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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Most of New York's Wagnerians were German in origin. In fact, so were most American music-makers in the 19th century. America, as we are often reminded, is a nation of immigrants. And those immigrants brought their love of music with them across the pond. Italian immigrants brought their opera, for example. But it was the Germans, especially, who had a long musical tradition. So it is no surprise that German composers like Beethoven and Wagner reigned supreme. German musicians and conductors were let go during World War I, to this country's loss, but the canon was already set.

One is left with the impression that America was a victim of her virtues. The country that welcomed the world also welcomed its music, overwhelming its own native talent. Most American composers modeled their works after European forms, producing work that was provincial while it was derivative.

It was a Czech--not an American--who tried to show a way out. Antonín Dvorák arrived in Manhattan in 1892 as director of the National Conservatory. The man who based much of his own work on Bohemian folk songs accepted the challenge of showing Americans how to create a national music: "There is more than enough material here and plenty of talent," he assured us. His achingly beautiful Ninth Symphony, From the New World, was the first American masterpiece, based on Native American and black melodies. Indeed, Dvorák declared, "In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed of a great and noble school of music." Horowitz calls Dvorák "wonderfully prescient"--it's just that the school of music he predicted turned out to be jazz, not an American classical music.

Why that never came to be is unclear. Horowitz believes that racism accounts for at least part of it--he quotes all too many contemporary critics and musicians who dismissed the Czech composer as a "nigger-lover." He also makes an interesting case that cities like Boston coddled their composers, stifling them while it supported them. Rebellion has been the source of much great art, after all.

Thus completes the first half of Classical Music in America: its rise. Out of nothing, scrappy Americans created symphony orchestras and opera houses to rival those of Vienna and Berlin. In 1902, Richard Strauss called the Boston Symphony the "most marvelous in the world." Dvorák forged a path to a real original American music. Everything seemed possible.

American art music really began to collapse, Horowitz believes, after the start of World War I. Oddly, that's just when America began to get composers whose names are still very well known--Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin. But it's the even bigger names with which Horowitz is concerned--Vladimir Horowitz, Leonard Bernstein, and, most especially, Arturo Toscanini.

The Italian-born Toscanini became the music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1929 and the conductor of the NBC Symphony in 1937. The conductor, who was also the subject of an earlier Horowitz book, epitomizes for the author all that went wrong in American classical music. He started the now-ubiquitous tradition of the part-time principal conductor. Toscanini had little interest in championing or even performing new music: "Forty percent of his Philharmonic repertoire comprised music by Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner." Toscanini's first European tour with the Philharmonic did not include a single work by an American.

But he was wildly popular. This may be where our much maligned celebrity culture began. The Luce press, Time and Life, reported in great detail on the maestro's personal life. The contents of his bag were revealed to a world waiting with baited breath. He became a model for the superstar conductor who devoted himself to interpreting the best music of the past--men like Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein.

Performers don't fare any better under Horowitz's pen. He indicts the Russian transplant pianist Vladimir Horowitz with a telling quotation. Horowitz once urged a student to exaggerate his playing: "If you play Classic music in correct style on a big piano and in a big hall, it will bore most of the audience." As a Viennese music critic said in another context, "America was truly the promised land, if not of music, at least of the musician."