Classical music in America is in an increasingly tight corner. Though many established performing groups continue to draw respectable crowds, most are finding it harder to do so, and even still-popular ensembles like the New York Philharmonic are watching their subscribers grow grayer by the year. The mainstream media long ago lost interest in classical artists. Classical radio stations are fast becoming a thing of the past, and the major classical-record labels are in terminal decline.

Beyond this, everyone involved with the creation and marketing of classical music recognizes that its place in postmodern American culture is marginal at best. The minimalist composer John Adams, perhaps the most successful American classical composer of his generation, summed up the situation in an interview with the London Times:

In our street we have friends with lots in common. We discuss new books, films, popular culture, politics—everything except serious music. That shuts everyone up. I don't think they even know what I do.

How did this unhappy state of affairs come to pass? In Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall, Joseph Horowitz, a critic and historian who doubles as an arts administrator, has turned to the confident past in an attempt to explain the uncomfortable present.1 Like his previous books about the culture of American classical music, this one is both descriptive and prescriptive, history with a moral.

According to Horowitz, classical music in the U.S. is a 19th-century European transplant with shallow roots, a “potted hothouse product” that is “more about the New York Philharmonic than [about] Charles Ives, more about the Metropolitan Opera than [about] Aaron Copland.” Furthermore, he believes it has “largely run its course,” and that its existing institutions will either transform themselves or be superseded by “post-classical” organizations “stressing contemporary repertoire and regularly embracing popular and vernacular genres.”

History with a moral is by definition suspect. But Horowitz, for all the enthusiasm with which he espouses his various musical causes, is for the most part an impressively fair-minded historian who takes care to avoid superimposing contemporary agendas on past events. One need not always agree with his interpretations of those events in order to profit from his account of how European classical music took hold in a new world with sharply different cultural priorities—as well as from his speculations regarding its prospects of survival in the 21st century.


Classical music was slow to put down lasting institutional roots in the U.S. The New York Philharmonic, America's oldest orchestra, was founded in 1842 as a kind of musicians' club, and did not start admitting “strangers” to its performances until 1851. The Boston Symphony began giving concerts three decades after that, and the original Metropolitan Opera House was not built until 1883.

By the 1890's, classical-music activity in New York, Boston, and several other major American cities had become both widespread and intense. Most of it was Austro-German in origin and orientation, though a number of American-born composers, including Amy Beach, George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, Edward MacDowell, John Knowles Paine, and Horatio Parker, were producing large-scale works of substance—virtually all of them, however, based more or less slavishly on European models.

It is revealing that the most enduringly popular piece of classical music to be premiered in 19th-century America was composed by a European. Anton Dvořák's Ninth Symphony (1893), subtitled From the New World, contained thematic material derived from black spirituals—for which it was roundly criticized by American composers who regarded such vernacular borrowings as unserious almost by definition.2 As Paine declared:

It is not a question of nationality, but individuality, and individuality of style is not the result of imitation—whether of folk songs, Negro melodies, the tunes of the heathen Chinese or Digger Indians—but of personal character and inborn originality.

Dvořák thought otherwise. “In the Negro melodies of America,” he declared, “I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” Whether or not he was right, the New World Symphony proved to be a masterpiece that entered the standard repertoire immediately. By contrast, the American-born composers of his day, for all their determination not to compromise their “inborn originality,” managed between them to produce only one piece, MacDowell's D Minor Piano Concerto (1889), that continues to be performed with anything like regularity. The rest of their output is forgotten, not because its craft was defective but because its substance was too derivative to be memorable.

In the absence of a uniquely American school of composition, classical music in the U.S. evolved along lines strikingly different from those prevalent in Europe at the end of the 19th century. As Horowitz explains:

More than Europeans, Americans have worshipped musical masterpieces and deified their exponents. . . . America's musical high culture has at all times (alas) been less about music composed by Americans than about American concerts of music composed by Europeans. Preponderantly, peculiarly, it is a culture of performance. [emphasis added]

This culture deserves its due. It was serious to the highest degree, and it would produce some of the finest and most distinctive music-making of the 20th century. But it was flawed by its uncreative conservatism, and in time that flaw would prove mortal.


