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Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall.

Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall. By Joseph Horowitz. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. [xix, 606 p. ISBN 0-393-05717-8. $39.95.] Illustrations, index.

Readers familiar with Joseph Horowitz's earlier books will know the general thrust of the argument of this book. Indeed, distillations of them provide the basis for several important chapters. What is new here, and valuable with regard to current discussions regarding the place of classical music within American society, is that, by developing a narrative history of this entire period, Horowitz is able to begin to provide answers to hypotheses about how and why classical music has not only lost its once overwhelming cultural prestige in America, but is now potentially on the verge of being marginalized out of existence.

To begin, "classical music" is an entirely appropriate term for the musical tradition examined by Horowitz in this book. Among historians of music in the United States, there remains lack of agreement on the most appropriate term to use for this musical tradition (see, for example, William Brooks, "Music in America: An Overview (part 1)," in David Nicholls, ed., The Cambridge History of American Music [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 30-48], and Julian Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002]), as both "art" and "serious" as adjectival modifiers for music are unsatisfactory for various reasons. While H. Wiley Hitchcock's cultivated/vernacular opposition (Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction, 3d ed. [Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988]) and Richard Crawford's three spheres of musical activity (America's Musical Life: A History [New York: W. W. Norton, 2001], x) solve many interpretive problems, they do not provide a neutral term to describe this tradition of music making. In Horowitz's book, however, "classical music," as commonly understood, fully accounts for the musical activities that the author seeks to examine. Not only did the earliest observers and participants, such as John Sullivan Dwight, use this term (p. 27), it remains today the common term for the music of the period from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries that is the bread and butter of symphonies, opera companies, and many other musical institutions today. That this music is known as "classical" is, for Horowitz, an implicit recognition by all involved that this music is no longer contemporary music, in any sense, as it most certainly was into the first quarter of the twentieth century.

The premise of Classical Music in America is that "classical music in the United States is a mutant transplant" and that "the resulting foliage, oftentimes resplendent, was as often 'peculiar'" (p. xiii). By this, Horowitz means that during the nineteenth century, classical music was imported to the United States through the efforts of homegrown proselytizers, such as Dwight, as well as by the influx of European, largely German, musicians fleeing mid-century political and social unrest. Because of the volatile state of ferment within American culture, however, classical music was not able to establish "roots," meaning native traditions of composition and performance style, which would fully ground it in American culture. The result was the emergence during the first half of the twentieth century of a "culture of performance" centered on the classical canon and a small group of super-star interpreters, such as Arturo Toscanini, Jascha Heifetz, and Vladimir Horowitz, supported by recording companies and artist management agencies. All of this was effective in stifling non-canonic developments. To tell this story, Horowitz concentrates on the institutions of classical music to a greater extent than any previous scholar (pp. xiv-xv). By doing so, he is able to correlate and contextualize disparate facts that in a biographically oriented context might be overlooked. Finally, since Horowitz considers the history of classical music in the United States to have "largely run its course" (p. xv), his interpretation is shaped as a rise and fall, the rise represented by the period up to approximately World War I and the fall comprising the remainder of the twentieth century.

Horowitz structures the book to reflect his hypothesis. There are two "books," representing the rise and fall, respectively, and each book is further divided into two parts. Each part has four chapters, except for book 1, part 2, which also has a coda, and book 2, part 2, which has three chapters and a postlude. Book 1, "'Queen of the arts': birth and growth," develops the contrasting musical cultures of Boston and New York. Book 2, "'Great Performances': decline and fall," examines the culture of performance and the audience for classical music. While book 1 covers the period through approximately World War I and book 2 brings the narrative up to the turn of the present century, there is considerable overlap, as some earlier elements continue into the later period, and some later developments are adumbrated in the early years of the twentieth century, or even before.

