It may seem improbable today, but some 75 years ago, classical music was a lingua franca for the average American, regularly heard and pervasive in mainstream popular culture. Film soundtracks of the Hollywood studio era either directly quoted or deliberately evoked the vocabulary of 19th-century symphonic and operatic literature, with many of the film composers themselves (Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, and Franz Waxman, among them) émigrés from the European concert world. Classical musicians were frequently portrayed as romantic or tragic characters in the movies, on radio, and in legitimate theater, regarded not as elite types but as Everymen. Clifford Odets’s popular 1937 play Golden Boy (later a movie and a Broadway musical) was about a young man torn between being a prizefighter and a violinist, a dilemma unlikely to have befuddled Muhammad Ali or Tyson Fury.
Comedians Jack Benny and Henny Youngman came on stage with violins as props; both played the instrument competently though abused it humorously during their standup routines. The trope of the struggling musician or composer finally making it to Carnegie Hall was portrayed in countless movies, including a 1947 film actually titled Carnegie Hall. In the 1946 Warner Brothers film Deception, Bette Davis two-times her cellist lover Paul Henreid with classical pianist-composer Claude Rains; the same year, the same studio put out Humoresque, in which arts patroness Joan Crawford commits suicide Virginia Woolf-style when her love affair with the young concert violinist she has sponsored (John Garfield) goes sour (Isaac Stern dubbed Garfield’s violin-playing scenes). Could any film credibly essay a similar plotline in today’s culture?
In this earlier era, pop culture fed off the notion of a Western canon of great music. Familiar classical ballet tunes were spoofed by Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny in Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes cartoons. The Paul Whiteman band quoted themes from Igor Stravinsky in jazz arrangements, Broadway show orchestrations quoted Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Antonín Dvořák’s Humoresque was dished up by both novelty piano star Zez Confrey and jazz virtuoso Art Tatum. Pianist Hazel Scott specialized in “swinging the classics” and did so in nightclubs and the movies. Operetta films starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy were immensely popular, and opera singers Lily Pons, Risë Stevens, Lauritz Melchior, and Ezio Pinza starred in Hollywood movies. Popular radio personality Oscar Levant played not only the wisecracking sidekick but also the Khatchaturian “Sabre Dance” on the piano in the Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers pic The Barkleys of Broadway, and pianist José Iturbi performed Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in the 1945 Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly film musical Anchors Aweigh. (Levant’s 1940 book A Smattering of Ignorance was largely about classical music business gossip. It was a bestseller.) Comic percussionist Spike Jones’s band on radio and TV did “musical depreciation”: zany, anarchic sendups of tunes from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and even Anton Rubinstein side by side with hit parade numbers, because the longhair tunes were as well known as the pop ballads.
Commercial advertising supported broadcasts of classical music up to the 1960s. The Bell Telephone Hour and the Voice of Firestone featured performances by pianists, violinists, and opera singers on radio and TV from the 1930s to the 1960s. Texaco sponsored both the weekly Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and the Milton Berle TV show Texaco Star Theatre. RCA boss David Sarnoff created the NBC Symphony Orchestra for conductor Arturo Toscanini, and live television broadcasts of the concerts, from the late 1940s to early ’50s, were sponsored by General Motors. NBC also broadcast an extended interview with Stravinsky in his home studio. Not to be outdone, William Paley’s CBS television commissioned Stravinsky to compose The Flood for CBS and broadcast Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. The most widely watched TV variety program from the late 1940s to the early ’70s, CBS’s Ed Sullivan Show, adopted vaudeville’s original format of alternating lowbrow circus acts (tumblers and acrobats) with High Art (Charles Laughton reciting from the Book of Daniel). On any given Sunday night on Ed Sullivan, one could watch ventriloquist Señor Wences taking a drink of water while his painted hand puppet Johnny was still speaking clearly, followed immediately by coloratura soprano Roberta Peters singing an aria.
