Monday, September 26, 2016

Music & Politics in San Francisco

Leta E. Miller, a professor of music at the University of California, Santa Cruz, published Music and Politics in San Francisco in 2012. As the subtitle notes this book covers our City's musical history from the early part of the twentieth century into the 1940s.

This period of time is very important because it was time when three of our most important cultural institutions - The San Francisco Conservatory, The San Francisco Symphony and The San Francisco Opera - were established. These organization experienced financial difficulties and sometimes created political controversy during their formation and development which Miller documents in great detail.

Miller also devotes considerable space to music at the two large twentieth century fairs held in San Francisco during the first half of the twentieth century, the Panama Pacific International Exposition (1915) and Golden Gate International Exposition (1939 and 1940). She shows how the former did a great deal to bolster the Symphony while the latter largely omitted it.

The Golden Gate International Exposition also overlapped with another important discussion in her book - the Federal Music Project that was a component of the New Deal. The Federal Music Project was deeply mired in politics and was never had a unified vision about its music.  Was it supposed to provide relief or make great music?

Some of the musicians in the 70-piece WPA Federal Music Project Symphony orchestra leaving for Stockton to give the first of a series of concerts in Northern California towns, 1936. From the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection.

But the book is not only about these more elite organizations. She discusses African American jazz bands on the Barbary Coast and their struggles against the mainly white musicians union. She also traces the history of Chinese opera and the impression it made upon western musicians. Finally there is a section about the contemporary music concerts and publications of Henry Cowell's New Music Society.

Music and Politics in San Francisco, while packed with detail, is very entertaining and readable.

Exterior of the War Memorial Opera House, 1934, from the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection.

Music and Politics in San Francisco: From the 1906 Quake to the Second World War by Leta E. Miller (University of California Press, 2012).

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