Sounds of War

Music in the United States During World War II

by Annegret Fauser

1 July 2013

cover art

Sounds of War: Music in the United States During World War II

Annegret Fauser

(Oxford University Press)
US: May 2013

Excerpted from Sounds of War: Music in the United States During World War II (footnotes omitted) by © Annegret Fauser. Published by Oxford University Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.


On January 20, 2009, moments before Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the forty-fourth president of the United States, “Simple Gifts”—a Shaker tune made famous by Aaron Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring (1944)—sounded in an instrumental arrangement by Copland’s student John Williams. The tune was significant enough, but still more was its source, given the new president’s well-known appreciation for Copland. The previous week, at the start of the inauguration festivities, the actor Tom Hanks had narrated Copland’s Lincoln Portrait (1942) on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The composer’s Fanfare for the Common Man (1942) was also performed on this occasion. These iconic works of World War II were played, over six decades later, during the inauguration of a U.S. president who not only inspired worldwide enthusiasm but also inherited a protracted war. For American and global television audiences alike, the musical choices during the 2009 presidential inauguration made audible a connection, however unintended and unacknowledged, between what has come to be seen as America’s “good” war in 1941–45 and the positive musical identity that was forged in its cauldron.

World War II was, indeed, a defining moment in American history, when ideas about national identity were consolidated both in internal discourse and in internationally oriented propaganda. Although the 1920s and ’30s were rife with social, racial, and political tensions, the attack on Pearl Harbor pushed Americans together in a wave of patriotic fervor that swept the nation, creating “a unanimity of purpose that was shared by the government and people and extended solidly to the men on the fighting front.” Radio programs, presidential speeches, movies, and magazines celebrated the “American way” as a shining beacon of human civilization and cast U.S. involvement in the war as a noble act of defense thrust upon a peace-loving, enlightened society by barbaric enemies abroad. Until postwar McCarthyism and the unfulfilled promises of the civil rights movement broke this national covenant apart, America did indeed appear to be “the beautiful.”

The United States formally entered the war the day after Pearl Harbor, on December 8, 1941, more than two years after Germany had set in motion what would quickly escalate into a global conflict through the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Tensions had been brewing even before that attack, starting with Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia (1935), the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), and the Japanese invasion of China in early July 1937. The United States had kept its distance in accordance with the isolationist Neutrality Acts, although it offered tacit support to its allies by way of the Lend-Lease Agreement, signed into law on March 11, 1941; the United States also instituted its first peacetime draft (in 1940) and increased its defense budget exponentially. The Axis powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan—made rapid gains upon the British, French, and other Allied forces (as well as those from British Commonwealth countries), including the invasion and fall of France and the Low Countries in May–June 1940, primarily because the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact kept the USSR neutral by dividing Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union.

The equation changed dramatically with the launch of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, which pushed it into the Allied camp through an alliance with the United Kingdom. After Pearl Harbor, not only the United States but also China—which had been fighting since 1937—formally joined the Allies, so that the war was now fought in Europe and northern Africa, on the one hand, and the Far East and Asia, on the other. The next year, 1942, looked bleak for the Allies as the Axis gained victory after victory; the tables turned, however, with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s victory in El Alamein in November 1942. In 1943 Allied forces started to gain ground, from China and the South Pacific to the Soviet Union and Sicily. With Mussolini’s fall that year, the first of the three Axis leaders was vanquished. By 1944 the tide had turned decisively, and on May 8, 1945, the war in Europe was over. Three months later—soon after the United States dropped atomic bombs on the civilian targets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, killing close to a quarter of a million men, women, and children—Japan surrendered, and World War II was over.

These bare details cannot do justice to a conflict that also generated unspeakable war crimes in countries from China to the Soviet Union and led to the genocide of the Holocaust. Bombings had destroyed cities on both sides of the war, from London and Rotterdam to Berlin and Tokyo, killing millions of civilians. The death toll among the armed forces on both sides was staggering. A few of the warring nations—mainly the continental United States, Canada, and Australia—remained untouched in territorial terms, though all paid a bitter price in the lives lost in battle and in prisoner-of-war camps. It was a global war that defies any kind of summing up, a war fought with every means, from weapons to words.

