Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Notes & Comments

Remembering Henry Pleasants

The career of a critic who found the meaning of jazz.

Martha Bayles

THR illustration.

“You have done well. But don’t expect anything to change for the better. You are attacking vested interests.” So wrote Henry Pleasants in a letter to me about my first book, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, published in 1994. I have saved that letter and others from Pleasants not because I expect to sell them on eBay but because I treasure my brief acquaintance with the eminent music critic who, in addition to writing perceptively about opera, judged post–World War II musical modernism a failed experiment and lauded the “Afro-American idiom” as the central musical achievement of the twentieth century.

When Pleasants died in January 2000 at the age of ninety, the New York Times ran three successive obituaries. In the first, Allan Kozinn noted that Pleasants served in US military intelligence during World War II and was “involved in the de-Nazification proceedings against several musicians who were prominently involved with the Third Reich.” In the second, David Stevens of the International Herald Tribune added that Pleasants was “an intelligence officer in Munich, Bern, and Bonn.” In the third, Douglas Martin of the Times described Pleasants as “a top American spy in postwar Germany,” whose duties included working closely with General Reinhard Gehlen, the former head of the Wehrmacht’s Eastern Front intelligence operation.

In possession of a major cache of documents about Soviet military capabilities, Gehlen struck a deal with US Army intelligence in 1944, then helped the CIA build an intelligence organization that in 1956 became the West German Federal Intelligence Service (BND). As head of the BND, Gehlen sheltered other high-ranking Nazis and allowed the recruitment of former SS officers (including some war criminals), while failing to weed out other Germans working as Soviet agents. In the mid-1960s these lapses ignited a firestorm of protest, and, as noted by historian Mary Ellen Reese, fostered a left-wing consensus that “the whole undertaking had been bankrupt.”

Why did it take three obituaries to reveal Pleasants’s association with Gehlen? Not, I think, because Pleasants had something to hide. He was one of several hundred Americans taking part in the morally murky drama of the early Cold War, none of whom could see the future. What they could see, in the spring of 1946, was that the US military was pulling out of Western Europe just as the Soviets were expanding their forces in the East. They could also see that Gehlen was a brilliant, egotistical opportunist. But because of his habit of reporting the bad news along with the good, which as Reese points out, made him “Hitler’s least favorite Intelligence officer,” he was offering his former enemies “good operational intelligence when they had few other sources and needed it the most.”

Pleasants never fancied himself a spy. When a journalist-blogger named William Kelly asked him about his work with the CIA, he said, “I wasn’t involved in covert operations. I was strictly liaison; that was my specialty and I was good at it.” When pressed for his opinion of the CIA’s role in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, he said, “Thank God I wasn’t involved with that. That was a real mess. I only worked in Germany and Europe.” Then he added, “Let’s talk about music. I left the foreign service to get back into music.”

And so he did. Settling in London with his wife, the eminent keyboardist Virginia Pleasants, Pleasants spent the next half century immersed in the world of his first love, vocal music. As a youth in Wayne, Pennsylvania, hoping to become a professional singer, he served as a chorister in an Episcopal church, then enrolled as a bass-baritone in Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. In 1930 that hope was dashed by chronic laryngitis. So he got a job at the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin covering the police beat and reviewing concerts. The lack of a college degree did not prevent him from growing into a free-range critic unencumbered by theory or snobbery.

In addition to translating and editing the writings of critics and composers such as Eduard Hanslick, Louis Spohr, Robert Schumann, and Hugo Wolf, Pleasants wrote seven books, four on vocal music and three making the argument for which he is justly famous. In brief, Pleasants’s argument was that the highest musical achievement of the twentieth century was not the “serious” oeuvre of the Viennese modernists Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern, whose atonal and serialist compositions dispensed with traditional melody, harmony, rhythm, and recognizable structure in favor of radically new arrangements of sound, and which, despite the expressive power of some of these works, notably Berg’s, never attracted a general audience, even in sophisticated Vienna. Rather, music’s greatest twentieth-century attainment could be located in the “popular” body of jazz, whose roots reached back to the arrival of the first Africans on American soil. To clarify, Pleasants averred that the serious versus popular division was not one of quality (there is good and bad in both modern classical music and jazz, he said) but of musical language, or idiom. Reminding readers that Western music had undergone an idiomatic change every time its creative center had shifted geographically—from the Netherlands in the Renaissance to Italy in the Baroque to Austria-Bohemia in the Classical to Germany in the Romantic—he described the twentieth century as the “Afro-American epoch.”

