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Ohio State professor Danielle Fosler-Lussier sheds light on importance of music during Cold War

Classical Music and the Mediation of Prestige in US Cultural Diplomacy, 1954-1970' at the 18th Avenue Library Feb. 25.


During the Cold War some believed music was so influential it could actually change the perception of a nation.

Danielle Fosler-Lussier, associate professor in Ohio State’s School of Music, presented her lecture “The Highest Peaceful Arts: Classical Music and the Mediation of Prestige in U.S. Cultural Diplomacy, 1954-1970” Monday at the 18th Avenue Library. The lecture focused on the United States’ use of music in foreign diplomacy during the Cold War and its effect on how the country was perceived during that time.

“Between the 1950s and 1970s, the State Department sent more than 1,000 professional and amateur musicians abroad,” Fosler-Lussier said during the lecture. “They represented many genres of music, from classical to jazz to rock ‘n’ roll and folk.”

Fosler-Lussier said the U.S. musicians played classical music most often overseas because it was considered the “highest art” of music.

“The prominence of art music in the program was also a strategic choice,” Fosler-Lussier said. “Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Andrew Berding explained in 1958 that Soviet propaganda demanded a strong response. The Soviets claimed sophisticated culture was a sign of a nation’s maturity and worthiness, and that America had no such culture. Berding aimed to counteract these claims by presenting the ‘highest’ forms of the arts, including classical music.”

Before entering graduate school, Fosler-Lussier said she spent a year in Germany taking classes. There, she said she read something involving music and politics and believed it did not quite match up.

“I had a fellowship from the German government to live in Germany for a year and take courses, and while I was over there, the reading I was doing just didn’t make sense to me,” Fosler-Lussier told The Lantern. “They were saying things that implied that music was too easy to understand and was somehow affiliated with the Nazis, and that was an interesting statement. And so I started wanting to know why they would make such a statement.”

Andrea Harding, a second-year in criminology and sociology, said she thought the perception of the U.S. would depend on the styles of music in other countries.

“It would reflect positively in a country with similar musical styles,” Harding said. “But I think it would reflect negatively in a country with different musical styles.”

The lecture was part of the Musicology Lecture Series in the School of Music and was co-sponsored by Ohio State’s Performance/Politics Working Group in the Humanities Institute, an organization that analyzes performing arts with an emphasis on political concerns.

Ryan Skinner, an assistant professor of music who works for the working group, noted the political importance behind Fosler-Lussier’s lecture.

“The Cold War is part of the American cultural diplomacy program, and we’re working precisely within that framework of the mission of performance politics,” Skinner said.

Skinner said he finds classical music to be underappreciated and thinks it deserves more focus.

“The study of classical music has tended to (be) depoliticized (in) its content and meaning,” Skinner said. “As classical (music) is popularly represented and consumed, we tend to focus on the performance of beautiful music. Here, Danielle is presenting classical (music) as a gesture of political concerns, so what happens is we as a country decide to send musicians abroad in the context of Cold War diplomacy, increasing the American presence abroad, strengthening the perception through the classical music understood to be a high art form.”

Alexandra Southard, a third-year in animal sciences, said she thought the U.S. could make a positive impact overseas through music.

“It would be a way for the U.S. to reflect more knowledge,” Southard said. “And they’d be working together. It would only be seen as negative if these musicians were in prison.”

Fosler-Lussier said she believes music has the power to change other countries’ perception of the U.S.

“When you look really closely at what happens on those tours, when musicians get where they’re going and interact with people, you find lots of complicated things happening,” she said. “(They’re) building relationships with people, making friends or irritating people. People from other countries are able to see things about Americans that they weren’t able to see close-up before.”

Fosler-Lussier said she has been interested in the way music brings people together since she was young.

“Even from high school, I have been interested in the way music connects people,” said Fosler-Lussier,  “I have been interested in the way music connects people, the way people will bond over a particular musical preference. It gives them a way to be engaged with each other that’s not verbal but is very powerful.”

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