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Black and white photograph of Finney holding tobacco pipe to his mouth
Unidentified photographer. Ross Lee Finney, undated. Box 2, Ross Lee Finney Papers, Music Division.

Ross Lee Finney and His War-time Composers

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The following is a guest post from Archives Processing Technician Melissa Capozio Jones.

Like many American musicians during the Second World War, accomplished composer and educator Ross Lee Finney volunteered to serve in the armed forces. Along with achieving a Pulitzer Award in music, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and numerous other music awards throughout his lifetime, Finney earned both a Purple Heart and a Certificate of Merit for his work with the Office of Strategic Services.* Prior to what was likely incredibly harrowing work in France, he also managed to capture valuable information and insight from his fellow American composers.

A year after the United States entered the war and right before he began his own military service, Ross Lee, as he was sometimes known, sent out a short questionnaire to an unknown number of composers; he received back forty-one responses. Theodore Finney, a musicologist and his brother, donated the responses to the Library of Congress in 1974 on the behalf of Ross Lee. The questionnaire asked only four things of the respondents:

  1. Music composed during 1942
  2. First performances 1942
  3. Works in process of composition
  4. What do you feel is the composer’s war-time function?

The exact reason as to why these questionnaires were sent out is not clear.

The answers to the fourth question are by far the most interesting. They range from the pragmatic to the inspirational; some responded at length about duty and morale, while others waxed poetic about artistic endeavors. There were also those who either refrained from answering or had nothing they wished to say. Aaron Copland listed what he had written in 1942, then simply crossed out the fourth question and continued to type his response to question two. In his defense, we might observe that he composed a lot of pieces that year and he may have felt he needed the page space to type it all.

Typed sheet with Aaron Copland's signature.
Survey response from Aaron Copland, 1943. Box 3. Ross Lee Finney Papers, Music Division.

Composer and music critic Theodore Chanler seemed to get right to the point in his response. “I can see no way for composer’s to rationalize their function in relation to the sole immediate object of war, which is victory…In short, I believe composers in war-time are pretty useless.” Louis Greenburg, on the other hand, appeared to think composers could at least serve some function, whatever that may be. “What do you feel is the composer’s function in wartime? Anything the government feels he ought to do.” Others echoed the sentiment, calling for their fellow composers to enlist if young enough. Lehman Engel, who was one of many who enlisted, responded to the entire questionnaire with two short paragraphs underneath the last question.

My answer to all of the above is ‘nothing.’ It is the first time in my life that it has been so. I can only think that I composed nothing because my being called to the armed forces was imminent from the beginning of April 1942 and I finally took my place in the Navy in April.

In contrast to those urging or participating in military service, some voiced their belief that the greatest contribution one could make to the war effort was to continue composing. Roy Harris submitted that a composer’s function was, “to write the best music that he can, as fast as he can, for as long as he can.” Austrian born composer Ernst Krenek (who would become a United States citizen in 1945) simply stated, “What do you feel is the composer’s war-time function: write music.”

Many of the answers overwhelmingly spoke to the importance of music and art to humanity, in times of war and of peace:

It seems to me that his function in war-time is just about the same as his function in time of peace, and that is to continue to write the best music of which he is capable. This is probably more difficult in times of war than in times of peace, but it seems to me that the creation and perpetuation of beauty is more important than ever in days like these. – Howard Hanson

I think it is highly important that we shall keep up all creative activities, if we are fighting for a civilization worth preserving–as I certainly have no shadow of a doubt we are. – Quincy Porter

If he can contribute to the war effort by music, so much the better, but above all to keep faith with his artistic creed and to affirm the validity of music in our national life, now more than ever. – Douglas Moore

Samuel Barber on the other hand, went in the opposite direction. When he got to question number four inquiring about a composer’s war-time function, he simply wrote “???” before signing the sheet and jotting a quick “Greetings!” along the bottom. It appears that sometimes even the most prolific artists find themselves without an answer.

Handwritten questionaire, signed by Samuel Barber.
Survey response from Samuel Barber, 1943. Box 3. Ross Lee Finney Papers, Music Division.

Even though there is little to determine why exactly Ross Lee Finney took the time to send out this questionnaire, the writings from a host of 20th century American composers are both enlightening and an interesting read.

All forty-one responses to the questionnaire can be found in the Ross Lee Finney Papers under ML94.F55.

* Ewen, David. American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1982.


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