- The Composers’ Collective of New York, 1932–1936:Bourgeois Modernism for the Proletariat
Music penetrates everywhereIt carries words with itIt fixes them in the mindIt graves them in the heartMusic is a weapon in the class struggle.—epigraph to Workers Song Book no. 1 (New York: Workers Music League, USA Section of International Music Bureau, 1934)
The search for an American identity in music that characterized the years of the Great Depression coincided with a widespread demand for a music that could instill and sustain faith in a brighter future. Some composers, such as Roy Harris, sought to build this new national image by finding inspiration in the mythology of the American West. Others focused on a rediscovered popular appeal influenced by American folk music and hymnody, for instance, Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson.1 This quest for an idiosyncratic American sound was also at the basis of the activities of the Composers’ Collective of New York, a group of young artists of leftist persuasion stimulated by a desire to give music an active role in the political struggle of the day. Some of these composers are less known today, yet the group counted, among others, Copland, Henry Cowell, Elie [End Page 301] Siegmeister, Earl Robinson, Lan Adomian, Marc Blitzstein, and Norman Cazden, as well as the future music scholars Charles Seeger and Henry Leland Clarke. Looking for a musical language that could communicate with the masses and give voice to the people’s needs, they aimed to establish “American proletarian music” and to pursue the development of an art music that would be free of many of the (real and perceived) constraints of European traditions.
The extent to which the composers of the Collective promoted this aesthetic idea clearly emerges in the content of a substantial document—twenty densely packed handwritten pages, entirely in Blitzstein’s handwriting—that I discovered misplaced in the Marc Blitzstein Papers housed at the State Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin. This document offers detailed evidence of the outcome of the Symposium on Proletarian Music, which was organized by the Composers’ Collective in June 1935.2 Summarizing the presentations and the ensuing animated discussions among the symposium’s participants, Blitzstein’s notes highlight two of the major issues that affected the establishment of “proletarian music” as a new musical trend: the struggle between modernism and more popular musical idioms, and the different level of political involvement and ideological commitment of various members of the Collective.
The present essay discusses the content of this document and relates it to a dichotomy between aesthetic and political goals that, I argue, prevented the radical movement from reaching its objectives and led, eventually, to the collapse of the Collective. We begin by exploring the workers’ song tradition on which the concept of an American “proletarian music” rested, in particular, the songs performed by members of the Industrial Workers of the World during the early decades of the century. Then we will assess the functionality of choral singing within the new-born American Communist Party and discuss the foundation of the Composers’ Collective of New York as part of the Workers Music League. To stress the difficulties these composers encountered in writing proletarian music, we turn to selection of some striking examples of the revolutionary musical style included in two Workers Song Books that members of the Collective compiled. This serves as our entry point for the debates that occurred at the Symposium on Proletarian Music. I claim that two inherent problems led to the failure of proletarian music. First, the compositional modernist path previously pursued by most of the Collective’s members clashed with the goal of a “proletarian composer,” who—it was contended—needed a simple language to connect with the working class and to accommodate performers and listeners unfamiliar with the expressive and structural conventions of Western art music. Second, an assessment of articles and editorials published in 1934 and 1935 in the American Communist Party’s newspaper, the Daily [End Page 302] Worker, demonstrates that proletarian music was not so much a musical failure as a political one because—just around that time—the Communist Party moved away...