- Sounds of War: Music in the United States during World War II by Annegret Fauser
“Shaping Music for Total War,” originally headlined an article by American composer Henry Cowell in 1946, but the phrase superbly captures the essence of Annegret Fauser’s recently released book. When considering the role of music during World War II, one might immediately envision Adolph Hitler manipulating music to propagandize [End Page 538] a Nazi agenda, but Fauser takes a different angle, looking instead through the lens of a democratic country. She investigates how composers, musicians, and government officials living in the United States became “cultural combatants,” embracing music as a means to contribute to the war effort, to raise military and civilian morale, and to “uplift and impress” a pro-U.S. image upon the citizenry of allied and neutral countries.
Fauser focuses on classical music, or concert music, of the time as opposed to jazz or popular genres, which, as she notes, have already been treated in detailed studies by other scholars. Fauser compiles an engaging narrative primarily from archival source materials, stitching together a compelling history heretofore untold. She draws extensively upon government documents located in the National Archives, as well as papers and letters found in over a dozen musician and composer collections housed in the Library of Congress, Yale University, the New York Public Library, and other repositories. In doing so, Fauser weaves an intricate tapestry depicting those who used their musical craft to contribute to the war effort, no matter whether they were émigrés, U.S. civilians, or in military service.
Fauser challenges readers to return to the actual sonic soundscape of World War II, rather than the imagined one that has been constructed via present-day radio, television, and cinema. She argues that our contemporary ears inaccurately hear the 1940s because films such as Saving Private Ryan have embedded aural associations in our minds, and she presses us to hear more broadly. Fauser describes performances by various military ensembles, such as the Navy Symphony Orchestra, and she expounds upon concerts sponsored by the United Service Organizations, a civilian agency that frequently provided entertainment for the troops. She also reminds us that, although some of the concert music from this period has been set aside, these works were at one time created, performed, and even recorded as part of a larger American musical landscape.
The book has five chapters but divides into two distinct parts: chapters 1–2 and chapters 3–5. In chapter 1, Fauser elaborates [End Page 539] upon the contributions of individuals to wartime musical activities, including those by composers and performers, music administrators and educators, as well as radio personalities and music historians. In chapter 2, she broadens her focus to institutions such as the Office of War Information, the Office of Inter-American Affairs, the State Department, and the American military, examining the degree to which each agency/group supported the creation and dissemination of American music and evaluating the extent to which these organizations shaped early efforts in U.S. musical diplomacy. The second part of the book delves into aesthetic issues surrounding the music. Fauser looks closely at what she describes as “musical signifiers” of an intentionally American musical voice. She grapples with the inclusion by U.S. composers of the “usable past,” particularly that of folk music (ch. 3); she explores the notion of “American” music through the perspective of exile musicians, examining their responses to American nationalism and their creative, aural depictions of the United States (ch. 4); and she advocates for the re-evaluation of “intentionally nationalist works”—compositions with overtly patriotic titles or subject matter—arguing that they deserve closer consideration and contextualization than they have previously been given (ch. 5).
Fauser shares a similarity to those she studies, specifically to the émigré musicians whose lens she sometimes uses. German-born but employed in the United States, her personal history provides her with critical insight into the archival materials and musical sources, resulting in...