Classical music was also a pawn in the chess game of geopolitical strategy during the Cold War. The CIA in 1950 established the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an anticommunist front group to promote avant-garde American artists (including composers) as exhibits of American cultural freedom (a savage irony, since at the same time, some were being summoned to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s committee). Composer Nicolas Nabokov (a cousin of writer Vladimir), chosen as one of CCF’s leaders, became one of the most politically influential musicians in the Western world for some years afterward. (His story was dramatized in the 2013 play Nikolai and the Others produced at Lincoln Center.) Henry Pleasants, the longtime music critic of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, moved to Europe after the war and became a spy for the CIA, his cover exposed only after his death in 2000. When young Texas-born pianist Van Cliburn won first prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia in 1958, it was a page-one event in newspapers worldwide. Cliburn was given a ticker-tape parade in New York upon his return from Moscow. No classical musician has been accorded such an accolade since. It should be added that during these same years, classical music appreciation classes were a staple of public-school curricula in most parts of the country (and have not been for decades).
Tocsins have rung perennially for the fall of classical music’s place in the mainstream, but now, in the third decade of the 21st century, a wholly new paradigm governs: we no longer have a cultural mainstream. We have a broadband crazy quilt. SiriusXM radio has some 150 music channels of every genre: only three of them are classical. For the public, “music” is now defined by the other 147. We live in multiple cultural taste silos. Moreover, even in classical music, musical structures that require patient, single-focused attention to cumulatively developing sequential forms, such as sonatas and symphonies, are about as obsolete as epic poems; they don’t have purchase on younger people for whom multitasking, TikTok, and low-level perpetual attention deficit disorder are the new cognitive norms, and for whom surface grooves are typically the meat of the music experience. Curiously, traditional, plotted, high-literary novels still sell, yet musical compositions based on repeating waveforms, where abrupt changes in phase are taken as developmental musical events, have largely superseded older narrative ways of organizing art music. Digital technology itself seems to have reshaped the content and very notion of what constitutes long-form music; 21st-century compositions sometimes seems like an emulation of the electric tools that produced them.
The ecosystem that birthed classical music in previous centuries is very different from the world today. Today every urban pedestrian listens to her own soundtrack or playlist through earbuds while entering city crosswalks; prior to widespread electrification, the only “soundtracks” were live performances or those in the mind’s ear. People did not ride in horse-drawn carriages or on steamships and early locomotives while listening to music (showboats and the Titanic excepted). Without 21st-century technology to outsource one’s personal memory to online storage or to access at a click the databases of Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube to acquire knowledge instantly, human memory before 1900 was necessarily a more muscular and retentive faculty. Composers could rely only on their memories of live performances and score-reading abilities. Yet in just such an environment, impoverished of modern conveniences and 24/7 exposure to music, all the past masterpieces of musical art were created, voluminously, with low-tech tools.
Conveniently forgotten is that until the invention and adoption of the typewriter in the 19th century, the literature of the entire history of the world—novels, plays, and poems, as well as musical scores—was slowly created in longhand with metal or quill nibs dipped in liquid ink, either in daylight or under the illumination of candles, or oil or kerosene lamps, or gas lights. Mistakes could not be erased, only blotted out. Copying could only be done manually; scribes were a necessity in the chain of labor; paper was dear. How did so much get written under such conditions? Now composers have the ability to recopy without manually recopying, to cut and paste without throwing out paper, and to click instantly on almost any recording or score that has ever been published. In fact, a vast amount of specialist information can be instantly accessed without really being learned—it is merely momentarily attached rather than earned and mentally banked by slow assimilation.
As so much of this information is couched on the Internet in photos, videos, illustrations, and synchronized music (an assemblage once quaintly termed “audiovisuals”) rather than language, the skills required to navigate this push-button magic carpet are now termed “media literacy.” Media literacy is becoming the dominant mode of literacy, threatening the dominance of millennia of traditional scriptorial literacy. And its tendency to reduce communication to rapidly flashed visuals and sound bites cheapens the appreciation of great art and music, eliminating depth, sometimes reducing complex achievement to mere celebrity, and atrophying the muscles of memory, since flashcard storyboard summaries don’t linger in the mind as enduringly as the ecstatic passion of Tristan und Isolde or the convolutions of Ulysses, which are processes that have to be endured the long way to be appreciated.
