More substantive posts coming soon! The premiere of the HBO WWII miniseries The Pacific has spurred me into writing some long posts about the politics of remembering WWII, which come out of one of the new chapters I'm writing for The Book. Look for those soon.
In shorter news:
- The ongoing struggle for the soul of public higher education in this country has taken some interesting twists in the past few weeks, especially with regards to LGBT students and faculty members. For some very interesting discourse and activism around that issue at UC Davis, check out this new group and blog Queers for Public Education. Here at William & Mary, the Virginia Attorney General's recent letter to public universities informing us that we are not allowed to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation is still sending shockwaves through the campus. We're on spring break right now, but when classes resume next week there is a rally planned for Thursday, March 18th at 2:00 pm. I'm unfortunately going to be in Canada at that moment (see below!) but I wish it the best. This is exactly the sort of situation where large public activist events can do a lot of good.
- Speaking of Canada, should you happen to find yourself in lovely Ottawa, Ontario, next Friday the 19th, I hope you'll avail yourself of the opportunity to hear me speak! I'm on a panel discussing "Cold War Anxieties" as part of the annual meeting of the Society for American Music. It should be a great panel; I'm especially delighted to be sharing the stage with Jennifer DeLapp Birkett, whose work on Aaron Copland's experience with McCarthyism is very foundational for my own work. I will be doing a bit on Bernstein myself. Not the hippest stuff I do, but that has its pleasures.
A “Great American Symphony” During McCarthyism
Leonard Bernstein had a famously ambivalent relationship with the American symphonic tradition. “The symphony,” he said in 1958, “has become an American monument, like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial or something.” And a few years earlier came the famous question, “What Ever Happened to the Great American Symphony?” But even earlier in his career, as Bernstein was beginning to make a name for himself as a conductor and composer, the specter of the symphony loomed particularly large. Bernstein’s response, at once rebellious and obsequious, was the 1949 symphony The Age of Anxiety.
The infrequently performed and generally disfavored Age of Anxiety is an exploration of post-war apathy and exhaustion at the dawn of McCarthyism. The profoundly anti-heroic subject matter is matched by some of Bernstein’s most modernist music. Even in the work’s finale, written expressly in the “Koussevitzky manner,” I show how Bernstein purposefully injected a sense of alienation in what was superficially a triumphant closing. “My original idea,” he later remarked, “was to produce a mockery of faith, a phony faith.”
Read in the context of the American symphonic tradition, Bernstein’s alienation was both musical and political, as he watched friends and mentors like Aaron Copland entangled in partisan politics, and institutions of classical music robbed of their timeliness and popular appeal in the face of the challenge of mass culture. I argue that The Age of Anxiety was Bernstein’s response to these times, and also his farewell to the modernist tradition that had previously nurtured him.