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Politics and music at the world's fairs

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  December 19, 2013 12:48 PM

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World's fairs- those grand international exhibitions especially popular a century ago- are best remembered for the installations and architecture they inspired, like the electricity-producing dynamo in Chicago in 1893 and the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 1889. Less noted, however, is the music, which was everywhere at world's fairs: in John Philip Sousa marching bands, symphonies in concert halls, bandstands, and roving musicians.

"Most people don’t realize this," says Amanda Cannata, "but music was one of the most ubiquitous feature of fairs. Pretty much everywhere you went on the fairgrounds there was some sort of musical sounds."

Music was everywhere and it was also, argues Cannata, very political. She is a graduate student in musicology at Stanford, researching how musical selections at the fairs often reflected larger cultural conflicts that were going on at the time.

At the 1910 Centennial Exhibition in Buenos Aires, decisions about musical selections turned into a proxy war for the ongoing struggle between an oligarchic government and ordinary citizens. Cannata explains that ahead of the fair, Argentine elites favored performances with a conductor orchestrating music before a passive audience. The restless masses, by contrast, favored more participatory sing-a-longs, with whole crowds joining in to sing the national anthem or popular tunes from the day. Elite preferences carried the day: The main musical event ended up being a three-concert series of orchestral works by Argentine composers.

At the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, U.S. organizers used musical selections to help justify intervention in post-revolutionary Mexico. Mexico wasn't actually invited to the exhibition, so, Cannata explains, former U.S. military officials were put in charge of setting up the exposition's "Mexican Village." They chose costumes and musical selections that depicted Mexicans as primitive and in need of civilizing- just the sort of service the U.S. military was prepared to offer.

Even today, big international events present a prime opportunity to make political statements (think of President Obama's decision last week to include openly gay athletes in America's delegation to the 2014 Sochi Olympics), and music is still a part of the calculation. When James Taylor was chosen to sing "America the Beautiful" at Obama's second inauguration, some saw it as an honor for one of our country's great voices. Others read the choice as a nod to a key voting bloc: Baby Boomers.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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