Perversely, the instantaneous click-access to all historical knowledge on the web seems to have given rise to a general indifference to history among the young. Millennials who have known only the postdigital environment tend to interpret history only through their current cultural biases and social media shares. As a result, the very concept of a historical canon has become toxic, and with classical music no longer the player it was 75 years ago, this antihistorical attitude threatens to drive appreciation of classical music even further from its one-time pride of place in general culture. Classical music has been especially susceptible to charges of a toxic canonicalism that shortchanges other cultures’ contributions.
Can anything be done to effect a rapprochement between the old and the new paradigms so that the heritage of classical music can be revivified for younger generations? One possible answer is being suggested by the scholar and critic Joseph Horowitz in his new book Dvořák’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music. Horowitz seems to say that it’s not necessary to topple canonical classical music idols as if they were the Buddhas of Bamiyan, because a rich parallel heritage of African-American classical music has been hiding in plain sight all along. He has assumed the role of a skilled art conservator who is cleaning up an old master, removing an overlayer to disclose a pentimento: an underlayer that is a veritable classical music 1619 project. And at the same time, in a series of six companion videos that he narrates (Dvořák’s Prophecy: A New Narrative for American Classical Music, produced by Naxos), Horowitz goes a good way toward remediating the problematic aspects of media literacy, sound-bite epistemology, Snapchat concentration spans, and anhistorical narcissism that bedevil our culture today.
Horowitz’s arguments are multiple. He contends that a visiting European composer, Antonin Dvořák, founded a new school of Americanist composition in the 1890s, based upon indigenous Black and Native American music (i.e. spirituals and tribal ritual songs), that was abandoned by mainstream 20th-century American classical composers; that several African-American composers were the true and only exponents of the Dvořák school but were severely neglected by classical music power centers, until very recently; that Charles Ives and George Gershwin (and Louis Moreau Gottschalk before them) embody the true autochthonous American art-music tradition; and that the American populism of Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Roy Harris is synthetic and inauthentic. It is a volley of iconoclastic salvos, not unlike that of Henry Pleasants’s book The Agony of Modern Music (1955), though Pleasants argued the antinomy was between abstract, atonal, modern art music and jazz, favoring the latter as America’s true classical music.
Horowitz also argues that the primary champion and practitioner of Native American–based art music, the white Anglo-American composer Arthur Farwell, has not only been unfairly neglected, but is also still vexed by the charge of cultural appropriation. These and other questions are teased out both in his book and in the accompanying six videos, which focus on Dvořák, Ives, Black composers, Bernard Herrmann, Lou Harrison, and Copland, respectively. As a group, these videos (along with a CD of Farwell’s music) sweep together a vast canvas of miscellaneous, sometimes tenuously related Americana, though all are interestingly told. The video documentaries eschew the Ken Burns style of rapid montage and instead go into deep focus. Talking heads speak at length rather than in sound bites. The music on the soundtracks, performed by the Washington, D.C.–based PostClassical Ensemble (of which Horowitz is executive director) and conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez, is not interrupted by hyperkinetic visual montages or multiple voiceovers. It’s the documentary equivalent of “slow food”; there is room to absorb and think and remember.
Appropriation is a vexed word now, but any reckoning of American popular music history that does not acknowledge the primary, progenitive influence of African-American music is irresponsible. In fact, the history of American popular music is a history of cultural appropriation. Minstrel shows appropriated the West African music of plantation slaves. Vaudeville appropriated minstrel-show sketch comedy and music. Irving Berlin appropriated ragtime with his song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Paul Whiteman became known as The King of Jazz, though his very name betrays the appellation. (Equally ironic, the greatest Black orchestra leader of the 1910s was named James Reese Europe.) Jazz was appropriated by European white musicians from Stravinsky to Maurice Ravel to Darius Milhaud, and by classical pianists like the Austrian Friedrich Gulda and the Russian Nikolai Kapustin, who improvised and composed in a jazz idiom. Rap, originating in Black urban areas, has traveled the world and is now appropriated by (or, perhaps more benignly stated, practiced by) every national culture.
