Sounds of War, Sounds of Symphony

Aug. 13, 2013
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Walt Disney’s 1940 marriage of symphony and animation, Fantasia, is probably the most familiar artifact of a half-forgotten time when classical music occupied a more substantial place in popular culture than nowadays. The importance of this music in the lives of Americans in the ‘40s undergirds a fascinating new book, Sounds of War: Music in the United States During World War II (Oxford University Press). Chapel Hill music professor Annegret Fauser looks beyond the commonplace memories of swing and Sinatra, touching on the mainstream embrace of classical music by way of addressing her main theme: the employment of “serious” composers and musicians in the war effort.

Far be it from the Bush administration to have enlisted the support of Philip Glass in preparation for the Iraq invasion; the arts and the state have drifted apart. But under Franklin D. Roosevelt, the federal government encouraged concert music in a program to democratize high culture and invested in cultural production through New Deal programs. When war came, classical music was eagerly conscripted for the national defense. One of Fauser’s strengths is her willingness to see across borders. Composers in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Great Britain and the United States served considerasbly different ideologies but they all served—often under similarly conceived programs and official agendas.

Movies played an important wartime role in building national identity and purpose and composers in the U.S. pitched in. An RKO potboiler, The North Star, boasted original music by Aaron Copland. German-Jewish émigré Kurt Weill wrote the score to French émigré Jean Renoir’s propaganda film for the Office of War Information, Salute to France, as well as an anti-Nazi musical, Where Do We Go from Here? The OWI commissioned many movies, including one featuring Arturo Toscanini conducting Verdi along with The Star-Spangled Banner and the Soviet anthem, Internationale. (U.S. censors deleted the latter during the Cold War). The OWI favored documentaries whose narratives were enhanced by long stretches of images and music, including works by living American composers.

Many of these films were well made but have survived only as historical footnotes. Sounds of War provides the often poorly recalled context for an era when motion pictures and classical music marched to war side by side.




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