Monday, July 2, 2018

Emily Abrams Ansari's "The Sound of a Superpower"

Emily Abrams Ansari is a British-born musicologist who studies and teaches the history of 20th- and 21st-century music at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. She received her PhD from Harvard University in 2010 following a Masters Degree at Oxford University and a BA in music from Durham University.

Ansari applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Sound of a Superpower: Musical Americanism and the Cold War, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book describes the first stages of one American’s difficult experience of anti-communism in the early Cold War period. This man is Roy Harris, an American composer of classical music who had, until the 1950s, been revered as one of the most significant contributors in the effort to create an American-sounding music. I explore here how that nationalist loyalty began to be called in to question, both by anti-Communists in Pittsburgh, where he lived, and the FBI.

Harris had made a significant political miscalculation during World War II. Keen to write works that contributed to the war effort, he decided in 1942 to dedicate his fifth Symphony to the people of the USSR—then a vital ally of the United States in the fight against fascism. Little did he know, of course, that a decade later, the USSR would be the United States sworn enemy. In this new environment, past pro-Soviet statements—whatever their context—would risk being interpreted as celebrations of Communism.

On page 99 I describe the contents of Harris’s FBI file, where concerns about the Fifth Symphony are articulated. Investigators list descriptions of Harris from informants that were his friends and colleagues, all of whom proclaimed his patriotism and national loyalty. Some are quite amusing, even bizarre: one proclaimed him to be both a “sun cultist” and a “vegetable cultist.” But one commitment Harris had never made was to the “cult” of Communism. Harris was then as loyal to his country and everything it stood for as one could imagine.

Yet Harris’s experience of anti-Communism would sully permanently his deep commitment to his nation and to a national music. He is one of six “Americanist” composers explored in the book whose careers were significantly shaped by the Cold War: the others are Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, William Schuman, Virgil Thomson, and Howard Hanson. Some experienced personal, aesthetic, and professional challenges because of the ideological conflict. Some experienced unanticipated—and unprecedented—professional opportunities. All were also obliged to adapt the national style they had developed to serve a new ideological age in which accessible artistic nationalism was all too easily associated with fascism and communism. Very quickly—and with their willing participation—their American-sounding music would be adapted to serve a new vision of what the United States represented on the world stage.
Visit Emily Abrams Ansari's website.

--Marshal Zeringue