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

By Thurmaier, David | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

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


Thurmaier, David, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


Horowitz, Joseph. Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall. W. W. Norton, 2005. 606 pages. $39.95.

In his book, Classical Music In America: A History of Its Rise and Fall, Joseph Horowitz introduces the reader to numerous colorful figures in the history of American classical music. All of the familiar names are here, including conductors Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, and George Szell; marquee performers Jascha Heifetz, Vladmir Horowitz, and Van Cliburn; composers Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, and Charles Ives; and others who wore many hats, such as Leonard Bernstein. But what makes Horowitz's tour de force so valuable is learning the background behind these legends. He accomplishes this aim by drawing in characters from behind the scenes such as music critics, responsible for influencing public opinion; financiers and promoters, who did some wonderful things while at the same time engaging in shady self-promotion; and the American public, who was taken on a wild and bumpy ride in a continuing struggle to make classical music a legitimate and viable art form in the New World. Horowitz weaves these diverse personalities into a compelling narrative that exposes many of the historical strengths and weaknesses of American classical music and offers cogent interpretations about the state of music today.

Horowitz, a noted writer, teacher, and artistic advisor for a variety of organizations, including the New York Times and the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, is particularly wellsuited to approach this challenging subject. He claims that such a book is necessary for three reasons: first, there is a need for an account of classical music in America without concurrently addressing the influence and role of popular and vernacular music; second, he notes that few studies have been written about major orchestras, opera companies, and those in charge of such organizations; and third, the history he tells has "largely run its course." In other words, with the decline of modernism and the rise of postmodernism in the late twentieth century, the traditional identity of classical music as "privileged high culture" has changed as a result of the influence of outside elements, most notably popular music.

In doing so, he divides the topic into what he calls "two books." The first book, "Queen of the Arts: Birth and Growth," examines the musical cultures in Boston and New York in the Gilded Age, which he argues was the "most dynamic phase" of classical music in America. Boston represented the "genteel" tradition wedded to European composers (illustrated by the Boston Handel and Haydn Society), while only reluctantly allowing native composers such as George Chadwick and Amy Beach to have their works performed - yet to wide acclaim, it should be noted. By contrast, New York, with its cultural diversity, offered more opportunities for developing a uniquely American music. In Horowitz's words, "While New York embraced a Romantic cultural nationalism rooted in the soil, Boston clung to elite cultural forms purged of folk art." The second "book," "'Great Performances': Decline and Fall," looks at the complicated relationship among composers, conductors, performers, and businesspeople from World War I to the present.

Horowitz stresses three themes that reach across these chronological boundaries. First, in the late nineteenth century, there was a sincere effort to develop American music in conjunction with European music. The influence of Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak exemplifies this desire. Dvorak, who composed his best-known works in the United States, including the New World symphony and the American string quartet, was treated like a sage. …

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