Aaron Copland's Cold War Mentality

The first third of Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise was far more interesting to me as a lover of music: early Strauss, Mahler, Sibelius, Schoenberg, Debussy, and the Stravinsky ballets. The latter portion didn’t do much for my ear but was fascinating as a history. The Great Depression and World War II formed a blast furnace that utterly changed the composition of everything that passed. The scalding politics of fascism, progressivism, and populism, of Hitler and Stalin, Europe and Russia ground would-be greats into ash, gave others a sharp edge, and drove still more from the continent entirely. Throughout the latter two-thirds, Ross returns repeatedly to a handful of characters, Aaron Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich in particular.

Copland was a New Deal progressive with socialist sympathies who performed once for a gathering of the Communist Party in Minnesota. He also wrote iconic American music, synonymous with pioneering spirit, self-reliance, the open prairie, and the wholesome Midwest.

In 1949, he attended a conference of leftist artists in New York City; a first attempt at a post-war popular front on the cultural grounds over which many Cold War battles would be fought. Shostakovich attended on behalf of the Soviet Union and his translator read a statement (according to Ross, plausibly not written by Shostakovich at all) bristling with ideological purity. Copland’s own speech, as quoted in The Rest is Noise, included the following:

“Lately I’ve been thinking that the cold war is almost worse for art than the real thing – for it permeates the atmosphere with fear and anxiety. An artist can function at his best only in a vital and healthy environment for the simple reason that the very act of creation is an affirmative gesture. An artist fighting in a war for a cause he holds just has something affirmative he can believe in. The artist, if he can stay alive, can create art. But throw him into a mood of suspicion, ill-will and dread that typifies the Cold War attitude and he’ll create nothing.”

The actual battles, occupations, and genocides of World War II devastated artists along with the rest of the world. But when confronted with human suffering, Olivier Messiaen wrote the Quartet for the End of Time. Standing in the aftermath of Bergen-Belsen’s astonishing, nauseating brutality, Benjamin Britten wrote seven stunning settings of The Holy Sonnets of John Donne.

Britten and Messiaen were hardly ideological composers – radical but rarely dogmatic – and the war years saw more than their share of propaganda art. But when ideologies weren’t punched out on war-torn moonscapes, they gleefully annihilated the creative impulse. During the interwar years, communists and socialists railed against intellectual music separate from the people. Nationalist governments rested in a cloud of rigid musical theories of heritage. Fascists favored simplicity and brutality. Nazis used music to promote their toxic racial narrative. Artists often obliged. Early in the Cold War, the CIA funded all sorts of cultural organizations and the ComInform tried its damnedest to keep up. Pierre Boulez denounced music he disliked as fascistic. Aaron Copland’s populists were ridiculed as communists.

There is the Cold War, then there is a Cold War. A Cold War is simply a philosophical war that never quite becomes hot, a war fought with espionage and deterrence and proxies, but also culture and ideology. Ideology invades everything. Every book is a cultural volley, every television show a political bombing raid. To engage in politics opens one up to a dizzying array of implications, to engage elsewhere becomes a political statement of its own. One Cold War ended (though I guess that’s debatable in itself) but countless others rage, have raged, will rage one day.

When I studied the Cold War in high school, teachers extolled the power of jazz and rock music to permeate the iron curtain. The freedom and chaos inherent in jazz, transgression of rock, corroded everything the Soviet Union sought to prop up. We learned about it as an organic process. It often was, but it also was encouraged, supported, and sometimes even funded by American agencies. We learned about it as an alternative to the Soviet Union’s insidious propaganda and covert intelligence and subversive sabotage. Of course, it was not an alternative but rather a compliment to the U.S’s own subversive efforts. It was always portrayed as a good thing, an indication of American difference and superiority and innate goodness. But art is more complicated than that.

Totalitarianism is defined (in part) by the submission of the entire of society to the totalitarian political project. Ideology infects everything. In a very real way, the corrosion of art by politics is its own small form of totalitarianism. For decades we pumped art full of politics. Rather than the political activism of Bob Dylan we forced political implications into music that was otherwise ambiguous. Composers turned tuneful composition into propaganda and twelve-tone composition into counter-revolution and allowed their art to drift into camps more or less political in nature.

We still abhor the vacuum. We want everything to be commentary, every entertainment to speak to the issue of the day. But more and more filling empty space with electricity feels destructive. More and more the lack of stillness is impossible to ignore. People need to engage in politics, but maintaining a separate space strikes its own political blow. It’s a paradox. Refusing for a moment to make a political statement strikes a blow against a politics that would leave no space for such contemplation. But it’s essential. Make that space for yourself. Make it for others.

Two years after Copland wrote the above statement, J. Edgar Hoover noted a personal interest in his surveillance. Two years after that, Joseph McCarthy called him before his Senate panel. Make the space. The walls do eventually close in.