Paper Session
Nov 21, 2021 10:00 AM - 10:50 AM(America/Chicago)
20211121T1000 20211121T1050 America/Chicago Middlebrow Values AMS 2021
Copland's Middlebrow Image: Music and Society in the 1950s Political Landscape
Individual Paper 10:00 AM - 10:50 AM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/21 16:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/21 16:50:00 UTC

In the early 1950s, Aaron Copland's reputation was in danger. He was blacklisted and harassed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the FBI, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and private-sector anticommunist groups, as Howard Pollack, Jennifer DeLapp and others have described.  And indeed, as Elizabeth Crist has documented, his most popular works had indeed emerged from his progressive, communist-influenced political beliefs. Yet by 1960, as Emily Ansari notes, he was rehabilitated enough that the U.S. State Department sent him to Russia on a diplomatic tour.  This paper argues that Copland's career survived the political threats of the 1950s thanks to another, more powerful cultural force: the middlebrow. 

Copland's engagement with the middlebrow (see DeLapp, 2002 and Chowrimootoo, 2020) long predated his McCarthy-era persecution.  In the 1950s, however, it grew exponentially--and in a politically neutral fashion, eclipsing anticommunists' attempts to characterize him as "subversive." To better understand the predominant cultural perceptions of Copland, I examine portrayals of Copland in listening guides, music appreciation books, and general music histories of the 1950s; Copland owned and annotated copies of many of these.  Publicity and reviews for the Berger and Smith biographies (1953, 1955) also reveal middlebrow perceptions of Copland's place in American culture. I examine Copland's own writings of the 1950s, including a 1955 debate with a New York Times critic about modern music's worth--and readers' subsequent letters to the editor; his 1952 book Music and Imagination, supplemented by his drafts for the lectures, publicity materials, and many reviews. A 1956 feature by Copland, distributed by the Associated Press, was a "smash hit," wrote the AP editor, who sent Copland his multi-page analysis summarizing the varied contexts in which newspaper editors across the country presented the piece.  

In these sources, we see how Copland and his middlebrow promoters defined him in ways that sidestepped the decade's operating political binary of communist/anticommunist, allowing him space to navigate what Chowrimootoo and Kate Guthrie call the "the tension between transcending and redeeming society."  

Jennifer DeLapp-Birkett
Aaron Copland Fund For Music
Raising the (Middle) Brow: Music for "Sailors, Soldiers, and Taxi Drivers" at Myra Hess's National Gallery Concerts
Individual Paper 10:00 AM - 10:50 AM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/21 16:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/21 16:50:00 UTC

Myra Hess's wartime concerts at London's National Gallery included a number of initiatives designed to broaden the audience for art music. Among these were programming choices that sought to attract and educate a broad public, including children's programs, a folk song series, and a number of lecture recitals. These initiatives grew more varied in the final year and a half of programming (1945-46).

Drawing on recently completed archival research, this paper situates the National Gallery concerts in the context of middlebrow values. I ground my definition of middlebrow aesthetics and values as they relate to music in the recent work of Kate Guthrie, Christopher Chowrimootoo, and Laura Tunbridge, who demonstrate that middlebrow musical institutions in mid-century Britain were inextricably linked with the somewhat paradoxical ideas and values of cultural elevation. The National Gallery concerts sought to reach a broad audience in part by programming the classics, which the series organizers characterized with terms like "transcendent," "universal," and "serious" in their interviews, public appearances, and private correspondence. At the same time, however, Hess and her associates made some programming choices that seemed to stretch the bounds of middlebrow aesthetics. Focusing on three examples from 1945--a concert of traditional Indian music; a lecture recital entitled "The Viola as a Solo Instrument;" and the performance of a work by serial composer Elizabeth Lutyens--this paper argues that the programming choices of the series embodied the conflicting and sometimes contradictory aims of the music appreciation movement and middlebrow musical taste in mid-century Britain. 

Elizabeth Morgan
Saint Joseph's University
Who's Afraid of the American Middlebrow? Samuel Barber, Public Reception, and the Limits of Modernist Discourse
Individual Paper 10:00 AM - 10:50 AM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/21 16:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/21 16:50:00 UTC

For their 2020 European Concert, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra altered their concert program to include Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. This change was partly the result of coronavirus protocols, since legal guidelines in Germany restricted the number of performers on stage to fifteen. However, the Berlin Philharmonic also chose this piece because they felt its sorrowful nature embodied the worry and hardship caused by the pandemic. That Barber's music continues to resonate with audiences at pivotal moments in human history is a testament to the longevity of his compositional legacy, for Barber enjoyed support and wide acclaim from audiences and cultural institutions during his own lifetime as well. In fact, along with his contemporary, Aaron Copland, Barber was one of the most frequently performed American composers from 1941 until the mid-1960s. Yet modernist critics often dismissed the "neo-Romantic" nature of Barber's compositional style, implying that his music was regressive and contributed little to the trajectory of American art music. 

In this paper, I argue that critical approaches to Barber's music compartmentalize the composer in ways which oversimplify his place in twentieth century music history. Viewing Barber as simply an American neo-Romantic--or emphasizing his experimentation with serialism to establish him as a "modernist" after all--subscribes to what Peter Franklin calls a "mythic picture," in which modernists were cast in opposition to a "reactionary" collection of populists and traditionalists. Building on the work of scholars like Christopher Chowrimootoo, I argue that understanding Barber as part of a musical middlebrow may offer a more nuanced rendering of Barber's contributions, despite the early derogatory connotations of the term. Positioning Barber's music within a middlebrow frame allows us to understand better how Barber remained true to his own musical voice while navigating stylistic divides, as well as how scholars might contest the prioritization of modernism within American art music historiography while remaining conscious of its impact on twentieth century artistic developments.

Alison Sall
Michigan State University
Saint Joseph's University
Aaron Copland Fund for Music
Michigan State University
California Baptist University
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