Professor of music Carol Hess recently published her fourth book, entitled Representing the Good Neighbor: Music, Difference, and the Pan American Dream.
The book investigates the reception of Latin American art music in the U.S. during the Pan American movement of the 1930s and 1940s.
MUSE: Why did you choose to write about this topic and what did you aim to accomplish through your research on the subject?
Hess: I started my career writing about Spain. I wrote two books on Manuel de Falla, a Spanish composer who moved to Argentina as a result of the Spanish Civil War in the 1940s and that led me to become interested in Latin America and how Latin American music is understood in the United States. I decided that I would make Latin American art music my focus while keeping in mind that it is a marginalized area in music scholarship and wanted to answer the question why that is.
Can you explain the Good Neighbor policy and the role that music had in shaping inter-American relations during the period?
During the 1910s and 1920s the U.S. and Latin America had a very troubled relationship. The U.S. would go into countries and intervene militarily or set up businesses in which local labor was exploited. After Roosevelt became president, there was a push to make the U.S. and Latin America closer due to the rise of fascism in Europe and the possible threat of fascist infiltration in Latin America. The idea was that North, South and Central America had many points in common. In cultural terms, many countries in the Western Hemisphere felt they had something to say that was independent of European cultural tradition. Music was one of those cultural ties between the countries of the Western Hemisphere and played an important role in the exchange of culture between North, South and Central America.
What were some of the prominent composers and cultural icons that emerged as a result of the Good Neighbor policy?
On the U.S. side it was certainly Aaron Copland. He traveled extensively throughout Latin America conducting and performing his pieces. He handpicked composers for the Office of Inter-American Affairs and as a result they would come to the United States and perform their pieces. I specifically studied three Latin American composers — the first being Carlos Chavez from Mexico, whose ballets and orchestral arrangements were performed in the United States to large audiences. Another was the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. His music was performed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. He later began writing musicals and film scores and became very successful in the United States. The third was the Argentine Alberto Ginastera, who became popular during the Cold War years when the Good Neighbor policy had fallen off.
How receptive were Latin American composers to the Good Neighbor policy and what were the effects it had on the careers of those composers?
Many Latin Americans were not receptive to it at all. The United States’ involvement in the internal affairs of many Latin American countries resulted in widespread discontent in the southern part of the hemisphere. When the Cold War began, the threat of communist infiltration in Latin America was a very concerning issue to the United States. As a result, the Good Neighbor policy ceased to exist due the constant subversive activities aimed at ousting communists and other leftist groups in Latin America by the United States. There was a contingent of composers that were leaning to the left and didn’t really care for the United States in that regard. However, many Latin American composers benefited from the policy. They could receive government grants and had the opportunity to circulate their music in the U.S. I imagine that many of them put their political affiliations aside and simply looked at the experience of having [a] greater number of venues for their music and a new network of musical counterparts.
How important was music in helping the U.S. obtain Latin American countries as political partners?
I’m not sure if music or culture was wholly responsible for any set of diplomatic relationships. However, in terms of soft power — the idea that you don’t always have to pursue diplomacy by addressing specific political or economic issues, but that an atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration can be fomented by other means — was important in strengthening ties within the hemisphere. So I wouldn’t say it was critical, but it was important in helping bring the U.S. and Latin America closer in terms of culture.
What were the lasting effects that the Good Neighbor policy had on the musical development in the both the U.S. and Latin America?
I think it’s something that composers in different countries might look back on and say, what happened to Pan-Americanism? I think the period did put Latin American music on the map. Now that we live in a more globally-oriented world we will now be able to widen our view of art music and increase our sensibility to new forms of music and alternative forms of programming.