Not until the 1920's did the U.S. begin to produce native-born classical composers of significance who worked in a recognizably American-sounding idiom.3 All of them, starting with Aaron Copland, studied with French or Italian teachers and broke with the Austro-German musical tradition early in their careers—a break made easier by anti-German public sentiment arising from World War I. “After 1915,” Horowitz writes, “German composers, Wagner included, were downplayed or banned. Of the composers listed on Boston Symphony programs, the proportion from German or Hapsburg lands dropped from 62 percent in 1916-17 to 29.7 percent in 1918-19.”

But by then the culture of performance was too firmly entrenched to allow Copland, Samuel Barber, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, and other American composers of the 20's and 30's to become fully integrated into American musical life (though Copland and Barber came close). Instead, they were overshadowed by the celebrity performers who continued to dominate the classical-music scene. As it happened, most of these performers were themselves European émigrés. Although a few of them, including the conductors Serge Koussevitzky of the Boston Symphony and Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra, were interested in American music, the rest had comparatively little interest in any new music, American or otherwise.4

For Horowitz, the emblematic figure of this period is the conductor Arturo Toscanini, who spent the latter part of his career leading two New York-based ensembles, the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony. Like Stokowski, Toscanini became a media idol, but though he played some modern music, including a handful of American pieces, he was (in Horowitz's words) “the first conductor of international consequence fundamentally to divorce himself from the music of his own time.”

It was Toscanini's example that would be followed by most conductors of the 30's and after. Under their leadership, American orchestras became musical museums that were “preponderantly curatorial . . . disproportionately dedicated to masterpieces of the past.” The resulting stalemate was eloquently summed up by Copland in 1941:

Very often I get the impression that audiences seem to think that the endless repetition of a small body of entrenched masterworks is all that is required for a ripe musical culture. . . . [W]hen they are used, unwittingly perhaps, to stifle contemporary effort in our own country, then I am almost tempted to stake the most extreme view and say that we should be better off without them!

Not until the 50's did American-trained performers like Leonard Bernstein, Van Cliburn, and Isaac Stern begin to make an impression on audiences. Of these artists, only Bernstein, himself a composer of distinction, was deeply committed to the performance of new music, American and otherwise, performing it brilliantly and frequently with the New York Philharmonic, of which he became the first American-born music director in 1958.5

Unfortunately, the rising generation of American composers, Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter foremost among them, had by then taken a drastically wrong turn. “Sustained,” as Horowitz writes, “by a lifeline to the universities, shunning tonality as history's detritus, lacking a constituency beyond themselves,” these composers “produced an undistinguished species of hermetic art.” Not surprisingly, performers shunned their music as completely as did audiences, thus causing the culture of performance to become still more deeply entrenched in America.

As for Bernstein, he abandoned the Philharmonic in 1969 and spent the rest of his life working primarily in Europe. There, his role as an invigorating spokesman for American music long behind him, he devoted himself to conducting increasingly self-indulgent performances of the Austro-German classics.


Since then, classical music in the U.S. has grown steadily more marginalized, to the point where Horowitz can describe it without exaggeration as “the American performing art most divorced from contemporary creativity.”

This is not to say that his account of how it got that way is altogether free of exaggerations and idiosyncrasies. For one thing, he has chosen to deemphasize the real achievements of American composers, ostensibly because he sees the story of classical music in America as dominated by performers and other figures. Reasonable though this may be, it also seems possible that Horowitz's own Austro-German sensibility has dulled his response to other modes of expression. Just as he disdains the “lean, taut, accurate, ‘objective’ ” style of American performing artists, so he is oddly unresponsive to the music of Aaron Copland, the greatest and most characteristic of American composers. Of Copland he unfairly writes:

As a concert composer, he quite obviously does not command the scope and resonance of his sometime-model Stravinsky. As a political composer, he lacks the needling indignation of Kurt Weill. As a heroic patriot, he sounds strained alongside Shostakovich. As a folklorist, his borrowings are thin and synthetic judged by Bartók's. His aesthetic foundation, stressing plainness and economy, was stretched to the limit by the creative tasks he assayed. His American vision, while potent, is not protean; it lacks Ives's mysteries.

