Winner of the 2015 Robert M. Stevenson Award of the American Musicological Society, Representing the Good Neighbor vividly recalls a time of optimism and cooperation between the United States and its American neighbors. After examining US reception of works by the “big three” Latin American composers of the mid-twentieth century—Carlos Chávez, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Alberto Ginastera—Carol A. Hess maintains that the most perceptive critics of contemporary music, rather than fetishizing musical or cultural differences, emphasized similarities with the composers’ counterparts in the United States through the universalizing discourse of classicism. In doing so she reveals an arc of pan-American sentiment in the musical and artistic world characterized by empathy, like-mindedness, hope, and mutual understanding, and spanning more than six decades.

Ultimately Hess finds that these three Latin American composers shared several key values with their US counterparts: classicism (not neoclassicism, which emanated largely from France, but an “ur-classicism” (p. 26), which I describe below); a shared heritage, both real and imaginary, owing much to both machine-powered industry and indigenism; an antinationalist universalism; and psychological sublimation. She details the way in which critics repeatedly conferred on these three composers’ works certain classical traits: timelessness, authenticity, clarity, and formal and affective restraint. The reader will immediately note the emphasis in this book on US critical reception; in contrast to Americans, many Latin Americans found US pan-Americanism “opportunistic and insincere,” as Hess acknowledges (p. 59). Often pausing to consider the composers’ own motivations, however, Hess shows all three to have been shrewd navigators of US musical politics. According to her narrative, all three of them learned after critical flops that “what was wanted at this moment in the United States went beyond tomahawks and difference” (p. 49). What was wanted, the author argues, was the triumph of cosmopolitan universalism.

Each of the central chapters, then, focuses on a snapshot of a pan-Americanist musical event and its reception by US critics. Hess interlaces sameness-embracing critical reception with much new biographical detail and incisive musical analysis. Her meticulous research is especially apparent in the careful attention she gives to official policies and personal attitudes that enrich the reader's understanding of complex universalist agendas (such as those of Mexican intellectual and minister of education José Vasconcelos or US critic Paul Rosenfeld).

After an opening chapter on the roots of musical pan-Americanism, Hess makes a crucial distinction in Chapter 2 between the neoclassicism of the period and a new type of classicism that Chávez created by “unit[ing] classic principles with primitive utterance” (p. 40). These primitivist musical signifiers, Hess notes, included quartal and quintal harmonies, pedal tones, ostinati, and “short motives of narrow intervallic range” poured “into classic formal structures,” as in his 1924 Sonatina for Piano (pp. 40–41). Here, the book opens a window onto the way in which pan-American compositional techniques that some critics saw as primitive actually sprang from the seeds of modernist experiments to reach universal principles. I find Hess's application of ur-classicism, in its description of the attempt to unite a usable American past with the universal whole, to be a useful interpretation of not only Chávez's early works but also those of many other pan-American composers. In 1931, for example, Henry Cowell traveled to Berlin to study recordings at the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, excited about discovering universal principles among world musics. Indeed, the impulse to use indigenist materials to reach a universal whole lay behind many of Cowell's works (such as his Ostinato pianissimo of 1934), as well as a number of works by Cuban composers Amadeo Roldán (Rítmica no. 5, 1930) and José Ardévol (Estudio en forma de preludio y fuga, 1931), to name only two of those who participated in the Pan American Association of Composers (PAAC).1 

Chávez's departure from ur-classicism and his subsequent return to it were marked by his ballet Caballos de vapor [H.P.] (1932), which was premiered at Philadelphia's Metropolitan Opera House, an event detailed in Chapter 3. An attempt to reconcile machine culture with Mexican indigenist elements, the work was a famous flop. The end of the 1930s saw a shift from the vogue for all things Mexican to an embrace of sameness that included other sites in the Americas. In Chapter 4 the author presents a snapshot of Villa-Lobos and his display of Brazilian modernism at the 1939 World's Fair, when what Hess calls his “unsublimated primitivism” (p. 114)—to some critics’ ears redolent of a lush, out-of-date impressionism—failed to attract much critical notice. As in the case of Chávez, the author shows how Villa-Lobos distanced himself from nationalism and exoticism at a time when they had no traction in the United States. Chapter 5 discusses the 1940s, the golden age of US pan-Americanism, as Nelson Rockefeller and others tried to stamp out Nazism and foment cultural ties with Latin America. In Chapter 6, in a case study of the 1967 world premiere of Alberto Ginastera's opera Bomarzo in Washington, DC, Hess shows the extent to which the rise of US power and shifting international alliances elevated serialism and aleatoricism, allowing these to signify order, progress, and antinationalism. The final chapter, however, circles back to the return of Latin American folklore and a time when it enjoyed new currency in social protest movements of the 1970s. The book concludes with an analysis of Frederic Rzewski's piano work 36 Variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”

This book will surely stimulate further conversation, which is a testament to Hess's sensitive and novel approach to the period. We could, for example, extend the thread of sameness-embracing beyond classicizing musical materials and procedures and sublimating impulses to examine other ways in which Latin American composers embraced sameness. Chávez is, again, a particularly instructive example, since he embraced sameness even in ways that fall outside the scope of Hess's book. Notably absent from most expressions of US pan-Americanism was the African American contribution to modern music, an element that Chávez included in his own interpretation. Nor was Chávez indifferent to the plight of African Americans in the United States, as evidenced by his song “North Carolina Blues” (1942)—which depicts a lynching—and his presentation of William Grant Still's cantata And They Lynched Him on a Tree (1940) for a concert with the Orquesta Sinfónica de México in 1944. It is telling, too, that neither of these works gained a foothold in the US musical scene and that both are still underperformed. One can only nod in agreement when Hess emphasizes the importance of acknowledging “the structures of hierarchy and privilege that have sustained many a universalist project throughout history” (p. 187).

The breadth of research presented in Representing the Good Neighbor expands its potential audience, and the presence today of Latinos as the largest minority in the United States gives the work added significance. Readers who are unaware of the intense collaboration that took place between US and Latin American artists and intellectuals during this era of pan-American accord will be surprised to discover a period in which our collective vision of “American” music (and “America” itself) extended far beyond US borders. By focusing on the interaction and interpenetration of pan-American musical styles, Hess engages contemporary intellectual and political debates about citizenship and the meaning of the nation-state at a time when both are being reimagined. As she contends in the epilogue to her book, we must question whether “we in the United States [can] really take seriously the notion of a Latin American Other” (p. 193). Representing the Good Neighbor is a compelling contribution to the deterritorialization of Americanist musicology, one whose model vantage point is capable of discerning cultural sameness without expunging cultural difference.


Cowell's trip is detailed in Joel Sachs, Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). In the 1950s Ardévol removed the Estudio en forma de preludio y fuga from his catalog. A manuscript copy survives in the Fleisher Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia.