Federal Music Project (FMP)

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The U. S. federal government created the Federal Music Project (FMP) in July 1935 as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Because it was a relief project, the Federal Music Project escaped much of the controversy that Congress and other sources aimed at many other New Deal programs. Nikolai Sokoloff, the director of the project, was given the responsibility of elevating America's musical standards. To do this, he employed well-trained and highly skilled music teachers, singers, and instrumentalists, and he promoted the understanding of and an appreciation for music in line with the ideals of President Franklin Roosevelt.

The Federal Music Project pursued its goals in a number of ways. It offered free or low-cost concerts to the public, as well as music lessons for poor adults, music appreciation programs for children, and training for music teachers. The project ultimately led to higher standards for musical performance in the United States, and encouraged increased participation by amateurs in music presentation. The project established new orchestras throughout the country in cities that had never had orchestras, and it set up bands, theater groups, opera and vocal companies, black music groups, dance troops, and many other forms of musical ensembles. The Federal Music Project also sponsored radio programs and summer park performances, as well as numerous concerts by itinerant musical groups, many given in high schools.

The program provided work to composers, teachers, and performers, as well as copyists and librarians, who did a great service by compiling, preserving, and centralizing scores, indexes, bibliographies, and other materials that had previously been scattered throughout the country. The Federal Music Project also created a permanent body of unpublished orchestral works.

Foremost among the project's significant achievements was the establishment of composers' forum laboratories, which helped define American music by promoting its performance. The first forum was set up in New York in 1935, and they were later established in other cities. Composers whose work was selected for laboratory performances rehearsed the musicians themselves, conducted the orchestra, and essentially organized the entire performance. The composer and musicians also conducted after-performance discussions, where they described what they felt made the music distinctly American.

The Federal Music Project achieved a number of firsts in its list of accomplishments. It was the first federal project to use money for a cultural undertaking, and its creation marked the first time the government assumed responsibility for improving American cultural life and encouraging Americans to use their leisure time more creatively. Moreover, the project was egalitarian in that it was explicitly established to serve all Americans.

There were, of course, many problematic aspects of the project. Although the Federal Music Project promoted culture, there were questions about whose version of culture should be presented? Should "lowbrow" as well as "highbrow" culture be promoted by the project? What did the phrase "quality of American life" really mean? What constitutes fine art? Moreover, the very idea of a national music proved controversial.

Despite these issues, the project made an honest attempt to grapple with the challenge laid down by nineteenth-century poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson: Emerson challenged American artists and intellectuals to create a distinctively American intellectual and artistic tradition. The issue was relevant in the 1930s when most American composers still preferred to study and perform in Europe before returning to the United States, and the American musical elite worshipped the European masters. Many American musicians thus found themselves at odds with the direction of American popular culture, in which a lively popular music scene was challenging old assumptions.

The recreation and education divisions of the Federal Music Project sought to solve this problem by identifying ways in which people who were not performers could participate in the music. The project set great emphasis on teaching music to the masses, and during the 1930s music programs became part of the public school curriculum. In addition, the WPA began to develop rural music programs in 1936. These programs initially focused entirely on art music, and ignored indigenous music. This neglect ended in November 1937 when Charles Seeger became deputy director of the Federal Music Project and began to promote many varieties of American music. Under Seeger, the project began to promote folk music and recreation associated with music. Seeger's goal was to have every American singing, playing an instrument, or both. The project also sponsored fieldwork on folk music, most of it in the South and Appalachian Mountain area, where, in spite of terrible rural poverty, there was a vital and rich folk tradition.

Seeger enlisted the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in his endeavors. She commissioned Seeger to plan a program of American folk music for the visiting British Royal Family. Seeger next turned to music education as a means of encouraging appreciation and performance of American music; he also promoted the collection and preservation of American folk and ethnic music. Seeger was aware that Europeans regarded jazz as the greatest American musical contribution of the twentieth century, whereas "serious" American composers tended to neglect it. Seeger thus began a program to encourage the performance and study of British folk music, colonial music, and African-American music.

By 1939, Congress began to cut the Federal Music Project budget, along with the budgets of other New Deal programs and agencies. In 1939 the project was renamed the WPA Music Program. After a year under state control, Congress ended the program entirely.

In spite of setbacks, the Federal Music Project can claim a great number of achievements. The project helped bring about social change by, for example, hiring many women and placing them in charge of arts projects. The Federal Music Project also influenced the style of American musical and theatrical performance, engendered a great interest in American music, especially American folk music, and through its programs for collecting and documenting America's indigenous music, aided the understanding of the development of American art forms. Despite its accomplishments, however, the Federal Music Project never became a model for subsequent federal aid to the arts.



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Frank A. Salamone

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Federal Music Project (FMP)

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Federal Music Project (FMP)