1940s. I thought that was strange; you could fill a whole library with books on music from Nazi Germany. So I thought, ‘This is not possible; I’m just a bad scholar and haven’t found anything yet.’”

She knew that some of Copland’s most iconic compositions were commissioned during the war. She found plenty on Copland but hardly anything about classical music during the war. Fauser, astonished, consulted with colleagues. They said, “All that stuff is just propaganda music.”

Fauser says, “I think some scholars didn’t want to embarrass themselves, because an awful lot of that music was blatant Americana. They’d say, ‘John Cage and others came afterwards, so we don’t have to deal with Morton Gould’s American Salute and stuff like that.’ But I’m not American. To me it’s an interesting cultural phenomenon.”

For five years Fauser spent summers, holidays, and long weekends rummaging through archives full of wartime correspondence, journals, news reports, and declassified documents. She realized that the kind of classical music being made was just part of the story, one she tells in her forthcoming book, Sounds of War.

“For the first time in their lives composers had commissions coming out of their ears,” Fauser says. And the government was a major funding source. There were Copland, Samuel Barber, Elliot Carter, Henry Cowell, and others, many of whom wrote classical music for the propaganda missions of the Office of War Information (OWI).

Read more from the Endeavors article.

Published January 4, 2013.