Amanda Cannata

Humanities Center Fellow Amanda Cannata examines some of the World's Fair music that is part of the William R. and Louise Fielder Sheet Music Collection at Green Library. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford musicologist probes soundscapes of world's fairs

PhD candidate Amanda Cannata sheds light on how ethnicity, gender and class were represented through musical events at the 19th and early 20th century world's fairs.

Wikipedia world's fair music

Stanford musicologist Amanda Cannata explores the way music illuminates the context of world's fairs from two centuries.

Held in a festive atmosphere of optimism, the world's fairs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were designed to inspire, impress and entertain.

True multimedia events, these fairs exerted their power by engaging all the senses, including that of sound through live music performance.

With only a few primitive recordings to draw from, precious little remains of the world's fair auditory experience. But Stanford musicologist Amanda Cannata is not only restoring the lost sense of sound to these great expositions but also finding out how the music contributed to the age's great drive to stratify people according to ethnicity, gender and degree of "civilization."

Through a study of printed scores, reviews and news stories, as well as archival fair documents, Cannata, a doctoral candidate in musicology, has uncovered the depth and complexity that the fairs' music brought to these iconic events.

"World's fairs were some of the most prominent and popular public occasions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and many people used them to define their identity in relation to others," Cannata said. "It makes sense to consider how music, as one of the most ubiquitous features of fairs, participated in the process of definition and comparison."

A current Geballe Dissertation Prize Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, Cannata has studied the relationship between music and the fairs' message that the dominant members of society (wealthy white men) represented progress with their technological and industrial advancements, while non–Western, nonwhite people were presented as relics of a bygone era in human civilization.

A percussionist by training, Cannata originally intended to write her dissertation on a female opera composer whose music was performed at the 1893 fair in Chicago  but found that she was "more interested in the relationship between musical activity and larger social processes."

"These fairs interest me because they span a time of great technological, social and political change," Cannata said. "People, both as individuals and as nations, were reimagining how they stood in the world order. Earlier fairs were framed as exhibitions of industry. By the late 1880s and 1890s, world's fairs are also about classifying people."

Cannata studied music at four fairs from the golden age of international expositions: in Santiago, Chile, in 1875; Philadelphia in 1876; Buenos Aires in 1910; and the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.

Research grants from the School of Humanities & Sciences and the Vice Provost for Graduate Education enabled Cannata to conduct archival research in Chile and Argentina.

She chose to focus on two North American and two South American fairs partly to compare how ideas of imperialism and colonialism – so important in fair messaging of the period – played out in each locale.

"I wanted to see how the genre of the international exposition was affected by differing postcolonial contexts," Cannata said. "During this period, the United States began expanding its empire, while Latin American nations sought to define themselves as nations within the international community."

Race, gender issues played out in music

 The classifying impulse found form in national pavilions, which were sponsored by foreign governments, and "native villages," which were managed by American businessmen. The differences between these two venues influenced how fairgoers perceived the musical events within them.

For example, the Guatemala Building at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in San Francisco featured a marimba band that was sponsored by the Guatemalan government and presented with a flair that aimed to elevate its social status.

The Guatemalan bandleader, Sebastián Hurtado, modified the Afro-Guatemalan and indigenous folk instruments so they could play chromatically scaled European music, Cannata said. Taking another cue from classical Western music, the musicians were clad in tuxedos.

These familiar and elitist touches resonated with fans who wrote to San Francisco newspapers expressing their approval of the band.

In contrast, Mexico City's Orquesta Típica Torreblanca played in the PPIE's "Mexican Village," part of an amusement zone sponsored by U.S. businessmen. They wore costumes in a visual setting that presented Mexico as primitive, undisciplined and needful of the U.S. military intervention then under way.

Like the Hurtado band, the Orquesta Típica Torreblanca band members played European instruments and had conservatory training. They too received a lot of publicity, but as a sideshow attraction. Cannata points out that the visual representation of Mexicans in the village colored audiences' hearing of the music.

"They likely heard the music as exotic – not as the cosmopolitan music it was –because of the exotic visual cues around it in the 'Mexican Village,'" Cannata said.

Cannata also studied the key roles played by middle- and upper-class clubwomen in securing music for the Philadelphia and San Francisco fairs.

The PPIE's California Building, for example, featured performances by female musicians, who were otherwise denied access to perform at the exposition. Though the building was not officially a gendered space, it was run by the PPIE Woman's Board.

"It was probably easier for clubwomen to contact musical women they knew socially than to hire professional male musicians," Cannata said. While the clubwomen were almost all white and socially privileged, their work offers a counterpoint to the dominant fair rhetoric of male dominance.

Although the women's networks allowed female performers to take part in the fair, only an elite subset of women had access to such networks and thus participation in the fair as musicians.

Social impulse of fair-going lives on

Cannata's undergraduate degree in percussion, including marimba, now informs her understanding of historical fair music and how audiences received it. Though she has played some fair music from printed scores, she said she thinks it would be misleading to recreate the music because we as an audience have changed.

"The music itself is usually kind of generic – Sousa marches and so on," Cannata said. "What's important is how it was presented and received.

Today, Cannata has found that the social impulse that attracted earlier generations to fairs draws people to Disneyland and other amusement parks.

She notes that the world's fairs of the 1950s and '60s heavily influenced Walt Disney in creating his parks, and vice versa. Disney's "It's a Small World," with its global horde of singing audio-animatronic children, debuted at the 1964-65 New York fair.

The popularity of the "It's a Small World" song illustrates the cultural relevance fairs continued to have into the 20th century.

"Although most people don't realize it came from a world's fair, the continued popularity of the 'It's a Small World' song and the attraction in the Disney Parks shows the strong impact that the music of world's fairs made on Americans," Cannata said.

Barbara Wilcox is a student in Stanford's Master of Liberal Arts program and writes about the humanities at Stanford.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,