Black musical culture has every right to feel the victimhood or homage of appropriation—except in classical music, as Horowitz suggests. There, he posits the contrapositive: that American classical music should have adopted the popular music paradigm, and enlivened the art music tradition with the same Afro-indigenous influences as did folk and popular music. In not doing so, he claims that classical music has lost some of its potential expressive power, and he argues that one path to revitalization in the 21st century is to reclaim the Dvořákian approach.
This is like saying that Nikos Skalkottas, the short-lived Greek composer, was all wet when he wrote anguished, atonal, scores in the manner of Alban Berg, and should have stuck to his tonal orchestral suites of native Greek dances. But both styles of Skalkottas are potent in their separate ways. On close inspection, the authenticity issues are entangled, not binary. Many made-in-American folk-art genres were, from birth, admixtures of Anglo and Afro origin. Tap dancing is Afro-Celtic: it evolved in the mid-19th century from a fusion of the West African rhythmic dance of slaves and the clog and step dancing of Irish immigrants. The Irish blackface dancer John Diamond and the Black dancer William Henry Lane (known as “Master Juba”) faced off in jig contests in Manhattan’s Irish Five Points district in the 1840s. Rock ‘n’ roll is a 1950s marriage of what was theretofore known in the music trades as Black “race music” and white “hillbilly” music; the genre owes a debt to both.
Are classical symphonies built on Black indigenous music invariably as successful as William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony? The great stride pianist and composer of “The Charleston,” James P. Johnson, also composed classical scores based on such sources, but the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz states that “some commentators have questioned the success of Johnson’s orchestral compositions.” Duke Ellington’s symphonic work Black, Brown, and Beige was described by its sympathetic orchestrator Maurice Peress, who knew Ellington and recorded the piece, as “enigmatic and complicated … difficult to fathom.” Where does the Dvořák theory leave the work of Black American composers like Ulysses Kay (1917–1995), Howard Swanson (1907–1978), Julia Perry (1924–1979), and George Walker (1922–2018), all of whom wrote first class symphonic and chamber music in the prevailing European-derived cosmopolitan idioms favored by their white American and European contemporaries, and whose work was performed, recorded, and acclaimed in their lifetimes? The Dvořákian model’s most plausible later descendant may have been the mid-20th-century “third stream” music propounded by composer-conductor Gunther Schuller: atonal/tonal compositions that made a fusion between jazz and high modernism. Actually, the third-stream idea is alive today in the symphonic works of Wynton Marsalis, notably his Violin Concerto.
In classical music, practical situations have often led to strange bedfellows. The African-American conductor Dean Dixon, whom Horowitz cites, in the 1950s conducted and recorded Rhapsodie Nègre for piano and orchestra by John Powell, a Virginian who was “quite a figure in the century’s early decades,” according to Virgil Thomson. But Powell was also an outspoken, rabid segregationist. Why did a white supremacist compose a Rhapsodie Nègre, and why did a Black conductor record it, and why did Powell, who was alive at the time, not object to Dixon’s conducting the recording? Possibly for reasons similar to Wagner’s approval of Hermann Levi, a rabbi’s son, to conduct the premiere of Parsifal, the most Christian of operas? Or no?
Why did some white musical artists in the 1920s pass for Black (Aileen Stanley) on records (Black Swan Records) and some Black musical artists in the 1920s (William Grant Still) pass for white on records? (When Still’s last name appeared on Whiteman band records as arranger, nobody but a few insiders knew that he was Black.) Let us also not forget Fela Sowande, the Nigerian composer whose euphonious African Suite for string orchestra is written in a conservative 20th-century European idiom yet sounds indigenous.
