In 1892, Antonin Dvorak came to America to direct the new National Conservatory of Music in New York City. For three years he would lead this progressive school and its diverse student body in a quest to find the authentic American sound. Could they convince America that the source of their national music was right before their eyes?
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Ludwig von Beethoven hated despotism and desperately wanted an enlightened leader who would liberate Europe from its kings and princes. He thought he saw such a hero in a young General Napoleon Bonaparte. But what did Bonaparte do to deserve a symphony written in his honor? And what did he do to cause Beethoven to strike his name from the title, and dedicate it to “the memory of a great man”?
Dmitri Shostakovich grew up Leningrad, in Stalin’s Soviet Union. As a composer, his work was censored and he and his family were punished when his music fell into disfavor under the Stalin regime. During Stalin’s Great Terror, when Stalin consolidated his hold on power, many of Shostakovich’s friends and family were arrested and sent to prison camps or executed by the government for being perceived as a threat to Stalin’s authority.
In 1942 Germany invaded Russia and quickly laid siege to Leningrad. Shostakovich initially refused to leave. He dug fortifications during the day and composed at a feverish pitch during the night, until he and his family were finally ordered to evacuate over enemy lines by military aircraft. The first winter was horrible in the besieged city. Thousands died from cold, starvation, or fighting. Survivors ate their pets to stay alive. Possibly thousands of starving residents resorted to cannibalism.
Shostakovich dedicated his 7th Symphony to the people of Leningrad. He wanted the world to know of the plight of Leningrad. A smuggled copy of the score made it out of the Soviet Union, and the Leningrad Symphony premiered all over the world before anyone in Leningrad heard it.
Shostakovich’s real inspiration for the Leningrad Symphony was not the siege, but something else equally evil. Listen to today’s episode to hear how Dmitri Shostakovich survived both the war against Germany and his war against Stalin with his artistic integrity intact.
Aaron Copland composed Fanfare for the Common Man in 1942 during World War II. He wanted to honor the common man “who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the Army.” But Copland’s title was more than a simple celebration of the everyday American. Fanfare for the Common Man carried a polarizing message that America ultimately rejected. Today, we no longer remember the real meaning of Fanfare for the Common Man or the important debate that preceded it. Where America stood on this issue would determine the fate of the free world. The message and the debate remain relevant today and are the subject of today’s episode.