Horowitz begins with an examination of musical culture in Boston in the nineteenth century, concentrating on the efforts of Henry Higginson to establish the Boston Symphony. In this story, based in part on his hitherto unexamined correspondence, Higginson emerges as an earnest advocate for classical music, one truly concerned that it be available to people from all levels of society, as shown by his insistence on low ticket prices and the plain architectural style of Symphony Hall. The wider Brahmin high culture of Boston, however, is subjected to a scathing indictment in chapter 4, "Composers and the Brahmin confinement," in which Horowitz bolsters his argument with the work of scholars such as Martin Green (The Problem of Boston [London: Longmans, 1966]) and Rochelle Gurstein (The Repeal of Reticence [New York: Hill and Wang, 1996]). Horowitz extends Green's treatment of the "debased literary culture" (p. 96) of Boston to music and examines the careers of composers Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, and George Chadwick, seeing them as suffering from "a condition that discouraged critical distance and forbade deeply personal truths" (p. 102). To his credit, Horowitz tempers his criticism of this generation of composers with examples of how they occasionally transcended their milieu. Horowitz also usefully distinguishes an aestheticist element within Boston culture, represented by composer Charles Martin Loeffler and patroness Isabella Stewart Gardner, which acted to some degree as a counterweight, since it was more oriented toward the present and did not view music as a moralizing force in society. Throughout part one, Brahmin culture is portrayed as institutionalizing a high culture based on "honoring past achievement" (pp. 96-97). Ultimately, it was the "evasion of deeply personal truths and impolite self-scrutiny" (p. 117) that eviscerated musical culture in Boston.

In contrast to the insular and placid gentility of Boston, Horowitz sees late nineteenth-century New York as a ferment of eclectic and inclusive musical activity. In book 1, part 2, Horowitz tells the dramatic story of the fierce competition between conductors (among them Theodore Thomas, Anton Seidl, Leopold and Walter Damrosch, and Gustav Mahler) and opera companies (including the Academy of Music, the Astor Place Opera House, the Metropolitan Opera, and the National Opera Company) to establish themselves not only in New York but also throughout the United States through extensive touring. In the course of this story, developments in cities as diverse as New Orleans, San Francisco, and Milwaukee are brought into an overall context. A significant amount of the material in this section is based on Horowitz's earlier work on Wagnerism in American, using conductor Anton Seidl as the focus. Here, however, Horowitz uses the American visit of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak during the years 1892-95 as a lens to focus several strands of his discussion, from the diametrically opposed reception he received in New York and Boston to the controversies incited by his comments on the importance of vernacular music to composers (mainly pp. 222-32, but in many places and contexts throughout). The point that Horowitz wishes to make in emphasizing Dvorak is that not only did he arrive at a propitious moment (p. 223), but his expansive interest in the polyglot character of American musical life provided a pointed example to American musicians and composers willing to follow his line of thought; "he provocatively saw music as a necessary means of defining America, an ecumenical vehicle for articulating the New World" (p. 231). That he recognized the value of black music and sampled that of Native Americans may have irritated many contemporary musicians, but he clearly understood that America could not have a thriving musical culture without acceptance of all of its diverse constituents.

In the postlude to part 2, Horowitz addresses the scholarly thread represented by Lawrence Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988) and its theme of the sacralization of high culture during the second half of the nineteenth century. In this effort, Horowitz furthers the work of scholars such as Ralph Locke (see, for example, Ralph Locke and Cyrilla Barr, eds., Cultivating Music in America: Women Patrons and Activists since 1860 [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997]) who have attempted to understand the patrons of music and art at the end of the nineteenth century in terms more respectful of their milieu and that do not ascribe to them ulterior motives exclusively reeking of class and social control. While a detailed explication of Horowitz's position is beyond the scope of this review, the crux of his response is that the true sacralizers were not Higginson, Seidl, or Thomas, but rather those active in the interwar years of the twentieth century, such as Toscanini and David Sarnoff, primary subjects of book 2 (p. 252). To people of the late nineteenth century, the milieu of Wagnerism espoused in America represented a valid response to the emerging capitalist world: "not for nothing did Gilded Age culture-bearers decry the new industrial order as dehumanizing and antihumanist. Wagnerism ... was in part a compensatory movement, a countervailing initiative against lives overregulated and controlled" (p. 253). But the deaths of Seidl and Thomas late in the nineteenth century and of composers Edward MacDowell and Charles Tomlinson Griffes in the early twentieth, along with the trauma of World War I, meant that this turn-of-the-century promise remained unfulfilled and quickly forgotten.

