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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While Horowitz sees this as a low point, classical music in this country may never have been more popular. "As many Americans know that Toscanini conducts an orchestra as know that Joe DiMaggio plays center field," Life reported in 1939. One wonders how many know the name of the current Philharmonic music director (Lorin Maazel) and that of, say, Kobe Bryant. Neither can one imagine today's cities in as much grief as Chicago was on the death of its beloved orchestra founder, Theodore Thomas: "Chicago's telephone operators were instructed to tell callers, 'Theodore Thomas is dead' before asking, 'Number, please.'"

If Toscanini is Horowitz's villain, the scourge of American art music, then the Boston Symphony's Serge Koussevitzky and the Philadelphia Orchestra's Leopold Stokowski are his heroes. According to Horowitz, these were about the only two conductors interested in American music. (He does a wonderful job of elucidating their charms: "Stokowski's . . . is the most feline Beethoven on record. It races or glides on cat's paws, a marvel of rippling musculature, of poised power and energy.")

But Horowitz provides many details that contradict his own complaint that American music wasn't given a chance in its own country. George Whitefield Chadwick, born in 1854, "swiftly became the most performed Boston composer (prior to the arrival of Serge Koussevitzky in 1924, his music was played by the Boston Symphony 78 times)." Of Charles Martin Loeffler, Horowitz writes, "his success as a composer was such that the Boston Symphony performed his music 117 times during his lifetime; his friend Heinrich Gebhard appeared as piano soloist in Loeffler's A Pagan Poem 66 times in 20 years with the orchestras of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, among others."

Even in the postwar period, where Horowitz locates classical music's decline, we find examples of orchestras showing the world what home-grown composers could do. A recent Washington Post story on the National Symphony Orchestra's 75th anniversary notes, "The NSO spent the entire summer of 1959 in Latin America, playing 68 concerts in 19 countries, with at least one American composition on every program."

There is plenty of evidence that American orchestras programmed American music. The problem seems to be that audiences weren't that interested. So many of the composers Horowitz tells us about, like Loeffler, are barely known today. The situation only seems to have gotten worse as the 20th century progressed.

Horowitz blames the lack of a vital American school of composition almost solely on the culture of performance--and the market. He is right, of course, to bemoan the situation we now find ourselves in, where most performers and conductors have little connection to the music of their own time. Few of these music-makers champion new American music; fewer still commission any. They still play primarily Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. And it is also true, of course, that profit-seeking businesses often favor the tried and true over the unknown.

But these aren't the only reasons classical music is, as Horowitz says, "the American performing art most divorced from contemporary creativity." As in other fields, the increase in the number of musical artists working in the academy has had a deleterious effect. Here it is the lack of a real market that is the problem. Writing for each other rather than the public, academic composers have created music that audiences have found to be unlistenable. Listeners--who on the whole prefer tonality to atonality--have, in many cases, rightly rejected music coming out of the ivory tower.

Neither does Horowitz spend much time on the question of music education. There was a time when almost every middle-class home contained a piano. Music was a part of everyday life, not something you listened to out of duty. Today, schools facing budget cuts and increased pressure to prepare students for the "information society" are dropping their music programs at an alarming rate. It's no wonder that, at classical concerts, most of the heads are gray. Optimistic critics tell us not to worry--when people get older and richer, they become more interested in attending concerts. But it's hard to believe that the people who are listening now to Shakira and Snoop Dogg are suddenly going to start listening to Schubert and Shostakovich when they turn 65.

Don't look to classical radio to pick up the slack. Washington, D.C.'s WGMS claims to be "the most-listened-to classical station nationally." Too bad, then, that it is pioneering a dumbing-down of classical radio in America. The station's programming includes "Mozart in the Morning . . . guaranteed to perk up your morning commute and get you to work fully charged," and "Rush Hour Relief [with] classical selections perfectly suited to calming your frazzled nerves." Stations used to play entire symphonies and concertos so audiences could hear how a work develops. Gone, too, are the days when classical radio exposed its listeners to the best of new music. Now, stations like WGMS, "your at-work station," tout classical music as something good only for background music.

Because Horowitz has difficulty seeing all the reasons for decline, he can't really point the way forward. There are constant hints here at the need for a government bureaucracy "dispassionately to sort things out." Yet one of the joys of his book is the fascinating collection of stories of very American entrepreneurs who pursued their own vision, tastemakers be damned. These are men like the impresario Oscar Hammerstein, cigar trader and grandfather of the Broadway lyricist, whose Manhattan Opera was much more amenable to modern repertoire than the Met's. Hammerstein offered Salome while the Met banned it after a single performance.

Most telling, perhaps, is Horowitz's phrase for the world in which we live now--"post-classical times." One wonders if he has actually given up on art music in America. He urges the traditional music schools to teach jazz and improvisation; but at the same time, he decries the fact that the Three Tenors have become "the dominant symbol of American classical music." None of the "crossover" acts have strengthened classical music in America. They only dilute and trivialize the music they claim to champion.

To find a solution, you need to understand the problem. And despite some blind spots, Joseph Horowitz has a pretty good grasp of the problem. The critic may emphasize the work of other critics, to the detriment of important composers and conductors. For such a big book, he spends little time on composers like Charles Ives, a versatile composer with a uniquely American sound. And Michael Tilson Thomas, one of this country's preeminent advocates of contemporary American composers, merits only a paragraph. He may ignore how Europe is dealing with a similar problem--there, programmers enjoy some success attracting younger audiences with later, shorter concerts. He may complain about aspects of contemporary performance--the showmanship, the pandering to audiences--that have been there since the beginning.

But Horowitz understands that leaders must challenge their audiences, setting taste themselves rather than allowing it to be set for them. His sprawling, ambitious, insightful book should be read by anyone who cares about art music in America.

Kelly Jane Torrance is books columnist for the American Enterprise Online, arts and culture editor of Brainwash, and fiction editor of Doublethink.