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

By Wiecki, Ron | Notes, March 2006 | Go to article overview

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


Wiecki, Ron, Notes


GENRES, REGIONS, AND DISCIPLINES 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 superstar 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. …

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