Dvořák’s Prophecy subsumes Ives into its overarching thesis, citing the composer’s leitmotivic use of American marches, hymns, and popular ballads and folk songs as kindred to Whitman and even Samuel Clemens. Horowitz points out that Harmony, the daughter of Clemens’s best friend, Joseph Twichell, married Ives (apparently unaware that this life-imitating-art incident was made into art by composer Robert Carl and librettist Russell Banks in their opera Harmony, performed at the Seagle Festival in upstate New York last year). He argues that both Ives and Gershwin were no mere primitives in the style of Modest Mussorgsky, but technically accomplished composers. Elite opinion has not always concurred. That impeccable musical workman Samuel Barber told an interviewer of Ives in 1979, “It is now unfashionable to say this, but in my opinion he was an amateur, a hack, who didn’t put pieces together well.” Elliott Carter, who knew Ives, found a “disturbing lack of musical and stylistic continuity” in his music, and even Ives champion Bernard Herrmann said, “He never got his music into shape for a performance. … People looking around at Ives to find his musical technique or form are all wasting their time, because he didn’t have any.” In 1958, however, Leonard Bernstein, whom Horowitz quotes as damning Ives with faint praise, did extol the composer as “the Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson of American music.” Why does Horowitz say Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland advocated pastlessness, when Thomson’s own music seems the very embodiment of a nostalgic American Arcadia with its “plagal cadences” (as Leonard Bernstein once put it), and Copland’s greatest successes were modeled on the folklore and even tunes of earlier American centuries (his ballets Rodeo, Billy the Kid, and Appalachian Spring, and his Old American Songs)?
Horowitz briefly mentions the American ethnomusicologist Natalie Curtis. A closer look at her pioneering work better illustrates how problematic the pluralistic mélange of autochthonous American music is. (I am indebted for the following information to the researches of my colleague Cora Angier Sowa.) Born into wealth in a Henry James–like Manhattan milieu in 1875, Curtis was a society debutante pianist who moved out West to recover from a nervous breakdown. There she started to collect cowboy music. Some of the cowboys were Confederate veterans. Some were freed Black slaves. Some were Mexicans. (So much for ethnic consistency of indigenous music.) Soon she met Charles Fletcher Lummis, a Harvard Brahmin who had become a champion for the preservation of native southwest Indian culture. Lummis led a movement to fight the U.S. government’s forced assimilation of the Hopi Indians into white Anglo culture. Living in Arizona, Curtis recorded the Hopi music using an Edison cylinder machine, transcribed it, and later published it. (The American photographer Edward Curtis, who was unrelated to Natalie Curtis, also made extensive sound recordings of Native American music in situ with Edison cylinders.)
The European composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni, who had lived and worked in Boston a few years before Dvořák came to New York, acquired Curtis’s book (she had once studied piano with him) and composed large concert pieces on its Hopi themes (the Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra and the Indian Diary for solo piano). The 1915 premiere of Busoni’s Indian Fantasy by the Philadelphia Orchestra was conducted by Leopold Stokowski—the same conductor who would premier Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony with the same orchestra 19 years later.
Stokowski told the press after the 1915 Busoni performance: “I consider this the most important new step in the development of music since Debussy first began to break fresh paths in tonal and harmonic relations. It will have a very deep influence on the trend of music in the future.” But, somewhat not in keeping with Horowitz’s premise, it has not. Nor did Stokowski’s later championship of the estimable Dawson symphony catch on with other conductors.
In 1904, Curtis went to the Hampton Institute in Virginia to collect the folksongs of Native Americans who had been co-enrolled there with former Black slaves. She then undertook the project of recording with Edison cylinder and transcribing all the voice parts of choral African-American spirituals, work songs, play songs, and similar works. Publishing the results, she announced that there were four types of folksong in the United States: Native American, African American, mountain white (i.e. Appalachian), and cowboy (i.e. southwestern). Later, she made a collection of songs from two African immigrants at the Hampton Institute, one from Portuguese East Africa, and one from Zululand in South Africa. Curtis moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1916 and married the painter Paul Burlin. In 1921, the Burlins moved to Paris, where one tragic day, Natalie was hit by a speeding ambulance and died of her injuries at age 45.
One problem with Native American song and dance as a sourcebook for art music is that the music, unlike African and African-American music, is limited to monophony with unpitched rhythmic accompaniment, and therefore art-music composers, even the sympathetic so-called Indianists (Farwell, Charles Wakefield Cadman, Victor Herbert in his opera Natoma) had to invent convincing supporting harmony and formal architecture to convey the Amerindian color. But late-19th-century romantic harmony was not quite up to this task, and as a result, many of the Indianist composers’ works sound kitschy, like Thurlow Lieurance’s “By the Waters of Minnetonka.” Farwell’s Indianist works use the comfortable tonal Romantic harmonic language of Edward MacDowell spiced with a soupçon of dissonance and French impressionism. Busoni’s Indian pieces are more successful, perhaps because they set indigenous-sounding transplants of the Hopi melodies and rhythms with more daringly angular harmonic language and a freer use of tonality bordering on atonality. (Farwell’s later cosmopolitan music for orchestra is craggier harmonically, and sometimes sounds like American Havergal Brian.) Horowitz’s schema of putting Farwell and Roy Harris at opposite poles of the aesthetic divide is amusing in that Farwell was Harris’s first teacher and mentor, the musician most responsible for urging Harris to become a composer.
