Jonathan Rosenberg Interview

Jonathan Rosenberg is the author of the new book Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War through the Cold WarRosenberg has written two previous books and a number of articles on the Civil Rights Movement; he's come to a book about music from a background in American history. That pathway makes Dangerous Melodies a particularly engaging narrative in which music and history are neatly intertwined.

How did you get to where you are today, professionally?

After graduating from Juilliard, I began working as a musician (a trumpet player), playing and teaching in New York. For several years, I had studied with distinguished trumpet teachers from whom I learned a vast amount about classical music and performance. Beyond that, by setting exceptionally high standards, they instilled in me the notion that dedication and determination were essential in whatever one did. Although I was a hard worker to begin with, I embraced the values they conveyed, an approach that served me well in the years ahead.

After several years in New York, I decided to make a change in my professional life. I was always deeply interested in world affairs and history, and I decided to strike out in a different direction. I entered Johns Hopkins to study international relations on the graduate level. While there, I encountered extraordinary scholars and teachers who inspired me to pursue an academic career. Like some of my teachers in music, these figures were demanding and inspiring. While studying at Hopkins, I realized that my academic passion lay in the field of US history. After a couple of years at Hopkins, I transferred to Harvard's doctoral program in history, where I received my Ph.D. Again, I was fortunate to be taught by extraordinary scholars and teachers. Upon graduating from Harvard, I began my academic career, eventually landing a professorship in the history department at Hunter College of the City University of New York (CUNY). A few years later, I also joined the faculty at the CUNY Graduate Center, where I work with doctoral students. Along the way, I published two books on US civil rights history and co-edited a book on the Cold War.

Can you please explain what your new book is all about?

Dangerous Melodies tells the story of a time when classical music occupied a prominent place not just in America's cultural life, but in its political life, as well. The book explores the intersection between the world of classical music in the United States and some of the crucial international developments of the 20th century: the two world wars; the emergence of Italian and German fascism between the wars; and the Cold War. As the classical-music community became drawn into the swirl of world politics, it became far more consequential in American life than it had ever been before.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research?

What I found remarkable was that classical music was so important in America—especially in the political sphere—over the course of more than 50 years in the 20th century. Many millions of people believed the music was enormously significant, particularly as it became entangled in momentous international developments.

Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal. 

In thinking about this project, I aimed to work with a trade press. And W.W. Norton was the publisher I always hoped would publish the book. I had co-authored an earlier book on civil rights that Norton published, and I loved everything about the press. I reached out to some people at Norton, providing a couple of paragraphs describing the project. They were interested and asked for a full proposal, which I put together. As I recall, it was about 15 pages long, though I have forgotten the precise length. Things moved quickly, and they offered me a contract. I was exceptionally pleased to have the chance to work with such an extraordinary publisher. The people at Norton—in every department—are committed to producing serious, thought-provoking books for engaged readers. At Norton, I had a superb editor, Amy Cherry, with whom I worked quite closely. 

Was there much of a research process? What did that look like?

The book required an enormous amount of research—several years, in fact. It is a sweeping history, covering many years of American musical life. I conducted research in archives and libraries across the country. My sources were concert and opera reviews; editorials, opinion pieces, and news reports on classical music; material in symphony and opera archives; and countless letters on classical music and performers that were published in newspapers and magazines.

How did you go about writing the actual book? 

I write in my small study at home. Since I teach history to undergraduates and graduate students, I do my writing on the days that I am not on campus teaching, and on weekends. Academic vacations and the summer months are also prime writing time. I cannot listen to music when I read or write—so that means work and listening to music are completely separate activities. I begin writing at about 9:30 in the morning and work throughout the day, with a lunch break. I almost never write at night. I'm not sure why (something about feeling more comfortable writing when it's light outside). I plan each chapter carefully to make sure the structure is as clear, coherent, and sensible as possible. And I revise and revise. Every chapter goes through multiple revisions; in fact, it would be more accurate to say that I revise each page many times.

What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of this era of music? 

Listen to Van Cliburn's historic performances, as well as those by Toscanini, Furtwangler, Bernstein, Koussevitzky, Karajan, and singers like Kirsten Flagstad. I write at length about Shostakovich. Try listening to his symphonies—especially the 7th, which had a powerful impact in America during World War II. The music and career of Copland are also quite important in Dangerous Melodies.

Why was Copland so important to your book?

During the Cold War, Copland became entangled in America's irrational fear of communism. He was called before the McCarthy committee; some of his music was banned; and he was stopped from making public appearances in some places in the US. It was a toxic era and classical music did not escape unscathed.