Remembering Pearl Harbor

Wars were already being fought in Europe, Africa, and Asia when the United States entered in 1941. On December 7, the Empire of Japan launched an unprovoked attack on the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor. A day after, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally declared war. Men and women from all walks of life were called to assist in the war effort. This also included composers and musicians. 

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.)

In a time of sorrow, composers turned to music to captivate the mood of a nation. Kostelanetz commissioned musical portraits of famous Americans weeks after Pearl Harbor. The results included Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait and Jerome Kern’s Mark Twain. Arnold Schoenberg directly responded to the attacks with his Ode to Napoleon. Using Lord Byron’s eponymous 1814 poem, it drew the ode’s demise of Napoleon’s tyranny to a direct comparison to Hitler. The ode’s closing homage to George Washington, similarly, was compared to FDR. Kurt Weill’s Three Walt Whitman Songs – Oh Captain! My Captain! (Christmas 1941), Dirge for Two Vererans (January 1942), and Beat! Beat! Drums (Spring 1942) – were also a response to the Pearl Harbor attacks. But Weill also believed in the use of music as a rallying cry. He was not the only one with similar thoughts. 

“The government believed in the power of music,” said Musicologist Annegret Fauser. In her 2013 book, Sounds of War, Fauser demonstrates how the art form was as much a useful tool as combat during the war. The American government funded the likes of Barber, Copland, Cowell, and others as part of the Office of War Information. At a time when Nazis portrayed Americans as uncivilized with their love of jazz music, the U.S. government used classical music as a way of demonstrating their artistic superiority. 

Music was equally as powerful as a bullet. Americans and their British counterparts turned to radio frequencies to deliver anti-German propaganda. The U.K.’s propaganda department, the Political Warfare Executive, created a fake clandestine German radio station to spread misinformation and demoralize the enemy. Weill, similarly, wrote satirical pieces for American anti-German propaganda. Among them was “Ballad of the Nazi Soldier’s Wife“, which detailed the gifts delivered to a proud wife – until she receives her widow’s veil when her husband dies in Russia. Concerts were held across the country in support of the war. Drawing in audiences of all sizes, these performances also helped in the sale of war bonds.

The role of classical music in the war effort was put to great use to boost soldiers’ morale. Before the Pearl Harbor attacks, the Library of Congress’s Music Division was similar to any other collection. But Fauser discovered that the division became “the hub of all wartime music endeavors” after the U.S. entered the war. This was a concerted effort by Harold Spivacke, the division’s director, who also served as chair of the Sub-Committee on Music of the Join Army and Navy Commission on Welfare and Recreation. He created the Army Song Leader program, which created kits used by soldiers so they could gather around and sing popular songs in groups. Similarly, a music adviser program recruited musicians, performers, and composers for active duty. Marc Blitzstein, whose experience with the U.S. Eight Army Air Force, influenced his Airborne Symphony.  

Not all composers were able to sign up for service. But their contribution was demonstrated in concert halls and radio waves. Their backing came all the way from the top. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt believed their artistic contribution was as much a symbol of American freedom, “which has come down to us from our liberty-loving forefathers.” Classical entertainment was also delivered to the frontlines via the USO. For the likes of Yehudi Menuhin, Andre Kostelanetz, Lily Pons, and many others, they were surprised by the increasing demand for classical music at the frontlines. But after seeing the effect classical music had over soldiers – the earliest clinic trials of music therapy began during the war – performing at military bases became a badge of honor. 

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