It should be noted that John Powell, the white racist composer, also collected Appalachian music. So did the German émigré Kurt Weill, for his all-American folk operetta Down in the Valley. But the real master of cowboy music collection may have been the Texan David Wendel Fentress Guion, a pianist who studied with Leopold Godowsky in Europe and came back to the States to popularize “Home on the Range” and write piano arrangements of “Turkey in the Straw,” “The Arkansas Traveler,” “The Harmonica Player,” and “The Scissors Grinder,” that are too difficult for all but professional virtuosos to play. In the 1920s and ’30s, his songs were widely broadcast on the radio in band arrangements, but somehow Copland and Thomson never seemed to mention Guion’s work as an influence on their own forays into American musical folkways. Guion is as undeservedly forgotten as Farwell.
Horowitz compares Copland’s jazzy Piano Concerto invidiously with Gershwin’s, and quotes condescending statements about Gershwin from Copland and Thomson. I think they simply were envious of his success. Here’s a personal anecdote. In the mid-1970s, I studied music composition with Gail Kubik, a one-time Pulitzer Prize winner and an acquaintance and slightly younger contemporary of Copland and Thomson who also wrote Americana-flavored music. One day, Mr. Kubik inquired what modern composers I liked. When I mentioned Gershwin, he winced and made some terse comment of displeasure. I had the distinct feeling he was jealous.
While Native American music is harmonically limited, Gershwin wrote in a singularly rich, polyglot, kaleidoscopic harmonic idiom—at once bluesy, African, European, New York, middle-American, chromatic, Hebraic, with hints even of Latin and Asian—that has never been imitated. Recent scholarship by Howard Pollack and others has shown that Gershwin was a much more self-conscious, finished composer than previously suspected. It may be a matter of dispute, though, whether to credit, as Horowitz does, Porgy and Bess, as great as it is, with greater cultural vitality than Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, or Bernstein’s West Side Story–—or even the operettas of John Philip Sousa (the original source of many of his march tunes)—to take some of the other examples of pieces written by Americans of the “non-Dvořákian” school that permanently entered the American commercial vernacular in the 20th century.
Horowitz focuses on three Black composers who wrote symphonies in the 1930s and 1940s that fell into neglect: Still, Dawson, and Florence Price (he also mentions Margaret Bonds). He gives honorable mention to the Canadian-born Nathaniel Dett, who had been director of Virginia’s Hampton Institute and its choir during the years Natalie Curtis did her research there. (This writer heard the Cincinnati Symphony’s performance of Dett’s oratorio The Ordering of Moses live at Carnegie Hall in 2014.) Dett was perhaps the only one of the four whose music was championed repeatedly by a leading white musician during the prewar era: the composer and pianist Percy Grainger. Grainger not only regularly programmed selections from Dett’s In the Bottoms Suite in his recitals in America and Australia, he also included Dett’s music in his radio lectures and made several recordings of Dett’s Juba Dance. At a 1916 concert in Hamilton, Ontario, that featured both Grainger as pianist and Dett’s choral piece “Listen to the Lambs,” Grainger gave an impromptu speech, chastising the audience for not knowing that this “highly gifted musician and composer” (his words, in a letter) was Canadian. Grainger produced a concert on May 3, 1925 at Carnegie Hall that featured Dett conducting his chorus in his Negro Folksong Derivatives and Grainger conducting Natalie Curtis’s Memories of New Mexico, Franz Schreker’s Chamber Symphony, Paul Hindemith’s Chamber Music No. 1, and Edvard Grieg’s Lost in the Hills.