Indeed, the introduction to book 2 is subtitled "The great schism." With the post-war anti-Germanism of the 1920s and the burgeoning influx of European musicians fleeing the deepening crisis in Europe, American musicians and composers found themselves boxed in. Since most of the mature composers still active were products of mainly German training and outlook, their music was less often played and was quickly and thoroughly rejected by the young composers of the 1920s. Performers, too, continued to be subject to the negative effects of the almost innate prestige of any European. But by the mid 1920s, Charles Edward Russell, as quoted by Horowitz (p. 269), was able to claim that the symphony orchestra was America's "greatest cultural asset," which, while true enough, represented the "supplanting of the creative act" as the defining characteristic of American classical music.

This misplaced reverence for performers and interpreters is the story of much of book 2. The first two chapters of book two are adumbrated by Horowitz's book Understanding Toscanini: How he became an American culture-god and helped create a new audience for old music (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987) and can be quickly summarized here. Chapter 1 summarizes the American careers of "the big three," Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, and Serge Koussevitzky. The activities of these three conductors are viewed as a sort of morality tale, with Toscanini the villain and the others representing alternative paths with few tangible long-term effects. Chapter 2 then focuses on other prominent American conductors of the mid twentieth century (including Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Otto Klemperer, and Dmitri Mitropoulos). Then there are chapters on American performers (mainly pianists) and on opera in America. While Horowitz occasionally makes summarizing remarks throughout this part, overall the effect is a scattered one, as each biographical sketch has little relation to the others and they do not build on each other, but rather fragment, as each actor appears as a self-contained universe. It is arguable that this is a defensible view of this period, however, (and perhaps Horowitz intended this effect) since the emphasis was increasingly on the glamour and personal charisma of the interpreters instead of the music and a viable musical culture. As Horowitz sums up the situation: "After World War I, classical music in the United States was less nourished than before by the creative act, by a living contemporary repertoire that might have freshened and renewed what otherwise would ultimately become a tired and tiring museum exercise. The absence of a national school bore as directly on the act of performance--on its disembodiment--as on composition" (p. 384).

Finally, in book 2, part 2, Horowitz addresses the "offstage participants": the audience for classical music in America, American composers, and the business of classical music. Chapter 5 summarizes Horowitz's survey of the "music appreciation racket" from Understanding Toscanini, although here the argument is augmented through the juxtaposition of a survey of classical music management, as epitomized by Arthur Judson. It is clear that Judson's near monopoly and the power he wielded as the result of his various business interests (from partial ownership of CBS and Columbia Artists Management to management of the New York Philharmonic), combined with that of David Sarnoff at NBC and a handful of other businessmen, account for much that is disappointing and disturbing about the period from the Second World War through the 1970s. Their conservative tastes, condescension toward the audience, and bottom-line mentality completed the transformation of classical music in America into a backward-looking and culturally marginalized endeavor.

Unfortunately, this unhealthy situation was exacerbated by the fact that most of the composers who emerged during this period did not write music that was eagerly anticipated and that was generally not good enough to survive, including much of Aaron Copland's output. The composer that Horowitz singles out most for praise is George Gershwin, whose relatively brief career is likened to a comet. Only Gershwin seemed to have the combination of talent and inner gifts to potentially forge an American music that was based in American musical life and not beholden to European models. His untimely death cut these efforts short, however, and it was not until the emergence of the minimalists (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams) during the 1970s that a similar combination of popular and other non-classical sources built on Gershwin's legacy and resulted in a style that attracted an audience hungry for new contemporary music. But before that happened, "driven by ticket sales, by stratagems for fund-raising and public relations, for seducing but not challenging the laissez-faire listener, classical music blundered toward a stalemate--or a crossroads" (p. 517).

