Music, Race, and the Theme Center

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bruce d. mcclung

On July 28, 1938, the Department of Press for the 1939 New York World’s Fair issued a carefully worded release about how the composer for the Theme Center had been chosen:
"Published and unpublished works of numerous composers were played in record form, without the jury knowing the names of the composers. It was finally agreed unanimously that the composer of 'Lenox Avenue' and 'From a Deserted Plantation' seemed to be most capable of giving musical expression to the mood and color of the exhibit. This composer proved to be Mr. Still."
The next day, New York’s dailies ran with the story under such attention-grabbing headlines as “Negro Composes Music for Fair” and “Fair Picks Negro’s Composition for Music in Perisphere Show.” The selection of a black composer for the white Theme Center ran contrary to the Fair’s discriminatory hiring practices, segregated lunchrooms, and strained race relations. Despite the Administration’s denial of discrimination, fewer than 700 African Americans would be employed in the Fair’s 6,335-member work force. Similarly, William Grant Still was still one of only two African American artists to receive a commission from the Fair Corporation, thus explaining why the Department of Press promulgated a color-blind audition to explain his selection. Through a close reading of primary source documents, I aim to reveal the fallacy of this myth and to demonstrate how the politics regarding this decision evinced fault lines within the Fair’s own administrative structure.

William Grant Still was billed second, under designer Henry Dreyfuss, on credits. Photo courtesy Judith Anne Still.

The Theme Center for which Still had been hired consisted of a 180-foot diameter sphere (the “Perisphere”) and 610-foot high, three-sided tower (the “Trylon”). The interior of the Perisphere featured a distillation of the Fair’s theme, “Building the World of Tomorrow.” A vast diorama titled “Democracity” by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss depicted a model city of the year 2039. The Fair’s Official Guide Book underscored the important function that music played during the “Democracity” exhibit:
"After you have gazed at the model for two minutes, dusk slowly shadows the scene.... To the accompaniment of a symphonic poem, a chorus of a thousand voices reaches out of the heavens, and there at ten equi-distant points in the purple dome loom marching men.... As the marchers approach they are seen to represent the various groups of modern society — all the elements which must work together to make possible the better life which would flourish in such a city as lies below. The symphony rises to diapasonal volume, the figures assume mammoth size; the music subsides, the groups vanish behind slowly drifting clouds, and suddenly a blaze of polaroid light climaxes the show."
Democracity, with its theme of “interdependency,” was the brainchild of Robert D. Kohn, chairman of the Committee on Theme, and Henry Dreyfuss. They had originally considered composers Kurt Weill or Virgil Thomson for the project. In November 1937 Kohn had shared his and Dreyfuss’s ideas with a music publicist, who initially recommended Weill, claiming they “would get more volume and avoid the thinness” of Thomson’s scoring, but cautioning that Weill “was nonetheless German in spirit.” The publicist suggested that Kohn and Dreyfuss consider Roy Harris or Aaron Copland instead. Kohn subsequently involved Kay Swift, a popular song and theater composer, then working in the Fair’s Entertainment Department. On November 28, Swift arrived at Dreyfuss’s apartment, armed with recordings. They sampled the music not only of Harris and Copland but also, on Swift’s initiative, that of Morton Gould, Harl McDonald, and William Grant Still. Dreyfuss typed out his reactions to each. After Still’s name, he parenthetically added “negro,” thus dispelling the myth of a color-blind audition before an impartial jury.

Henry Dreyfuss and Robert Kohn correspond regarding potential composers for the Theme Center.

In his letter of December 8 to Kohn, Dreyfuss favorably singled out Still, both highlighting his race and suggesting how to mask it visually: “I have never met him but certainly the music we listened to was exceptional and very stirring, and I have always had the idea of having a negro chorus sing the Theme song in spite of the fact that I would want to photograph white people.” Kohn replied the following day, emphasizing the potential benefits, “As you will realize, there is a certain sociopolitical advantage in having a negro do this music but of course that should not sway us if someone better is available.” But Still’s music and his race evidently convinced Kohn and Dreyfuss, because eight days later on December 17, they recommended him for approval to the Board of Design. Afterwards Kohn wrote a memo to Thomas Donovan, administrative assistant to Grover Whalen, the Fair’s President, informing him of the Board’s decision.
Rather than endorsing the proposal to commission Still, members of the Fair’s Advisory Committee on Music (including Helen Astor, Walter Damrosch, Olin Downes, Lehman Engel, and Carleton Smith) rejected it and each drew up a list of preferable composers. Kohn had lobbied at least one of the Committee members to include Still on his list: at the bottom of a typescript summary dated January 5, 1938, Kohn jotted down: “Mr. Smith [Carleton Smith, chief of the Music Division of The New York Public Library] said Still would be on his list.” Exasperated, Dreyfuss wrote Kohn two days later, “I am quite disturbed, as you are, regarding the counteraction against Still…. It is particularly upsetting to think that his race would in any way interfere with his selection…. We are trying to pick music, and not complexion.” With Dreyfuss refusing to reconsider the matter and over the Advisory Committee on Music’s objections, Kohn forwarded Still’s name to the Fair’s Executive Committee on January 24 for approval.