In general, though, Classical Music in America proves to be a reliable and thought-provoking chronicle of the emergence of what might be called the American way of music-making. Horowitz's greatest strength is his wide-ranging frame of cultural reference, especially with regard to the 19th and early 20th centuries. He has looked closely and discriminatingly at the voluminous writings of the critics of the period, as well as at fictional portrayals by such acute social observers as Willa Cather and Edith Wharton. He writes about the music of now-obscure composers with properly judicious enthusiasm, placing their achievements in historical context and never praising them to inappropriate excess.6

More problematic, perhaps inevitably so, is Horowitz's attempt to sketch the outlines of a possible “post-classical music of the future . . . a more intellectually adventurous, less ghettoized classical-music experience.” He is, I think, correct to cite the concert music of George Gershwin as one possible prototype for post-classical composers, but mistakenly inclined to overrate Gershwin at the expense of Copland and the other American classicists of the 30's and 40's. Horowitz similarly overrates the music of John Adams and his fellow minimalist Steve Reich, albeit in terms that suggest unspoken reservations about its lack of substance (“Adams's musical vocabulary seems precariously limited for a full-length narrative opera . . . his abstract music can suffer from a paucity of information”). Nor does he appear to be aware of the work of such “new tonalists” as Lowell Liebermann, Paul Moravec, and George Tsontakis, whose challenging yet accessible music represents the most significant alternative to minimalism that has emerged to date.7

All this notwithstanding, Horowitz is to be lauded for his persuasive effort both to chronicle and to account for the drastic decline of American classical music. This is a problem about which I have been writing for a decade, and I can do no better here than to repeat my warning of seven years ago that the time has come for “soloists and orchestras to rethink the way they do business”:

If they do not, the concert hall will someday become a place where old men and women gather forlornly to listen to the same symphonies and concertos they first heard a half-century ago, while their children, if they are interested in classical music at all, will stay home and listen to compact discs or whatever newer marvel is destined to replace them.8

Anyone seeking to understand why American classical music has come to so dead an end—and wondering how it might yet escape a final descent into cultural irrelevance—should read Joseph Horowitz's Classical Music in America with close attention. It is a fine place to begin, if not to end, a long-overdue discussion.


1 Norton, 606 pp., $39.95. In addition to writing Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music (1987), The Ivory Trade: Music and the Business of Music at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (1990), and Wagner Nights: An American History (1994), Horowitz has served as artistic adviser to New York's 92nd Street Y, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and other organizations.

2 The New Orleans-born pianist-composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) had already produced a series of strikingly vivid piano miniatures, including Bamboula (1849) and Le banjo (1850), that were based on the vernacular music he had heard as a boy. These pieces were forgotten after his death, though, and would not be revived until well into the 20th century.

3 Charles Ives (1874-1954) predated these composers, but it was not until the 40's that his proto-modern music (most of it composed prior to 1918) began to be performed publicly. The extraordinarily gifted Charles T. Griffes (1884-1920), who repudiated his German training in 1911 to embrace the new musical language of Scriabin and the French impressionists, died too young to leave behind more than a handful of mature works.

4 This also explains why opera in English never became common in the U.S. (as opposed to Europe, where most operas were performed in vernacular translation well into the 20th century).

5 William Kapell, the greatest American pianist of his generation, died in an airplane crash in 1953 at the age of thirty-one, just as he was beginning to program American music with some regularity.

6 In particular, Horowitz's assessment of Amy Beach (1867-1944), whose interesting but ultimately provincial music has been praised far beyond its due by feminist musicologists, is a model of sympathetic balance.

7 I first wrote about these composers in “The New Tonalists” (COMMENTARY, December 1997), reprinted as “The New New Music” in A Terry Teachout Reader (Yale).

8 “The Death of the Concert” (COMMENTARY, December 1998), also reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader.


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