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Listening to History

Posted by on Tuesday, March 17, 2009 in Featured, Spring 2009.

Blair musicologists Joy Calico and Jim Lovensheimer
Blair musicologists Joy Calico and Jim Lovensheimer

With politics at the forefront of the news cycle, particularly given the past election year, it’s easy to assess the impact of today’s constant barrage of instantaneous news on the artists of our time. Tune in any radio—or perhaps more accurately, access YouTube—and you can hear the latest lullaby, parody or pop tune geared to a particular political viewpoint.

This is no less true for composers working in classical music or musical theatre, nor is it limited to those working in the present day. Cultural context, including the role of politics, has always shaped how music is composed and performed, and Blair School of Music professors Joy Calico and Jim Lovensheimer feel that as musicologists they are charged with helping students to understand music within the cultural context of its creation. Both will tell you, however, that this context is perpetually shifting, subject to the vagaries of history and society. Through their own scholarly pursuits, Calico and Lovensheimer come a little closer to grasping the profound complexities of music as it is experienced in the real world.

“I try to discourage my students from thinking of music only as entertainment,” Calico says. “Composers don’t live in a vacuum. We have this idea that they operate in a parallel universe where outside forces don’t affect them, but politics—on any number of fronts, and interpreted any number of ways—affects what they do.”

This idea is at the core of Calico’s latest research-in-progress, Musical Remigration: Schoenberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw” in Postwar Europe, a study of the celebrated modernist’s 1947 choral work, which gives powerful expression to the experiences of Polish Jews during the Holocaust. The composer died in 1951, leaving behind A Survivor in Warsaw as a kind of thorny posthumous legacy.

“The piece is a lens through which to view what was happening in postwar Europe,” Calico explains, “so I’m looking at how the piece was received in seven different countries on both sides of the East/West divide. It managed to hit every exposed nerve of the European psyche at the time. It was written by a Jew; it’s about the Holocaust; it makes the Germans look like fiends and the Jews look heroic; it’s a 12-tone composition; and though Schoenberg (who moved to the United States in 1934) never returned to his home in Austria, this piece serves as a kind of symbolic remigration.

“The buttons it pushes are the same everywhere, but the specific contexts that emerge are interesting.”

As a case in point, Calico cites the piece’s mixed reception in West Germany during the 1950s. “We have this image of West Germany in the 1950s as a nirvana for modern music, but that’s not entirely true. My research shows that there was an anti-Semitic sentiment running through the country at the time, and that influenced the reception of Survivor. The American version of West German history isn’t an accident—in this case, history was quite literally written by the victors.”

Calico will continue to work on the book during the next academic year, thanks to having received a highly competitive ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship for Recently Tenured Scholars, which will allow her to spend 2009-10 as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. Her archival research thus far in Warsaw, Oslo and Paris has been funded by a Vanderbilt University Research Scholars Grant and a Howard Fellowship from the George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation; the latter will fund Calico’s additional archive work in Prague, Vienna and Leipzig this summer.

“There’s a huge body of literature on Holocaust studies that I’m just now getting into,” Calico says, “and I have no doubt that this scholarship will affect the way I’m handling this project.”

Lovensheimer has encountered his own share of revelations about the postwar era in his latest research project, South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten, due to be published by Oxford University Press later this year. Though Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hugely popular musical would seem to have little in common with Schoenberg’s jarring piece, the two works premiered within a year of each other. And, like A Survivor in Warsaw, South Pacific has a lot to tell us about the mid-20th-century mindset.  

“When I was doing some research at the Library of Congress in the Oscar Hammerstein II Collection, I discovered that the show started out much more political than it ended up being,” Lovensheimer says. “At the same time, it does have a message of racial tolerance. So the playwrights had to find this fine line between edifying and entertaining their audiences. My work at large is about looking at issues of gender, race, colonialism and the new corporate system, and demonstrating how South Pacific deals with those issues.”

In the field of musicology, American musical theater remains a relatively unexplored topic of discussion. This is, Lovens-heimer says, because it’s a popular genre. “Classical music critics don’t take it seriously because they think it’s middlebrow, and theater people don’t take it seriously because they think it’s not legitimate theater,” he says. “This is starting to change, though, and I’m hoping that this book will be a part of creating that change. Within this genre, there are some powerful cultural texts that tell us about who we are: Showboat addresses the issue of race, for instance, and Oklahoma is all about being an American in a time of war.”

Lovensheimer routinely brings his irrepressible enthusiasm for research into the classroom, where he urges students to open their minds to new ways of thinking. It’s for this reason, among others, that he was named not only the 2008 winner of the Ellen Gregg Ingalls Award for Excellence in Classroom Teaching at Vanderbilt, but also the recipient of the Chancellor’s Cup, given annually to a faculty member whose dedication to teaching spills out of the classroom and into student life (see below). For Lovensheimer, it’s all a part of getting people to understand the fundamental vitality of the culture that surrounds us every day.

“My goal is to make people aware of the vast body of music that’s out there to be experienced,” he says. “One of the few soapboxes I get on is to instill in my students the idea that American music is not inferior to European music. It’s an intersection of cultures and people and ideas and traditions that most of us don’t think go together. And yet they’re always bumping together and creating something new, and that’s what makes American music so exciting.”

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