Musical Diplomacy or How Sound Makes a Difference

Classical music has many faces, and symphony orchestras, in particular, are often used as instruments for a multitude of political purposes and ideologies the world over. For example, in 1999, Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said created the East-West Divan Orchestra in an effort to address the conflict in Palestine by bringing young musicians from Israel and the Arab world together and creating a forum for peace. For years, Latin American President Hugo Chavez, has been sending the Simon Bolívar Youth Orchestra, under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, around the world to improve the image of the state of Venezuela. In 2003, the Iraqi National Orchestra strove to win favor in the eyes of the American public by giving a concert in Washington, D.C. In 2008, conductor Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic gave a concert in Pyöngjang, featuring music by Gershwin, Wagner, Dvorak, Berstin, and Bizet, and sponsored by the US State Department. The purpose was to move forward the stalemated US-North Korean negotiations on nuclear weapons. “It can’t just be at a nuclear negotiation table,” US-ambassador to North Korea Christopher Hill stated, “We need to start having some people-to-people exchanges.”

The vocabulary of cultural diplomacy has thus recently acquired a new term: “musical diplomacy”.  Musical diplomacy (which may comprise any genre of music) aims at reaching foreign audiences on an emotional level. It hopes to create curiosity, sympathy and, perhaps, a nonverbal bond that will either improve the quality of the political discourse or make a political point. Musical diplomacy does not entail the assumption that music per se is necessarily political; instead, it assumes that music, like any other cultural form of expression, can be manipulated for political purposes.

Musical diplomacy has a long history; indeed, modern states and nongovernmental actors have repeatedly resorted to musical diplomacy in an effort to compete or convene. In the 19th century, German-speaking conductors, such as Karl Muck, Emil Paur and Arthur Nikisch, and symphony orchestras, like the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the Chicago Orchestra in North America, cemented the image of Germany as a land of music, magic and emotion throughout the world. Sometimes, these artists had a mandate; in 1906, for example, the German Kaiser explicitly sent Muck to Boston to improve German-American relations. At other times, artists acted largely on their own. But even if they did not realize the larger implications of their actions, these actions have a diplomatic effect.

During the early cold war, the United States sent an entire armada of symphony orchestras on tours through Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The Soviet State Symphony Orchestra visited the United States just three months after Leonard Bernstein’s visit, in December 1959. A decade later, the Soviet ensemble went to London under the guidance of Mstislav Rostropovich to play Antonin Dvorak’s cello concerto in Albert Hall. Client states likewise participated in the international music tempest. The Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany sent Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic around the world, while the GDR followed suit with East German top orchestras, including the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Dresden Philharmonic.

Like all political instruments, the instrument of musical diplomacy does not always work as intended. Earlier this year, Iran’s Tehran Symphony Orchestra was sent on a government-sponsored tour across Europe to win favor among local audiences. The tour turned out to be a complete disaster: it was poorly attended, ridiculed by the press, and heavily protested by local Iranian dissidents.

Jessica Gienow-Hecht is Professor of International History with an emphasis on the history of peace and conflict resolution at the University of Cologne. She has taught at the Universities of Virginia, Frankfurt am Main, Bielefeld, Heidelberg, the Universität Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, Harvard University and the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.  Her field of interest is the interplay of culture and international relations since the early modern period. Gienow-Hecht’s study Transmission Impossible: American Journalism as Cultural Diplomacy in Postwar Germany, 1945-1955 (Baton Rouge, 1999) was co-awarded the Stuart Bernath Book Prize (best first book in diplomatic history), as well as the Myrna Bernard Prize (best book in diplomatic history written by a woman), both given by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. Her latest study, Sound Diplomacy: Music and Emotions in German-American Relations, 1850-1920 (Chicago, 2009), won the Choice Outstanding Academic Title Award and has resulted in several broadcasting interviews.