The WPA Federal Music Project and Communism

A 1947 propaganda comic book published by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society raising the specter of a Communist takeover
A 1947 propaganda comic book published by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society raising the specter of a Communist takeover

One criticism of the WPA Federal Music Project to keep in mind was the claim that it represented a Communist (and thus very un-American) method of supporting the musical arts.  This was during the Popular Front (1935 to 1939 — the very same date range as the Federal Music Project) period in US and European history where leftists, centrists, and Communists were set at opposing the rising Fascism in Germany (which sometimes put them in line with supporting and siding with Stalin on many issues).

Nikolai Sokoloff, the director of the FMA and a Russian-American often was at the center of criticism because of his ethnic background and his propensity of preferring High European music (in contrast to the “common man” ideology of the New Deal) to developing a native and growing American music.  Much of the press releases and promotion for the Federal Music Project focused on how much new American Music it was supporting.  In a very short section of the Grant/Hettinger book (see my previous post for more about the Grant/Hettinger book, “America’s Symphony Orchestras: and how they are supported”) under government support (pages 205-223) there is some discussion of the Federal Music Project and the work it had done.  As the book states (and this is consistent with the news reports) a “compilation in February, 1939, showed that over 5,000 American works had been played since the inception of the project (pg. 217).”

While it is the briefest of overviews of the Federal Music Project, there is no discussion of the political controversy (which is understandable since Sokoloff was on the advisory board of the National Orchestral Study on which the book was based.  It could be asked if the controversy of the FMA led to downplaying its role in the development of Orchestras given the publicly documented huge role it actually did play.

Those of us who are read in the history of 20th Century American Classical Music have encountered this phenomenon during the Post WWII McCarthyism era.  Some of the radical Avant-gardists and experimentalists, especially John Cage, are known to have hid their sexual as well as political orientation in fear.

While the later McCarthy era is the culmination, the anti-Communist prejudice dates back to the Red Scare (1917-1920).  The rise of the  Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and it’s success in showing its role against Fascism before and during WWII helped to mute some of the prejudice and this may have been one of the conditions which helped the FMP weather the criticism levied against it.  By 1939, Sokoloff would no longer be director of the FMP which was phased out and renamed when the Works Progress Administration (WPA)  was renamed to the Works Projects Administration.

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