In "Postlude: post-classical music," Horowitz summarizes some hopeful signs that a new post-classical music may be emerging. The minimalist composers, especially the recent works of Adams, are praised for the eclecticism of their aesthetic influences and for the fact that they have reinvigorated the role of the performing composer, the decline of which is one of Horowitz's explanations for the decline of importance of contemporary music throughout the twentieth century. Along with new music, there has been the emergence of a new performance paradigm, based on the example of the Brooklyn Academy of Music under Harvey Lichtenstein or the San Francisco Symphony's Michael Tilson Thomas, which seeks to bring composers and audiences together in a mode of exploration seeking to identify a new musical-cultural space. In some of these efforts, Horowitz has been an actor himself.

Horowitz identifies this new music as "post-classical," but this begs the question discussed above of the proper name for this new musical aesthetic. Like kleenex, classical music has become a generic term, but post-classical has the same drawbacks as postmodern as a descriptor for a mode of understanding, since both are defined in contrast to a prior state that is itself only vaguely defined. To use an example from popular music, grunge is not known as post-punk; it is a new name for a new thing. Perhaps a new word needs to be invented so that we can have an expansive, intellectually stimulating, and aesthetically satisfying music whose very name does not carry so much baggage along with it.

It remains to ask whether Horowitz provides a compelling argument regarding the current state of classical music in America and its potential future. Since his book is primarily a historical narrative, Horowitz must, by necessity, forego detailed aesthetic discussion of musical works, although he does manage to make many such comments and judgments in passing. Within his parameters, however, Horowitz makes significant progress in proving his premise, that the transformation of classical music in America into the veneration of performers at the expense of creativity has resulted in a distorted musical life that is adrift and unable to assert its value in a culture dominated by short-term outlooks and the relativization of aesthetic values. Horowtiz's parameters do not allow him to address the nature of musical objects and what role music that aspires to the status of art might play in intellectual life and within wider culture, perhaps even within civilization. Readers interested in these aesthetic issues are encouraged to study Julian Johnson's book cited above, which undertakes a nuanced look at music as an art. Within the context of Horowitz's interpretation of the historical record, there are many questions that can be fruitfully explored by future scholars of music in the United States, especially the ways in which aesthetic imperatives interact with the larger trends of contemporary technological and consumer society. As Johnson demonstrates, "music-as-art" is discursive in a way that is not well served in our present-oriented society. How composers respond to this situation will determine the nature of their audience and the future of "classical music."

In sum, while for specialists there is little new in Horowitz's summary of current scholarship of American music and his interpretation of the historical record is cogent as far as it goes, the real value of this book is for its intended audience: practicing musicians and arts administrators and those individuals interested in music as one element of civilized life. Musicians and administrators who approach this book in a thoughtful manner will gain an understanding of what they are about that might provide them with valuable insights that could be applied within the various institutions where they work, in making repertory decisions, and in teaching their students. For those concerned about the place of music in society beyond the stylistic and other limitations of commercial popular music, this book will provide a context for understanding how the complex structure of musical institutions, record companies, and performers came to exist in the form that they do today. Ideally, reading this book will encourage everyone to rethink his or her relationship with the standard repertoire and to seek out and enthusiastically support contemporary music that can either reinvigorate the classical tradition or, perhaps preferably, lead toward the emergence of a new tradition that can amalgamate American musical life into a new aesthetic whole. All public and academic libraries, as well as interested individuals, will find this book a valuable addition to their collections.


University of Wisconsin-Madison
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Author:Wiecki, Ron
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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