Music also played a role in the battle. Whether as an instrument of blatant propaganda or as a means of entertainment, recuperation, and uplift, music pervaded homes and concert halls, army camps and government buildings, hospitals and factories. A medium both permeable and malleable, music was appropriated for numerous war-related tasks. Indeed, even more than movies, posters, books, and newspapers, music sounded everywhere in this war, not only in its live manifestations but also through recordings and radio. So far as the United States is concerned, even today musicians such as Dinah Shore, Duke Ellington, and the Andrews Sisters populate the sonic imaginary of wartime. Whether performed by “all-girl” groups such as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm or by military bands conducted by Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, swing and boogie-woogie entertained civilians at home and GIs stationed abroad. Numerous films created to boost both civilian and military morale—from Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Stage Door Canteen (1943) to Anchors Aweigh (1945)—featured star-studded numbers presenting country sounds, barbershop quartets, swing, sentimental ballads, and hot jazz, among other styles. Likewise, nostalgic songs such as “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1938) and bellicose tunes as “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” (1942) had their place on popular radio programs, United Services Organization (USO) shows, and V-Discs.

Star Spangled Rhythm, for example, brings together all the popular styles for which this period is so well-known, and indeed they are often regarded as iconic for the era. However, it does so in what might sometimes seem surprising ways, if with obvious programmatic intent. The big production number “Swing Shift,” set in an aircraft factory, combines jazzy swing with traditional barn dances, musical and dance styles that might otherwise have been criticized as incompatible. Another number merges the style and performance of the African American vocal group the Golden Gate Quartet with the more sentimental duet “Hit the Road to Dreamland” (marked as “white” by both its performance style and its crooning arrangement), performed by Mary Martin and Dick Powell. Hot jazz is represented, inevitably, by a Harlem street scene featuring the legendary African American dancer Katherine Dunham. And just as inevitably, the film ends with a patriotic number, “Old Glory,” in which Bing Crosby, in the front of a crowd standing before a stage set of Mount Rushmore, sings in praise of the U.S. flag, engages with a doubting Thomas, and leads representatives of the states (including a gospel group from Georgia) into a choral hymn of patriotic solidarity.

Yet that final number has still more surprises to offer, given its obvious, and no doubt deliberate, echoes of another well-known patriotic piece, John Latouche and Earl Robinson’s Ballad for Americans (1939). Here we move from “popular music” in the direction of a repertoire that was, and is, often labeled “classical.” I use that term with all due caution—and mostly for lack of anything better—without asserting value judgments on its superiority over other musical forms and acts. Nor do I limit my inquiry to elitist, “highbrow” domains: indeed, one of my points is that wartime classical music is not at all highbrow—just as popular music is not lowbrow— but instead does its cultural work in differently configured social spheres. However, for all the scholarly emphasis on popular culture in the wartime period, what in fact distinguished musical life in the United States during World War II from other times of war was the significant role assigned to classical music: in 1940s America it had a cultural relevance and ubiquity that is hard to imagine today.

The nation’s out-and-out involvement in the war meant that all music was to serve its needs, and that included types of music that had already gained a significantly broader presence in U.S. culture during the 1930s. This new prominence was achieved in New Deal America—and we shall see how New Deal institutions transferred to wartime ones—especially through music appreciation courses in schools and colleges, nationwide radio broadcasts of major orchestras and the Metropolitan Opera House, and phonograph catalogs that offered a repertoire of classics for the middlebrow household. Through these educational and marketing initiatives, classical music from symphonies to Schubert songs carried added value as cultural capital that moved beyond popular musical entertainment. Also at stake, however, was the United States’ role as not just a military power, but also a force for civilization. In the composer Henry Cowell’s words, musicians of all stripes were “shaping music for total war.” Indeed, no other event in U.S. history mobilized and instrumentalized culture in general, and music in particular, so totally, so consciously, and so unequivocally as World War II.

Musicians—from the singing cowboy Gene Autry to the Metropolitan Opera’s John Carter—saw themselves as cultural combatants. Copland was just one of many classical composers deeply involved in the war effort. Marc Blitzstein, Elliott Carter, Henry Cowell, Roy Harris, and Colin McPhee all participated in the propaganda missions of the Office of War Information (OWI). Earlier, in the summer of 1942, Blitzstein had become attached to the Eighth Army Air Force in London, where he was commissioned to compose his Airborne Symphony. Samuel Barber also served in the Army Air Force (but stationed in the United States), writing both his Second Symphony and his Capricorn Concerto, “a rather tooting piece, with flute, oboe and trumpet chirping away” and thus fitting for the times, as he assured Copland. Civilian commissions for new music focused on patriotic and “martial” subjects, most famously the series of fanfares that Eugene Goossens, the chief conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, requested from American composers and from European musicians in exile: Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man is a still much-performed result. Similarly, the League of Composers (financed by the Department of the Treasury) commissioned seventeen works on patriotic themes, including Bohuslav Martinů’s Memorial to Lidice and William Grant Still’s In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy. Classical music was heard on the radio and in film scores, whether Yehudi Menuhin playing Schubert’s Ave Maria in Stage Door Canteen or Victor Young infusing the entire score for Frenchman’s Creek (1944) with Claude Debussy’s Clair de lune. Concert music was performed in the armed forces, for example by the Camp Lee Symphony Orchestra or the U.S. Navy Band String Quartet; it even played a role in the work of the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor to the CIA), whose director, General “Wild Bill” Donovan, was known not only to support experiments in using music as a cipher, but also to involve himself in music-related propaganda efforts.