In 1955, when Pleasants published his first book, The Agony of Modern Music, the musical landscape was marked by modernism taken to the point of exhaustion. For example, in Europe, Pierre Boulez and Krzysztof Penderecki were setting off explosions of sound-confetti, while Karlheinz Stockhausen was stitching scraps of human speech into collages of electronic noise. In America, John Cage was reviving the “aleatory” (or chance) music of the 1920s Dada movement, and Milton Babbitt was claiming that the elaborate serialist structures of his brain-numbing compositions were akin to “the most advanced work in…mathematics, philosophy, and physics.”

Meanwhile, on the popular side, in 1955 Ella Fitzgerald was preparing to record The Cole Porter Songbook, the first in a series of eight LP collections of songs by Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. These and other standards had been—and would be—interpreted and reinterpreted by performers as varied as Al Jolson, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Nat King Cole, Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Ethel Merman, Peggy Lee, and Barbra Streisand, among others. (This list is taken from Pleasants’s 1974 Great American Popular Singers, in which he analyzed the vocal art of these artists in the context of opera past and present. I came across this book in the Strand Book Store in New York City while writing Hole in Our Soul—and a more auspicious discovery I cannot imagine.)

Such was the musical landscape that Pleasants gazed upon, or rather lent an ear to, and I for one am not surprised by his conclusion:

The evolutionary status of serious music can best be understood by thinking of the nineteenth-century epoch as a mainstream flowing confidently through a luxuriant valley—into a swamp. Modern music may then be understood as the effort of an enfeebled current to escape stagnation.

Continuing the metaphor, jazz may be thought of as a current that bubbled forth from a spring in the slums of New Orleans to become the mainstream of the twentieth century. In less than fifty years it has flooded the United States and most of the rest of the world.

It might be objected that the harshness of postwar modernist music is reflective of Theodor Adorno’s famous line, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” That aphorism appears in an essay published in 1955—in the same year as The Agony of Modern Music. Today that sentiment rings true enough. But it is simply not the case that the postwar composers mentioned above—Boulez, Penderecki, Stockhausen, Cage, and Babbitt—saw themselves as writing the soundtrack to war’s horror. On the contrary, they regarded their music as the cutting edge of progress, in the sense attributed to Alban Berg in a 2021 biography: “that a single mainstream of modern music, led in his own time by Schoenberg, would continue to dominate the world of music in the future.”

The example of Polish composer Penderecki is suggestive. By his own account, his 1961 composition titled 8'37" (for its duration of 8 minutes and 37 seconds) was originally meant to be an exercise in “sonorism,” a type of music focused exclusively on the textural qualities of sound. But as Penderecki later admitted, the piece “existed only in my imagination, in a somewhat abstract way,” until he heard it performed for the first time. At that point, he “was struck by the emotional charge of the work” and renamed it Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.

Since then, it has become a cliché that the purpose of art in evil times is to complete evil’s work by banishing all traces of hope, joyfulness, and love. So the best music, whether “serious” or “popular,” must be the harshest and most ear-grating. The intention, we are told, is to afflict the comfortable with evocations of despair, misery, and hatred. But what Pleasants and millions of listeners found in the Afro-American idiom was the opposite sensibility: a body of music that from its early days was intended to comfort the afflicted.

In 1930, Aaron Copland objected to jazz on the ground that its emotional range extended merely from “the blues” to “the snappy number.” He had a point: Most strains of jazz, including the highly developed ones that appeared after 1930, are less emotional than the romantic and late-romantic music of nineteenth-century Europe. But it was precisely the peaks and abysses of emotion found in Franz Lizst, Richard Wagner, and Gustav Mahler that moved the modernists, including Copland, to pull back from such passionate extremes. What Copland failed to appreciate was that Afro-American music does something similar, only for different reasons.

Nowadays, Afro-American music is extolled as an expression of the suffering and hardship of marginalized and oppressed black people. But to the more discerning, this “blues idiom,” as the late critic Albert Murray called it, is better described as “equipment for living,” because it was created by a group of people who could ill afford to cultivate extreme emotion, especially negative emotion. The passionate intensity achieved in jazz, blues, and gospel is ritual in nature, achieved not as an end in itself but to help the listener get a grip, get over, get through another day. This stoic quality was not lost on Henry Pleasants, whose singular achievement was to hold up the manifest virtues of this music—wit, elegance, playfulness, lucidity, and detachment—as classical in the best sense of the word.