Henry Dreyfuss wrote to Robert Kohn, "I am quite disturbed, as you are, regarding the counteraction against Still."

The Executive Committee deferred the matter to Grover Whalen, who in the following week convinced the Advisory Committee on Music’s Executive Board to at least approve of Still’s qualifications. The Executive Committee subsequently appointed the composer at its January 31 meeting. For a six-minute score, the Fair offered Still $1,800, roughly the average annual income for a family of four in 1938. After Still came to New York on July 22 to adjust the timings of his score, the Fair’s Department of Press made the long-awaited announcement. A little over a week later, Still wrote a letter to a friend about the commission, which in his opinion transcended race:
"It seems to me that this is the first time, musically speaking, that a colored man has ever been asked to write something extremely important that does not necessarily have to be Negroid, and I must admit that I can’t help being proud of the distinction."
Despite the Fair’s discomfort at announcing an African American composer for the Fair’s Theme Center and the fabrication of a color-blind audition to paper over the corporation’s internal struggles, Still’s music outlasted his detractors and their music festival, which emphasized music of the “highest class.” Less than a month after the Fair opened, the management canceled the music festival because of waning interest, whereas the 1939 gate figures for “Democracity” and Still’s score reached 5,723,926. The importance of the Theme Center commission for Still’s career cannot be overstated: his score for “Democracity” ran continuously during the Fair, making it not only the composer’s most popular work during his lifetime but probably the most frequently played composition by an American composer during the first half of the twentieth century.

William Grant Still shows his score to Grover Whalen and another Fair official. Photo courtesy Judith Anne Still.

After Still was chosen, Grover Whalen received many "congratulations" telegrams.

Sources Cited

“Fair Picks Negro’s Composition for Music in Perisphere Show,” New York World-Telegram, July 29, 1938.

“Negro Composes Music for Fair: Tone Poem by William G. Still to Feature Exhibit of ‘City of Tomorrow,’” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 29, 1938.

New York Herald Tribune, New York World’s Fair Section, April 30, 1939.

New York World’s Fair 1939 Inc., Department of Press, News Release No. 440. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York World’s Fair 1939 and 1940 Incorporated Records, Box 137, Folder 8.

New York World’s Fair 1939 Incorporated. Minutes of the Executive Committee, Vol. 1. January 1, 1938, to June 30, 1938.

Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair 1939, 2nd ed. New York: Exposition Publications, 1939.

Rydell, Robert W. World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Typescript letter from Robert D. Kohn to Henry Dreyfuss, November 10, 1937. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 Incorporated Records, Box 137, Folder 8.

Typescript office memo of Henry Dreyfuss, November 28, 1937. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 Incorporated Records, Box 137, Folder 9.

Typescript letter from Robert D. Kohn to Henry Dreyfuss, December 9, 1937. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 Incorporated Records, Box 137, Folder 9.

Typescript agenda for joint meeting of the Board of Design and Committee on Architecture and Physical Planning, December 30, 1937. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 Incorporated Records, Box 31, Folder 7.

Typescript memorandum from Robert D. Kohn to Thomas J. Donovan, December 17, 1937. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 Incorporated Records, Box 137, Folder 8.

Typescript list “Original List – Composers,” January 5, 1937. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 Incorporated Records, Box 137, Folder 9.

Typescript list “Revised List – Composers,” January 5, 1937. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 Incorporated Records, Box 137, Folder 9.

Typescript letter from Henry Dreyfuss to Robert D. Kohn, January 7, 1937. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 Incorporated Records, Box 137, Folder 8.

Typescript letter from Robert D. Kohn to William Grant Still, February 5, 1938. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 Incorporated Records, Box 137, Folder 8.

Typescript “Perisphere Count, October 1939.” New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York World’s Fair 1939-1940 Incorporated Records, Box 136, Folder, 10.

William Grant Still to Alain Locke, August 6, 1938. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University. Quote in Catherine Parsons Smith, William Grant Still, American Composers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

Professor mcclung is writing a history of music at the Fair titled The World of Tomorrow: Music and the New York World’s Fair, 1939/1940. His first book, Lady in the Dark: Biography of a Musical, won an ASCAP/Deems Taylor prize.

 

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