In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cold War Music

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Collections of Essays
  • Multimedia Resources
  • Archives
  • Periodicals
  • Composers
  • Other Arts in the Cold War

Music Cold War Music
Peter Schmelz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0131


Contemporary music undeniably received attention during the Cold War—roughly the period between 1945 and 1991, from the end of World War II to the fall of the Soviet Union. Yet it was not until the Cold War’s end that musicologists and historians began investigating in earnest the impact of the worldwide conflict on musical composition, performance, and reception. Their research addresses a diversity of topics. The Cold War acts as more than a temporal demarcation: it helps frame specific relationships, interactions, and modes of thinking fostered directly and indirectly by the sharing (and opposing) of information around the globe. The most fruitful studies engage with these transnational aspects of the conflict, the pushing and pulling of ideas by both state and nonstate actors. Scholars thus have focused a great deal of attention on music that was explicitly politicized by either the sender or the receiver. But this process was far from one-sided, and far from clear. Armed with new theoretical perspectives and archival findings, and not beholden to the rigid binary oppositions of the Cold War, scholars have begun developing more sophisticated accounts of how musical actors (intentionally or not) conveyed, implied, received, and inferred political meanings on many levels, ranging from the very public to the more intimate. Music scholars and historians in particular have been interested in the ways in which governments employed (or attempted to employ) composers and performers to fit their own ideological and political agendas. Archival research relating to US cultural exchange programs featuring both jazz, art music, and ballet/modern dance have proven especially profitable. Musicologists have also dealt with other ideological aspects of musical production, usually by region, focusing particularly on the United States, western Europe, eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union. Among these regional studies, a number of scholars have drawn attention to the musical responses to the McCarthy campaign against Communist sympathizers in the United States. In this context and others, the uses of “abstract” music, namely twelve-tone and serial techniques, in addition to other avant-garde developments, as a shield against Communist co-optation have also been explored. What remains is to study these issues beyond the traditional US/Soviet framework and to look at what historian Odd Arne Westad calls the “Global Cold War.”

General Overviews

A number of general studies of Cold War culture help begin articulating music’s roles during this period. Hixson 1997, Prevots 1998, and Caute 2003 all focus on the cultural diplomacy efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union. Stonor Saunders 2000 (cited under Cultural Politics and Cultural Diplomacy) probes the activities of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, including its links to the US Central Intelligence Agency. Other useful introductions include Whitfield 1996, which considers American Cold War culture more broadly, and Boyer 1994, which investigates the impact of atomic weapons on the American popular imagination. Shreffler 2003 offers necessary background for understanding the historiography of the period, in both Germany (East and West), but also by extension in the United States, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere. Schmelz 2009 presents an assessment of the field of Cold War musical studies after its first decade of activity. For general introductions to the diplomatic and political history of the Cold War, see also the General Overviews section in the Oxford Bibliographies: International Relations article The Cold War.

  • Boyer, Paul. By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. 2d ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

    Covers the period 1945–1950, giving a rich account of American responses to the atomic bomb. Although music receives only passing mention, the discussions of other cultural forms (including literature and film) provide ample background for future musical discussions of the topic.

  • Caute, David. The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    A highly readable, comprehensive survey of the arts—stage and screen, ballet and music (both classical and jazz). In addition to a wealth of secondary sources, Caute also draws upon research at archives in the United Kingdom, Paris, Berlin, the United States, and Moscow. A useful introduction to the topic.

  • Hixson, Walter. Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945–1961. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997.

    Focuses on US efforts at psychological warfare and cultural exchange with the Soviet Union during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Draws on documents from both American and Russian archives.

  • Prevots, Naima. Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

    Considers US ballet and modern dance cultural exchanges organized between 1954 and 1962, the period during which ANTA (American National Theater and Academy) administered the programs. Although focused on dance, Prevots’s research often touches upon music.

  • Schmelz, Peter J. “Introduction: Music in the Cold War.” Journal of Musicology 26 (2009): 1–16.

    A brief overview of Cold War musical studies, presenting a history of the topic and outlining possible directions for future study. Also includes a selected bibliography.

  • Shreffler, Anne C. “Berlin Walls: Dahlhaus, Knepler, and Ideologies of Music History.” Journal of Musicology 20 (2003): 498–525.

    DOI: 10.1525/jm.2003.20.4.498

    Lucidly details the influences on one of Germany’s most influential music historians during the postwar period, Carl Dahlhaus. Demonstrates how his historiography reacted against the Marxist-informed history preached and practiced in East Germany. An important study.

  • Whitfield, Stephen J. The Culture of the Cold War. 2d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

    A pioneering overview of American culture during the Cold War that reveals the many manifestations of anti-Communist anxiety in American society. While it overlooks music, its discussions of theater, film, and television provide helpful context for musical research.

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