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The Gershwin Threat/The Gershwin Moment Paul Rosenfeld, whose writings on American modernist composers were once regarded as insightful and prophetic, detected in George Gershwin the Russian Jew “a weakness of spirit, possibly as a consequence of the circumstance that the new world attracted the less stable types.” Rosenfeld (whose own lineage was German Jewish) also wrote of Gershwin: “His compositions drowse one in a pink world of received ideas and sentiments. The Rhapsody in Blueis circus-music, pre-eminent in the … [Read more...]

Why Did Shostakovich Join the Party? One of the most controversial acts in the ever controversial life of Dmitri Shostakovich was his tortured decision in 1960 to join the Communist Party – a decision that has variously been portrayed as cowardly, politically pressured, or basically volitional. It is not mentioned in Testimony (1979) – the composer’s influential memoirs, collaboratively written with Solomon Volkov. But Volkov offered his own view, for the first time, in a Zoom chat the other day produced by PostClassical … [Read more...]

Music in Wartime Between 1942 and 1945, the three pre-eminent Russian composers wrote music responding to World War II. These responses differ in fascinating and revealing ways. Both Dmitri Shostakovich and Serge Prokofiev were eyewitnesses to the war; Shostakovich in fact endured the beginning of the siege of Leningrad before being evacuated east along with Prokofiev and other eminent Soviet artists. Prokofiev’s explosive Seventh Piano Sonata (1942), the best-known of his three “War Sonatas,” evokes … [Read more...]

Shostakovich and the State “People underestimate Stalin’s level of control,” says Solomon Volkov. “I once started to calculate how many people in the arts Stalin controlled personally -- that is, read their writing, listened to their music, attended their performances. And it was close to one thousand. And not in some abstract way. This was an incredible, unprecedented amount of attention to the arts, which was Stalin’s habit. So that Shostakovich knew very well that he was under the constant observation of this most … [Read more...]

Music in Challenging Times — An Opportunity Back in the 1930s, American radio – that is, American commercial radio, which is all we had – knew that listeners were amenable to paying attention to what they were hearing and nothing else. A long attention span was assumed. Commensurately, the airwaves were full of classical music – a phenomenon I pondered in my most reviled book, Understanding Toscanini (1987). (Reviled because I foresaw the swift marginalization of classical music, but never mind.) I wrote: “As Toscanini’s … [Read more...]

Furtwangler, Shostakovich, Toscanini: Music in Adverse Times

Wilhelm Furtwangler Dmitri Shostakovich Arturo Toscanini A new podcast, produced by The American Interest (TAI), translates my article on “Furtwangler and Shostakovich: Bearing Witness in Wartime” into a 30-minute podcast with tremendous musical examples.  The distinguished historian Richard Aldous, as interlocutor, expands my purview to include Arturo Toscanini -- a topic of which I've steered clear since the publication in 1987 of my Understanding Toscanini (the most discussed and … [Read more...]

Music and Healing: An Armenian Odyssey

The healing properties of music is suddenly an inescapable topic. Serendipitously, the last concert given by PostClassical Ensemble before the pandemic shut down live music was an exercise in healing. This was An Armenian Odyssey at the Washington National Cathedral on March 4. The final three minutes, documented in the film clip above, evoked the 2018 Velvet Revolution in Yerevan. It consummated a 75-minute Armenian narrative of diaspora, tragedy, and regeneration. The memorable live animation … [Read more...]

Furtwangler and Shostakovich: Bearing Witness in Wartime

Today's on-line "The American Interest" carries a greatly expanded version of my blog of Feb. 25 (scroll down for Shostakovich and Ives): Books continue to be written about what it was like to live in Germany under Hitler. I wonder if any of the authors have auditioned Wilhelm Furtwängler’s wartime broadcasts with the Berlin Philharmonic. They should – and also ponder a kindred question: the function of culture in the life of a nation.  The online products of the Berlin Philharmonic include a $230 box set containing 22 … [Read more...]

Furtwangler in Wartime

Books continue to be written about what it was like to live in Germany under Hitler. I wonder if any of the authors have auditioned Wilhelm Furtwangler’s wartime broadcasts with the Berlin Philharmonic. They should. About a year ago, the Berlin Philharmonic issued a $250 box containing 22 CDs and a 180-page booklet. The contents comprise the complete surviving Furtwangler wartime broadcasts (1939-1945) in the best possible sound. Since most of these performances were recorded with magnetic tape (unprecedented at the time), the dynamic … [Read more...]

The Best of the “Black Symphonies”

For this weekend's "Wall Street Journal" I have written an impassioned encomium for William Dawson's thrilling "Negro Folk Symphony" of 1934 -- still (alas) buried treasure: William Dawson In 1926 the African-American poet Langston Hughes wrote a seminal Harlem Renaissance essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The mountain “standing in the way of any true Negro art in America,” he declared, was an urge “toward whiteness,” a “desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little … [Read more...]

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