January 14, 2000
Henry Pleasants, 89, Spy Who Knew His Music
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
enry Pleasants, a music critic
and author who doubled as a top
American spy in postwar Germany,
died at a hospital in London on Jan. 4.
He was 89 and lived in London.
A former colleague at the Central
Intelligence Agency said Mr. Pleasants had served as the intelligence
agency's station chief in Bonn in the
1950's. "The Invisible Government,"
a book by David Wise and Thomas B.
Ross published in 1964, said he had
held the post "for many years."
In an interview yesterday, Mr.
Wise said the statement had never
Another book, "The Old Boys," by
Burton Hersh, published in 1992, also
identified Mr. Pleasants as an American intelligence operative. Several
journalists who worked in Germany
said they knew him as the C.I.A.
William Harlow, a C.I.A. spokesman, said the agency did not confirm
whether individuals had served as
Mr. Pleasants was best known for
his books about the voice, which he
loved, and contemporary music,
about which he became disillusioned
in the early 1950's. An earlier version
of his obituary, published on Wednesday, focused on his career as a music
writer and briefly mentioned his
spending four years in the United
States Foreign Service, from 1950 to
1954; it did not take account of his
His first book, "The Agony of Modern Music" (1955), caused considerable controversy with its attacks on
all contemporary music except jazz.
"Serious music is a dead art," he
began. "The vein which for 300 years
offered a seemingly inexhaustible
yield of beautiful music has run out.
What we know as modern music is
the noise made by deluded speculators picking through its slag pile."
The authors of "The Invisible Government" pointed out the oddness of
the situation. They said Mr. Pleasants "probably had the distinction
of being the only top U.S. spy to
become the center of a literary
C.I.A. employees in embassies are
often listed in the State Department
Biographic Register as "attachés."
Mr. Pleasants was an "attaché" with
"S-1" ranking, meaning the highest
category of Foreign Service officer.
Mr. Pleasants did his intelligence
work during the cold war, when espionage and intrigue abounded in Germany. For some months, according
to "The Invisible Government," he
lived with Reinhard Gehlen, a former Nazi general who was being
considered as a top intelligence official for West Germany, to evaluate
his suitability. The Gehlen Organization, which the former general led,
became the forerunner of the postwar West German Federal Intelligence Service.
About the same time, Mr. Pleasants was also writing "Death of a
Music?" and "Serious Music and All
That Jazz" about contemporary music. His books about voice were "The
Great Singers: From the Dawn of
Opera to Our Own Time," a 1966
survey that has become a standard
reference work, "The Great American Popular Singers" and "Opera in
Crisis." His last book was "The
Great Tenor Tragedy: The Last
Days of Adolphe Nourrit."
He was born in Wayne, Pa., and
studied at the Philadelphia Music
Academy and the Curtis Institute of
Music. He began his writing career
as a critic for The Philadelphia
Evening Bulletin in 1930, when he
was 19, He was the music editor from
1935 to 1942, when he joined the
Army. After World War II, he was
involved in the de-Nazification proceedings against several musicians
who were prominently involved in
the Third Reich.
It is not clear when Mr. Pleasants
began his service with the C.I.A.
Records show him joining the Foreign Service in 1950 and holding various positions in Munich, Bern and
Bonn until his retirement in 1954,
years in which he also seems to have
been with the C.I.A. Mr. Wise said he
remained active with the intelligence
agency at least until the early 1960's.
From 1945 to 1955, Mr. Pleasants
contributed articles about European
music to The New York Times. He
later became the London editor of
Stereo Review and from 1967 to 1998
was a music critic for The International Herald Tribune.
He is survived by his wife, the
harpsichordist Virginia Pleasants;
two sisters, Constantia Bowditch of
Peterborough, N.H., and Nancy Logue of Clarksville, Tenn.; and a
brother, William, of Bethel, Del.