Kenneth Marcus is Professor of History at the University of La Verne, CA. He is a Visiting Fellow at CRASSH in 2021-2022. and will give his work-in-progress seminar ‘Communicating human rights: music and pacifism in the mid-20th century‘ on Wednesday 25 May 2022 at 12:30.
Q: Kenneth, you recently joined CRASSH as a Visiting Fellow. Could you tell us a little bit about what you are working on during your fellowship?
I’m working on connections between music and human rights, focusing on three works that expressed human rights ideals and pacifist goals: Arnold Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46 (1947), Hanns Eisler’s German Symphony (Deutsche Sinfonie, Op. 50, 1935-58) and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Op. 66 (1962). All three works combine music with text; as a cultural historian, my main interest is to place these works in historical and cultural context. It’s a relatively new project for me, although I’ve studied the Schoenberg and Eisler works in some depth.
Q: What drew you to your research initially and what parts do you find particularly interesting?
I was looking for ways that composers tried to communicate directly with audiences, using music and text, in terms of the post-World War II human rights movement. It’s a big tent in terms of popular music but less so in terms of classical or art music. These works are examples of the latter, and I’m fascinated with themes of communication and reception of these works.
Q: Are there any events or books that have impacted your research in particular?
I began researching Arnold Schoenberg’s exile period in America (1933-51) after interviewing his two sons (and later his daughter), which provided the foundation for my book, Schoenberg and Hollywood Modernism (CUP, 2016). That book led to my interest in Eisler and later Britten. In terms of writers, I’ve been especially drawn to the work of musicologists Alexander Ringer, Christian Glanz, and Mervyn Cooke, and intellectual and cultural historians Carl Schorske, David Hollinger, and Natalie Zemon Davis, all of whom can take complex themes and present them to a wider public. Recent events that have influenced my thinking on the human rights movement are the rise of authoritarianism and militarism in many countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas.
Q: If you are currently working on an article, could you tell us about it?
I’m working on an article on Eisler’s German Symphony and human rights, arguing that Eisler and his artistic collaborator Bertolt Brecht (who wrote most of the texts for it) were protesting the brutal militarism and violence of the Nazi regime, although they were not human rights activists per se, nor could we call the German Symphony a ‘human rights symphony’. Rather, they were among the first artists of whom I’m aware who used music and text to attack the Nazi regime in the format of a symphony. I’m especially drawn to historian Mark Philip Bradley’s idea of the ‘global human rights imagination’ in how artists and other nonstate figures could contribute to discussions about human rights through their art form or profession; it’s a very different way of thinking about human rights that takes us beyond legal or political definitions.
Q: If you have recently published, could you tell us about it?
I’ve got two articles coming out later this year: ‘Teaching History with the Arts: An Experimental Study’, which I co-wrote with a former student, Jon Hall, which will appear in The History Teacher. It’s based on a grant I received to look at how scholars have used the arts of film, music, painting and photography to teach historical themes or eras to students (at the high school and college levels), and I draw on a series of surveys that Jon and I created that measured student responses to different forms of art in several different courses I taught.
The other article, titled ‘The Central Avenue Borderscape: Racial and Musical Borders in Los Angeles in the Era of Jim Crow’, which will appear in the Pacific Historical Review, looks at a vital African-American cultural center in Los Angeles during the first half of the twentieth century, called Central Avenue, and how music provided a means of agency against racism and discrimination from the era as well as playing an essential role in the formation of community.