Horowitz’s book frequently laments the American musical canon’s neglect of a useable past in regard to Black composers (and other composers) but omits applying the same critique to more recent examples of neglecting a useable past. It’s great that the Metropolitan Opera commissioned Terence Blanchard to compose Fire Shut Up In My Bones, and will soon present a revival of Anthony Davis’s X. But what about reviving William Grant Still’s worthy opera Troubled Island, which was produced in 1949 by the New York City Opera but rejected by Rudolf Bing of the Met? Or any of Still’s eight other operas? What about one of Ulysses Kay’s five operas, especially his Jubilee, based upon African-American writer Margaret Walker’s novel of the same name? Walker threatened to sue if the opera were performed again after its initial performances, but since her death, efforts have been made to revive the work. Why has the tragically short-lived biracial pianist-composer Philippa Duke Schuyler practically disappeared as a cultural figure (she was once a celebrity)? Don Shirley is well-known now as a result of the movie Green Book, but some of his contemporaries, like pianist-composers Robert Pritchard and Natalie Hinderas, are still little known.
In most cases, Black composers face the same difficulties clawing for performances that composers of other groups face. Furthermore, Black composers write in as many different idioms as white composers or Asian composers. There is no dearth of contemporary Black composers, from pre–Baby Boom to Generation Z, who compose concert music in the cosmopolitan idiom, the tonal/atonal/consonant/dissonant mélange that was the common tongue of the 20th-century classical music world. Alvin Singleton and Adolphus Hailstork represent the elders of this group, but it extends to Gen Xers like Jesse Montgomery and Gen Zers like Quinn Mason, all working in an eclectic mix of styles, some traditional, some nontraditional, some abstract, some indigenous-based. (Twenty-first century Native American composers of classical music have emerged more slowly than Native American authors of fiction. While Louise Erdrich and N. Scott Momaday are long established as novelists, composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate does not yet have a lot of company.)
A typical current example is the prolific mid-career Baby Boom composer Kevin Scott. Scott is eclectic in the best sense of the word. He is writing an opera about Fannie Lou Hamer. His work includes elegiac orchestral homages to Betty Shabazz (A Passion of Our Time) and Arthur Ashe (A Point Served), neoromantic tone poems that pay homage to the great film music of the Hollywood era (Lazy Lion, Ben Hur), but for the greater part of his output, Scott composes in a powerful, abstract, atonal, cosmopolitan, almost neo-Bergian idiom (including his cycle of Anne Brontë songs and six string quartets). He does not play or compose jazz or quote from folk music. For all his diversity of styles, Kevin Scott’s music does not fit into a niche. And that’s a strength.
Celebrating what Horowitz interprets as the lost Dvořákian school of American music rightfully bestows many past Black composers not just with canonical recognition but also with inclusion in American music history textbooks. (A few of them had already appeared in Virgil Thomson’s 1971 book American Music Since 1910. The best authority, Eileen Southern’s magisterial The Music of Black Americans: A History (1971), should be in every music history course syllabus.) Yet uncovering new understandings of a neglected part of our musical history may not be the same thing as finding prescriptions for future artistic development. Margaret Bonds and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson composed much music based on spirituals and jazz, but how many Black concert music composers today will use those languages as an exclusive foundation for their composition the way Arnold Schoenberg exclusively used the 12-tone row? The folk music of recent generations is international pop. Pop culture itself may already have replaced folk elements as a model for contemporary vitalization, judging from works of composer Michael Daugherty like Route 66 and the Metropolis Symphony, the classical mashups by violinist-composer Ezinma of Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion, and many works by minimalist composers, especially those that fuse minimalism with neoromanticism.
You have to admire Horowitz’s ambition in his book. Dvořák’s Prophecy makes many vigorous arguments and strenuously tries to stuff a huge panoply of American music in almost too short a space, which sometimes leads him into overcompressed, crabbed language to drive home his points. But generally, the direction is clear. The companion videos are fascinating and should be widely purchased and used by educators and institutions throughout the country to proselytize the unconverted. If classical music is going to survive and thrive, we need zealous advocates like Joseph Horowitz to continue beating the drum.
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