Joseph Horowitz’s Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall is about as grumpy as that subtitle makes it sound. Horowitz traces the development of classical music in America from the rough-shod days of the mid-19th century through the pop-classical days of the mid-twentieth century and right up past the turn of the 21st century, all with an eye as to how classical music has failed to fulfill its promise in America.

Among the criticisms he levels as a sort of running theme are:

  • That there has never developed a strain of distinctively American classical music.
  • That classical music has never been as thoroughly and widely popular as it should be.
  • That during the period in the mid-twentieth century when it was popular, people only wanted to listen to the canonized Great Works instead of adventurous contemporary music, and it was all so disgustingly middlebrow.
  • That people are obsessed with performers and great performances, rather than with composers and great (new) works.
  • That people don’t make music in their own homes for enjoyment like they used to, and therefore most of the classical audience today can’t even read a score.

His complaints are, in short, a weird mix of populism and snobbishness. The ideal world for Horowitz would seem to be one in which there were popular orchestras in every city, all of them programming modern American composers (who need be no more accessible than Varèse and Schoenberg), packed with audiences comprising every demographic, but all of them — from the retail clerk to the mill worker to the executive — able to read music and conversant with the intricacies of classical music. It doesn’t exactly surprise me that this has never happened.

What’s more, I think that his particular desiderata are occasionally silly. He makes a really big fuss about the lack of a distinct American voice, dismissing every American composer from Chadwick to Copland for failing to create and inspire a distinctive American sound that future American composers would use for a template. This strikes me as an absolutely bizarre concern — the idea of “national character” is something out of the racist past, or a David Eddings novel. Why would anyone ever imagine that a diverse group of composers in a country as large and heterogenous as America would write with a common voice? Horowitz’s concern in this regard appears to be some antiquated defensiveness about America’s “colonial” status in regard to Europe. That defensiveness equally explains his concern about the Euro-centricity of the classical canon.

On the other hand, his irritation at the “great performances” phenomenon that arose concurrently with the wide spread of LPs and radio just seems poorly thought-through. In the days when the only way to hear music was at concerts, of course people were less concerned about the quality of the performance, and more concerned with what music was being played; concerts were their only chance to hear symphonic music. But for people in the modern age of recorded and (rarely, these days) broadcast music, we can hear almost all of this music any time we want. And we have lots of options for hearing it — you can probably buy a few hundred renditions of the Beethoven Fifth at Amazon. It’s natural, then, that people would be both more concerned about the quality of the performance (if you’re going to only buy one recording, you don’t want to buy a bad one) and more discriminating about the quality of orchestral play (if you’ve heard a piece a zillion times on your stereo system, going to see it performed live by a bunch of incompetents isn’t going to be the thrill it would be if it were your only way of hearing it).

(And as for Horowitz’s desire for popularity without any lowering of purist artistic standards, well, I don’t think it’s happened consistently in any field, ever. You can have either highbrow purism or widespread popularity, but never both.)

If you set his attitude aside, though, Horowitz does sketch out an engaging picture of the history of classical music in America, from before the founding of the Boston Symphony to about 2004. He successfully manages to put a framework around the development of American musical institutions, personalities, and traditions while filling that framework in with lots of details that are either interesting or tedious, depending on how much you care about the subject. The main organizational flaw with the book is that it treats matters by subject, rather than chronologically, which leads to a lot of repetition and disorganization. There’ll be a section on the Boston Symphony, which will compare and contrast it with the New York Philharmonic at some length; and then there will be a section on the New York Philharmonic, talking about (in more detail, and starting from an earlier period) the same things that the previous chapter already discussed. I’m not sure that a straight chronological format would really have worked better, but it’d’ve at least shown more of a progression and coherency.

Still, I don’t want to sound too negative; the book is interesting. What keeps surprising me, with my background (such as it is) in pre-modern history, is how damn recent everything is. The most venerable and time-worn institutions in New York and Boston are barely even 100 years old. You tend to think of the Met and the Boston Symphony as being around forever, but not really. I keep forgetting how young this country is.

Also intriguing is the last part of the book, which focuses on the turn of the millennium: It turns out the title is actually a trick. The ending isn’t a fall at all; after the horrid Cold War period, things have actually gotten a lot better. There are more American composers, who are more influential worldwide; the music they’re composing, in this post-modern era, is far more listen-able and audience-friendly than the ultra-modernist compositions of the past; there are progressive orchestras, most notably on the West Coast, that actually play this music (in fact, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra had John Adams’ Naïve and Sentimental Music as part of its regular subscription series last year; to be sure, it was sparsely attended and audience reaction was mixed — but still); there are progressive labels, mostly Naxos and Nonesuch, that record this music; and in general, classical music is fresher and less divided by avant-garde and populist factionalism than it has been in quite a while. It’s not the utopia that Horowitz wishes for, but it’s not nothing.

As an extra plus, above and beyond the pure historical information in the book, this was an enormously fertile source of music recommendations for me. My main discovery, oddly enough, was the very non-American Wagner. I had never realized how revolutionary Wagner and his music were; for some reason, I had him lumped in with Nietzsche and Hitler as an Unpleasant German — and besides, who likes opera? It turns out I do. I bought a Ring cycle after reading through the early part of this book, and hey, this Wagner’s actually pretty damn good. This is news to nobody, I’m sure. (Plus, after not hating Wagner, I decided to take a listen to John Adams’ opera Nixon in China, which I already owned. Hey, it’s good, too. Crazy.)

Obviously, I got some American recommendations out of the book, too: Walter Piston, Maxwell Davies, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Steve Reich, Elliott Carter, Roy Harris, and George Chadwick all got CDs added to my Amazon wish list. The nice thing about the slightly more obscure repertoire is that most of it has been recorded by Naxos, so it’s relatively inexpensive to load up on $7 CDs.

No “read it” or not verdict on this one; I’ll merely say that it’s a thought-provoking, informative, and opinionated tome; and if the subject matter is something that interests you, not a bad piece of reading.


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