Music and Democracy

by Leon Botstein

During the past century—the hundred years since America entered World War I—what has been (and still might be) the connection between the essentially European traditions of orchestral and symphonic music and the ideals, demands, and predicaments of American democracy? The historical precedents of form and expression that preoccupied the American composers on today’s program emerged from a political world quite different from the American experience. Classical and Romantic concert music witnessed its significant development in a condition of un-freedom—a century of reaction and failed revolution—during which Europe remained largely dominated by monarchies that severely restricted a citizen’s political participation.

The impressive and predominant link forged between large-scale musical forms and politics during the second half of the nineteenth century in the European context concerned nationalism—the use of music to define and assert nascent and emerging modern national identities. Wagner and Sibelius are two obvious examples of this. American composers, however, faced barriers to any simple emulation of the European rhetorical manner of connecting musical expression and the articulation of modern nationalism. America, by 1900, was an unusual amalgam of immigrants, descendants of slaves, and surviving native populations. Not only was America a relatively young political construction, without a shared language or religion, but it was also made up of distinct regions and lacked persuasive, quasi-religious, unifying myths. Its leading post-civil war distinguishing symbols, particularly during the decades of mass immigration, were its founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. America was a land of laws, rights, and a government that imagined an equality of citizenship between those who were born on its land and those that acquired it later in life (with the exception of the right to become President). The legal rhetoric of the nation’s founding was a vision of an egalitarian democracy that offered to all the right to political participation, economic opportunity, and protection from tyranny, the fact and legacy of slavery notwithstanding.

Indeed, the career and biographies of the three composers on this program—all of whom knew one another—suggest this point. Sessions was the quintessential Anglo-American aristocrat, a scion of founders of the nation. Copland descended from a relatively early cohort of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to America who pursued a rapid and successful path to acculturation. Leonard Bernstein was a first generation American Jew of Eastern European origins whose parents negotiated the language and customs of their newfound national home with charming eccentricity and who remained (in contrast to Copland’s parents) evidently tied, in manners and mores, to the old country.

What kind of music fits the celebration of equal citizenship and love of freedom, extols the promises of democracy and the rule of law, and is distinctly American all without striking an exclusionary or nativist note? Copland’s 1942 Fanfare for the Common Man, which became central to his 1946 Third Symphony, was used during the bicentennial celebrations of 1976 to express America’s spirit. But as Byron Adams reminds us, during the 1950s that unique Copland sound—found in the powerful Lincoln Portrait, also from 1942—was under suspicion, and not only for biographical reasons (e.g. Copland’s liberal political sympathies). Perhaps its theatrical solemnity and restrained modernism made it too similar to certain types of “left wing” musical aesthetics—even those of Shostakovich. Copland, like his (and Bernstein’s) friend Marc Blitzstein and contemporaries Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill, had become skeptical during the 1930s of radical musical modernism. It was too remote and too hard for listeners. Modernism, despite its overt embrace of an inherent parallelism between radical progressive change in art and politics, actually created an intolerable distance between the masses and the artist.

Copland’s populism succeeded; works like Billy the Kid (1938) and Appalachian Spring (1944) made him the iconic voice of America at mid-century. And Copland’s populist brand of modern music never quite lost its association with a liberal expansive view of the nation—one associated with Lincoln and Roosevelt. Copland’s most famous and devoted protégé was Leonard Bernstein, whose music owes a singular debt to Copland.

But Bernstein, a committed and politically engaged liberal, was also deeply influenced by the confessional aesthetics of Gustav Mahler, a composer with whom he closely identified. For Mahler, the symphonic form was an essay in self-revelation; it became a chronicle of a psychological journey, both real and imagined. The aesthetics of Copland and Mahler meet in Bernstein’s Third Symphony. Although conceived and largely completed before the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, the symphony, owing to its theme and date of completion and first performance, was received as a musical evocation of a national tragedy, in which violence marred law and civility. Its emotions are raw and its musical fabric theatrical and direct in a manner reminiscent of Copland.

If Copland and Bernstein represent a populist modernism that maintained a distance from more radical musical innovations, Roger Sessions was America’s foremost proponent of an aggressive modernism. He was a lifelong proponent of the ethical necessity of maintaining a parallel between progressive politics and progressive aesthetics. The Second Symphony was written during the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, over two years spanning the president’s death and the beginning of the Truman era, and therefore the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War. The work is a tribute to FDR (a sentiment evident in the third movement) and the dedication came at a time when the consequences of FDR’s death were becoming visible: a shift away from the ideals of the New Deal, growing anti-communism, and a resurgent conservatism.

For Sessions, a celebration of the legacy of FDR required the same forward-looking approach to musical composition as FDR had brought to politics. Sessions regarded his commitment to the complex craft of the development of musical ideas and the extension of musical language away from the practices of late romanticism as consistent with a progressive and liberal agenda, just as Copland and Bernstein regarded the embrace of accessibility and tonality as essential to a democratic musical art. In the modernism of Sessions’ Second Symphony one finds a powerful evocation of American intensity and vitality. The first two movements are filled with humor, grace, and brilliance. The orchestration and rhythm are unmistakably both American and modern. The symphony’s uncompromising formal sophistication lends the work its magnetism, allure, and power. Even an eloquence similar to that of Copland can be heard in the Adagio, reminding the listeners of the sense of loss at FDR’s death that Copland and Sessions—contemporaries and friends—shared. But the last movement of the symphony returns, the grief at the loss of a great president notwithstanding, to the optimism, innovation, and brash ebullience of the American spirit audible at the start of the work.

From the vantage point of 2017, these three works point to the special challenge composers now face in the task of writing music that celebrates democracy in America. One of the central differences between autocracy and democracy is the way in which political leadership is construed. Democracy seeks to place law and the deliberative process (trial by jury, legislatures, town hall meetings, open hearings) above personality. Leadership by charisma or personal power is traditionally frowned upon in a democracy. The admiration Sessions expresses for FDR and Bernstein expresses for JFK were posthumous. There was no hint of flattery or currying favor with power. And the substance of the admiration was for the ideals these presidents stood for, and for their hopes for a more just and free country. Consider FDR’s Four Freedoms and JFK’s creation of the Peace Corps. And Copland’s work is not dedicated to any individual. It was written for the opening of an auditorium on the campus of MIT, and signals the enduring link between freedom and education, between democracy and the search for truth and the respect for the advancement of knowledge.

As we listen to these three works we need to recall that we now live in an era when the cult of personality around the holder of the same office as FDR and JFK overwhelms our respect for law and deliberation, challenges the ideals of tolerance, and contests the very premises of the conduct of science and advancement of knowledge. The three composers on this program each sought to celebrate their patriotism and allegiance to America by evoking, through music, a commitment to freedom and justice. They used divergent approaches to bring home a shared unique American sensibility regarding freedom and justice in democracy that we would be well advised to remember and cherish.

Written for


The Sounds of Democracy