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Copland as Good Neighbor: Cultural Diplomacy in Latin America During World War II

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The following is a guest post from Dr. Carol Hess, Professor of Music at the University of California, Davis. Dr. Hess will be presenting on Tuesday, October 7, 2014 as a part of the Library of Congress/American Musicological Society Lecture Series. See the flyer or follow the link for more information.


Aaron Copland in front of the State Department, 1947. Copland Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.
Aaron Copland in front of the State Department, 1947. Copland Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Scholars and the general public have long acknowledged Aaron Copland’s attraction to Latin America. He taught several composers from that region, published articles on Latin American music, and composed Latin-themed works such as El salón México, Danzón cubano, and Three Latin-American Sketches. Between 1932 and 1972, Copland made eight visits to Latin America, four under the auspices of the U.S. State Department (1941, 1947, 1962, 1963) to encourage North-South musical exchange. Yet his cultural diplomacy in Latin America remains largely unexamined, as does Latin American reaction to his music.

Copland’s first trip took place at the height of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, which sought to counter Nazi infiltration in the Western hemisphere. The sprawling Office for the Coordination of Commercial and Cultural Relations between the American Republics, headed by Nelson A. Rockefeller, targeted several areas through which North-South ties could be cemented, including radio broadcasting, film, public relations, economics, and music. One of the first acts of the Office’s Music Committee was to recommend Copland for a nine-country Latin American tour, during which he would promote works by U.S. composers and select Latin American musicians for visits to the United States.

Copland was an ideal choice for this government assignment. Not only did he speak Spanish reasonably well but he more than once enthused over “a new world with its own new music,” one that could challenge the European tradition. As such, he embraced a fundamental tenet of the Good Neighbor policy, namely, the notion that the Americas are linked by shared historical and cultural experiences. This concept, dubbed the “Western Hemisphere Idea” by a contemporaneous historian, was widely accepted during the 1930s and 40s and proved fertile ground for cultural diplomacy, then in its fledgling stages in the United States.

The Aaron Copland collection at the Library of Congress houses the diaries the composer kept on all of his Latin American trips as well as his correspondence with Latin American musicians, concert programs of his performances, and scripts of his radio broadcasts in various Latin American capitals. The 1941 trip, which yields the greatest number of Spanish- and Portuguese-language press reviews of his music, was also the most urgent from the standpoint of cultural diplomacy. My talk will explore the beginnings of cultural diplomacy in the United States vis-à-vis the ideology of the Good Neighbor period and this most overtly political of Copland’s Latin American trips.

10 07 2014 Carol Hess

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