The Magazine

Rhapsody in Blue

The requiem for classical music is premature.

Nov 7, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 08 • By KELLY JANE TORRANCE
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Classical Music in America

A History of Its Rise and Fall

by Joseph Horowitz

Norton, 606 pp., $39.95

CRITICS HAVE BEEN SOUNDING THE death knell for classical music for years. Concerts are becoming more sparsely attended; radio stations are dropping the classical format; and new music premieres are becoming less and less frequent. As a Chicago newspaper succinctly concluded, "Experience teaches that the class which enjoys classical music is a small minority."

But that was no recent pronouncement; it was made at the end of the 19th century. Joseph Horowitz teaches us, in his commanding new book, that complaints made today about the public's taste--or lack thereof--are nothing new. Critics, composers, and conductors for at least a century-and-a-half have decried a public more interested in the easy and familiar than the new and challenging.

But as Horowitz would have it, it's not their fault. As can be deduced from its subtitle, this book is a passionate, not an "objective," history. The historian, former New York Times critic, and adviser to a number of American orchestras argues forcefully, and much of the time convincingly, for a very specific thesis: "America's music high culture has at all times (alas) been less about music composed by Americans than about American concerts of music composed by Europeans."

Horowitz surveys a century and a half of musical history in this country, and has found a neverending inferiority complex. We have never considered our own music good enough, instead developing first-class institutions that exist almost solely to celebrate the music of another continent. His story is one of orchestras and opera companies rather than composers.

The title is a slight misnomer: Horowitz begins his narrative only in the mid-19th century, focusing on the founding of orchestras in Boston and New York. From the beginning, classical music in America was different from its European progenitor. Its founding is a Jamesian tale of Old World decadence versus New World Puritanism--at least from the point of view of the Americans. Theodore Thomas, the German-born, American-raised conductor who founded Chicago's symphony orchestra, declared that concerts were "sermons in tones" that should be a "character-building force" and an "uplifting influence."

Thomas was by no means alone. "Historically, Americans have inclined to judge and understand high culture for its positive moral content, its power to ennoble and uplift," Horowitz notes. "And they have been quick to mistrust or reject art that seems decadent or blasphemous." So 19th-century tastemakers like the Boston critic John Sullivan Dwight celebrated the edifying power of Bach and Beethoven while 20th-century opera boards rejected Richard Strauss's erotic and violent Salome.

Beethoven, in particular, was worshipped by these puritans as a sort of god. His music, more than any other, was thought to have the ability to make us better people. The New York Philharmonic, the country's oldest orchestra, was founded in 1842 (at the same time as Vienna's, and 40 years before Berlin's). Its serious manner--and unadventurous programming--was part and parcel of its role as cultural uplifter: "The Philharmonic musicians tuned offstage and entered with dignity. All but the cellists performed standing. Of the nine programs constituting the first three seasons, two began with Beethoven's Fifth, two with Beethoven's Third, and two with Beethoven's Seventh."

But puritan Americans weren't shy about appropriating other music to their own, morally acceptable, ends. The country's worship of Richard Wagner at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century is a case in point. As Horowitz writes, "Throughout Europe, Wagnerism attracted aesthetes, decadents, and Symbolists who withdrew into troubled realms of the illogical and unconscious, of disease and psychic disturbance." In America, Wagner was a different bird entirely. His Siegfried was remolded into the prototype of the American frontiersman: "He was Davy Crockett, who refused education and roamed the wilderness." American audiences managed to ignore Wagner's "incestuous lovers and unrepentant sinners."

Wagnermania reached such a fever pitch that it took over the country's preeminent opera company, New York's Metropolitan Opera. The German composer's totalitarian acolytes even silenced Met boxholders, the rich elite chronicled so memorably by Edith Wharton who came to the opera to be seen rather than to see--and who provided much of the company's financial support. (It wasn't Wagner's disciples' politics that soured the Met powers-that-be on the composer: The chairman of the opera company himself was actually denied a box because his parents were Jewish.)