CLASSICAL MUSIC IN AMERICA: A HISTORY OF ITS RISE AND FALL. By Joseph
Horowitz. Norton, 2005. 606 pages.
Towards the very end of this lengthy book, its author tells a story
about Esa-Pekka Salonen, the point of which strikes close to the heart
of one of Horowitz' main concerns: the high value accorded the performer
at the expense of the composer. In Paris for a performance by the French
National Orchestra of one of his compositions, Salonen found himself
booked into "a little bed and breakfast kind of place." Sharing with
his wife his distaste for the accommodations, Salonen said, "'Look at
this dump. How could any human being exist in this kind of place? It's
just awful.' And she looked at me and said, 'Look, you are being treated
as a composer, don't forget.' That was a very good lesson, because I
was the same guy who, when conducting, was staying at five-star hotels
in Paris. It's crazy, ridiculous, but that's how it is" (p. 532, quoting
an interview in SYMPHONY, 54:2.)
Paradoxically, then, what this book is mainly about is the history
of symphony orchestras, opera companies, conductors and soloists from
the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Horowitz does include an
historical survey of American composers, but his main interest is what
music conductors have chosen to program.
Horowitz writes about what he wants to write about. He does not give
proportionate space to different places, institutions or individuals.
He does not try for temporal balance either. Half his book tells the
early history of music in Boston and New York during the nineteenth
century. His interpretive narrative is "laden with analysis and criticism,"
and Horowitz admits at the outset that he does not even try to be
As in his 1995 collection of essays, THE POST-CLASSICAL PREDICAMENT,
Horowitz begins with Dvorak's New World Symphony and ends up with an
account of artists' managers who have driven up the price of conductors
and soloists. What interests him about the Dvorak is that composer's
decision to include African American and Native American elements, and
the possibilities of an American sound, and throughout Horowitz appears
to lament the fact that more American-and contemporary--music is not
performed in America. The conductors Horowitz most admires are Koussevitsky
and Stokowski, as well as Mitropoulos, who did make strong efforts on
behalf of living composers. The conductors least celebrated in this
account are Toscanini (about whom Horowitz published another long book),
Reiner and Szell.
The reason for Horowitz' preference is that the careers of the
latter-mentioned group of conductors-especially Toscanini--brought about
the heavy emphasis on performance of standard repertoire at the expense
of lesser-known works, especially works by living composers. The idea
grew that "only great works are worthy of great conductors." Audiences
and critics came to focus on the performance even more than on the work
itself. This is the main theme of this book and it is what most interests
me about the book.
A subsidiary theme of the book is the tension between elitism and populism
on the part of critics, box-holders, and some composers. Horowitz takes
issue with Lawrence Levine, the author of HIGHBROW/LOWBROW, THE EMERGENCE
OF CULTURAL HIERARCHY IN AMERICA, by noting the insistence on inexpensive
tickets right from the beginning of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The composers Horowitz appears most to like include Chadwick and Gershwin.
He discusses Copland, Bernstein and Ives also but thinks little of the
work of the many American neoclassical symphonists in general. He accepts
the disappointment of Copland in the ending of Roy Harris' Third Symphony.
He is dismissive of the compositions of Barber and utterly dismissive
of Hanson, though in passing he notes that Barber's Violin Concerto is
much performed and Hanson recorded many American works. I cannot let go
of the question: Just what does he want?
I have problems with Horowitz' subtitle. Mainly I am not entirely clear
on what he means by it. The conductors he most and least likes are long
gone; the culture of performance is simply a fact, as Salonen's quote
above noted, and even in the earliest period there was what Horowitz
calls the "sacralization" of Beethoven and other composers. To be sure,
classical broadcasts have mostly disappeared from network radio and
television; the large recording companies have mostly given up recording
American orchestras; TIME and NEWSWEEK no longer have coverage of classical
music, and far fewer people than formerly in the American population
claim an interest in classical music. But surely classical music has
always been a minority taste; there are vastly more orchestras than
there were early in the twentieth century, not to mention the nineteenth;
and Horowitz notes that the average age of concert-goers has not gone
up (which surprised me). We are undoubtedly in a post-modern period, but
Horowitz' notion that we are in a post-classical era seems premature to
me. Some of his perceptions come from his administrative experience
with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, attendance of which had plummeted before
he worked there. Other sources of his view perhaps come simply from his
personal tastes and preferences. Frankly he even seems to reflect a
personal malaise. Nonetheless, this book is well worth reading.
Copyright 2005 R. James Tobin