Trumpeting Down the Walls of Jericho: The Politics of Art, Music and Emotion in German-American Relations, 1870-1920

By Gienow-Hecht, Jessica C. E. | Journal of Social History, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Trumpeting Down the Walls of Jericho: The Politics of Art, Music and Emotion in German-American Relations, 1870-1920


Gienow-Hecht, Jessica C. E., Journal of Social History


A few years ago, I toured the United States to interview American GIs who had entered Germany in 1944/45 and liberated Nazi concentration camps. What did these soldiers think, I wanted to know, when they entered German cities and towns and encountered the first civilians among the ruins of the Third Reich? The response I heard from more than one of my interviewees startled me, indeed shocked me, and eventually inspired me to research and write this essay. Yes, the veterans told me, they had hated the Germans for having drawn them into this war, for forcing them to leave their homes and fight abroad and, worst of all, for what they had done to the Jews. "But you know," they would often add after a brief pause, "the Germans, they also gave us Beethoven." (1)

*****

Why did these veterans think about classical music when remembering their wartime experience? Why did their love for a German composer temper their memories of the Holocaust? Where did this powerful image of the "good" German musician in the minds of ordinary Americans originate? And how do we make sense of this ostensible juxtaposition of the best and worst in German history and culture?

Despite social scientists' preference for print and visual culture, classical music as a reflector of cultural and social conditions has recently caught the interest of a some musicologists and even a few historians. Much of the existing research has focused on Central Europe. Celia Applegate, for example, has cast the meaning of music into the context of nationalism in nineteenth-century Germany, asking how music and musicology contributed to the process of nation-building and the "imagined community." Stefan Esteban has studied Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, showing that from the beginning the piece was conceived essentially in European rather than German terms. (2)

The influence of music that we know today as "serious" or "classical" extended to people around the world and its legacy is quite visible today, as reflected in the above-mentioned quote. In the United Stares the symphony scene emerged in the mid-nineteenth century largely thanks to the influx of numerous foreign musicians, bands, conductors and soloists. It was heavily dominated by the music of the Romantics, which is no surprise since this reflected very much the musical taste of European audiences at the time.

Historians of American culture have been slow to stress and retrace foreign (as opposed to immigrant) "highbrow" influences on American culture. Though the story seems familiar, no one really wants to tell it. (3) To write about classical music does not seem to be the politically correct thing to do in an age skeptical of the influence of elites, notably the influence of white European males. Hence, readers interested in the subject turn to analyses of individual composers, recollections of managers and performers, and an abundance of biographies. (4)

Music historians who have looked at foreign influences have typically paid more attention to English legacies than those of non-English speaking countries. Thus, Katherine Preston has alerted us to the lively U.S. music scene in the first half of the nineteenth century when Americans of different social ranks enjoyed both English-language and Italian operas at a multitude of occasions, including band concerts, dances and theater shows. This happy democratic period ended, Preston tells us, with the arrival of a musical elite which epitomized the serious music of the German Romantics. Culture became differentiated into various segments, with each part confined to a certain social stratum. From then on, music was either "popular" or an art but never both. (5)

This story of how American music life went elitist (i.e. sour) after the Civil War has been taken for granted in much of the historiography of American culture. Folk, ethnic, and popular music and, most importantly, that crucial date in time marking the emergence of a genuinely American music (Foster? …

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