- Sound Diplomacy: Music and Emotions in Transatlantic Relations, 1850–1920 by Jessica C. E. Gienow-Hecht
To a large degree, the recent emergence in German studies of what might well deserve the name “musical turn” is the result of a palace coup. That is, our current appreciation of music’s place in modern German cultural, political, and social life, as well as the profound links between music and Germans’ sense of national belonging, owes little to the research of professional musicologists (with some exceptions, such [End Page 180] as the valuable contributions of Pamela Potter and Joy Calico). Instead, it reflects the achievements of disciplinary outsiders: from historians such as Celia Applegate, Michael Kater, and William Weber, to comparative literature and film scholars like Roger Hillman, Lutz Koepnick, and Nicholas Vazsonyi. With her new book on the rise of the American symphony, Jessica Gienow-Hecht makes a solid case for turning on the music in yet another disciplinary context: transcultural and international relations.
The book’s title, Sound Diplomacy, reflects the study’s framing as a work of “new” international history. It explores the activities and policies not of official state institutions and agents, but rather of nongovernmental actors and their often unwitting advancement of state interests abroad. One part of the argument is that in the latter half of the nineteenth century, musicians were particularly effective, informal ambassadors of German cultural interests, especially in the United States. Indeed, Gienow-Hecht asserts, they often succeeded precisely because they acted independently of the German Foreign Office, whose formal efforts at cultural promotion after 1870 were generally ham-fisted. The second part of the argument is oriented more toward historians of the United States, and also has important implications for our understanding of late nineteenth-century European imperialism. Namely, the work challenges the prevailing nativist paradigm in American cultural historiography, which tends to overlook or intentionally dismiss foreign influences on “American” culture. Indeed, not only did European governments and citizens seek to transplant their cultural practices to the United States, but Americans explicitly developed their own understandings of “art” and “culture” in reference to European practices and standards, a modus operandi that persisted well into the middle decades of the twentieth century.
Developing these ideas over seven chapters, the book stands as a compelling example of transnational cultural history. It begins with a brief account of European and especially German cultural politics during the second half of the long nineteenth century. Here Gienow-Hecht also notes the particularly prominent position of serious music, exemplified by the symphony, in German cultural nationalism. Chapter 2 examines the initial contacts Americans had with German music, both in the United States—in the form of touring virtuosos and orchestras—and in German concert halls and conservatories. Moreover, by century’s end Americans had “wholeheartedly convert[ed]” (65) to German music. In chapter 3, the focus shifts to an examination of the hundreds of musicians, instrumentalists, and conductors who left Germany in pursuit of musical and financial opportunities in the United States. Once there, the “houseguests” promoted German music with missionary zeal; Gienow-Hecht even surmises that the early deaths of men like Leopold Damrosch, Theodor Thomas, and Anton Seidl were the direct result of their tireless activity on German music’s behalf. However, as chapter 4 reveals, the flowering of symphony orchestras on American soil did not just stem from German fervor and talent. It also depended on indigenous [End Page 181] philanthropy and burgeoning local pride, as inter-urban competition prompted one city after another to found its own orchestra.
This picture of a transatlantic musical alliance is nicely complemented in chapter 5 by a discussion of concert audiences and programs. Although “going to the symphony” is frequently viewed as an elite practice, Gienow-Hecht shows that audiences were quite diverse, socially speaking, even if women tended to outnumber men. This very diversity prompted critics to instruct audiences on proper concert etiquette. Similarly, American orchestras played a wide range...