This rich field of Western classical music and its musicians during the war years in the United States forms the center of the present book. This is not to say that it existed in isolation from other musical styles, or that jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and country music played a less important role in the war effort. But numerous studies have already explored with great authority the role of jazz and other popular musics during World War II, including their extensions into either the concert hall, such as Duke Ellington’s “jazz symphony” Black, Brown, and Beige, or Broadway musical theater, in the case of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (both 1943). In contrast, research on classical music in the United States during these years has been limited in its scope and focused mainly on the experiences of such European émigrés as Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Kurt Weill. Only recently have we begun to scratch other surfaces with specific case studies involving in particular the music of Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, and William Schuman. For the most part, classical music in America during World War II has only been addressed either as a chapter in broader studies, such as Barbara A. Zuck’s A History of Musical Americanism, or as a short interlude in studies and biographies dedicated to composers and performers such as Blitzstein and Arturo Toscanini.

This paucity on the one hand, and the relative lack of coverage of the United States in broader studies of music during World War II on the other, raise more difficult questions. American music during these years developed within a politicized framework similar at least in rhetoric and intent to those of Germany, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, for example. Like their counterparts in other Allied and Axis powers, American musicians found themselves in a cultural field ripe with contradictory demands from government institutions and the military, from the general needs of day-to-day musical life at home, and from their own private desire to continue composing and performing. And like music in the Soviet Union, American concert music gained new status as a direct result of world events. Musical life was shaped by the complex intersections between musical production and consumption and the political, social, and economic environment within the United States on the one hand, and their relationship to European countries—whether Allied or Axis—on the other.

If one were to believe both wartime propaganda and cold-war musicology, music composed in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy should and did sound markedly different from that written in democratic America, fiercely resistant Great Britain, and the socialist Soviet Union. As Pamela Potter has pointed out, however, wartime classical music may be more homogeneous than its different origins might lead us to expect. Likewise, a simple transposition of moral and aesthetic positions (e.g., the modernist avant-garde as socially progressive, neoclassical and neoromantic music as politically repressive) is inappropriate for a repertoire that was expected to fulfill precise political, social, and cultural functions. In the decades since the end of the war we have come to understand the propaganda value that music held for Nazi Germany, both in nation building before the war and in the years after 1939, whether of Carl Orff’s medievalizing Carmina Burana (1937), Elly Ney’s and Wilhelm Kempff’s Beethoven performances at the German front, or Richard Strauss’s nostalgic opera Capriccio (1942). Similarly, recent research by Kiril Tomoff and Marina Frolova-Walker has shown how nationalist concerns and Soviet ideology merged into an all-consuming revival of Russian pan-Slavicism in order to strengthen a positive cultural identity in the face of the Nazi invasion. Musical culture in Fascist Italy and under the Vichy government in France has elicited deep scholarly engagement with exploring the complex webs of political ideology and musical production. The apparent reluctance of scholars of American music (and, to a lesser extent, of British music as well) to engage in similar investigations raises intriguing questions. It also has a precedent in the times.

Allied propagandists during World War II tended to claim the ideological high ground typically by avoiding any engagement whatsoever with ideology. It is easy to accuse Fascist regimes of abusing music as an instrument of nationalist propaganda; it is harder to acknowledge that such forces were at work—with not so dissimilar results—on the other side of the wartime fence. While the Allies may never have overtly condemned “degenerate” music—defined by style or by ethnic origin (or both)—its production was strongly discouraged save in certain highly controlled circumstances. In both Allied and Axis spheres of influence, the typical prior instruments of musical internationalization (for instance, the International Society for Contemporary Music) declined sharply in favor of such bilateral organizations as the Council of American–Soviet Friendship and various German–Japanese cultural associations. And the tendency of the postwar West to deride the results of socialist realism as a sign of intolerable artistic oppression hardly squares with the mandates imposed upon and willingly accepted by Western composers as a necessity of, and for, war.

No less complex, and running no less counter to traditional historical narratives, were the questions raised by the patterns of musical migration across national boundaries and political spectra. Whereas during the 1920s and early ’30s the Western focus of music (and art in general) was on internationalization, during the war such transnational cross-fertilizations and migrations became problematic, and it was not clear whether they were to be embraced (as a sign of inclusivity or even cultural preeminence) or rejected (as a source of contamination). Thus the tensions between the international and the national—and even between the regional and the local—entered not just the battlefield of political domination but also, and necessarily, that of the moral high ground.

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