Thursday, May 05, 2005

Classical Music in America

I finally got my copy of Classical Music in America and read it with gusto. It is a tour de force, a joy to read, and it has received rave reviews from everywhere. A few reviewers have aimed their barbs, but it remains an important contribution to our understanding of how classical music has come to be what it is today. Horowitz’ subtitle is A History of Its Rise and Fall. Many readers might not see “fall” as what classical music is today. It depends on whether you view it as a business or as an art.

It is not a history, since a lot of aspects of classical music are necessarily omitted- the development of bands, choral music, chamber music, liturgical music, music education, etc., in fact there are no musical examples-but rather it is a selective survey of the development and workings of major American orchestras, opera companies, and composers. His story begins with Patrick Gilmore and the colossal 1869 Peace Jubilee and in a sense it ends there as well. He closes by saying that Gilmore may suggest a future for classical music in America-Gilmore, who mixed high and low, New World and Old World music. Some contemporary composers are already in that arena: Reich, Glass, Adams, and Kremer. But, Horowitz (or anybody else) doesn’t know if such eclecticism will refresh or diminish the residual classical music landscape.

There is a concern that America can’t seem to escape European domination of literature and performers; that American music cannot find its voice. But, in the long view we all know that classical music was introduced into this country by itinerant European musicians performing European music. Most of them were German-over a century of it. During the Great Wars European musicians fled to the US adding to its domination. During and after the Great Wars, with Germany veiled, the musical scene turned to other countries, England, Finland, Israel, et al. Further, most American composers and performers “finished” their training in Europe until fairly recently. Many still do. All this European influence cannot be overemphasized. Small wonder that American composers from Francis Hopkinson to Roy Harris and beyond have worked in the shade of Europeans.

Readers of this book can’t escape from the feeling that classical music in America is all numbers. Success is measured by the size of the budget and how many are in an audience. When audiences shrink, boards panic, and they lay plans to accommodate the loss of income. Advisors speculate about how the classical music landscape can be refreshed, i.e., how to get folks back into the concert hall. What is needed is less formality, allow applause and/or drinks whenever, more/less contemporary music, more/less warhorses, smaller halls, leaner administration, reduced season, fewer players, jazz and pop music, electronic concerts notes and rolling translated libretti, etc. etc.

Horowitz writes that this demise began with hero conductors and performers who supplanted composers. But what did it take to create these heroes? There have always been Barnum type promoters but few could match David Sarnoff of NBC who didn’t really care much about music, except how it could be exploited. He created the Toscanini mystique; the dough rolled in; classical music in America was changed. “NBC’s public relations apparatus, promoted the Maestro accordingly: a skewed barrage of reverence and ballyhoo.” says Horowitz.

One NBC release shouted, ‘World’s Largest Drum Rushed to New York for Toscanini Concert.” This release echoed one issued a century earlier when John Dwight wrote, “ I was amused to read about Jullien’s monster ophicleide exhibited in Broadway, and there is much talk of his monster drum used in his concerts when great, striking effects are required; and played upon, it is said, by a drummer on each end. This has not yet arrived, it will probably take two ships to bring it. But, Jullien has a bigger drum than that at his command; namely the great press drum…one end of it in Europe, the other (now the loudest) in America; and Jullien is the king of the drummers thereon.” Read that Sarnoff.

The pattern was set. Promoters, now called executive boards, could dictate programs, who would be solo artists, the number of concerts in a season, salaries, and so forth. This change was complicated by performers and conductors demanding more money. Boards found themselves in a quandary they haven’t yet solved. And soon audiences tired of hearing the same works of the same composers, led by the same conductors. Boards tried to solve that by having more and more stars do the same old stuff. But, now audiences are getting tired of the “star” syndrome too, and Horowitz believes that living composers, performed by living artists, can stir their interest again.

There’s enough evidence to support this. Orchestras and opera companies all over America have been refreshed by promoting contemporary music. Only time will tell if living composers can breathe life into classical music around the rest of America.

This book should be required reading for conductors, students in classes of American Music, American Studies, and similar courses, and it wouldn’t hurt executive boards either.

Classical Music in America, by Joseph Horowitz. N.Y., W.W.Norton, 606 pp., $39.95.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

even though Europe dominates classical music, America still has it's gems. Aaron Copland is one of the first US composers to be fully respected in Europe. Samuel Barber is absolutely beautiful. And we have others too. My favorite, Bernstein [whose West Side Story was very recently performed in Polish], Cage, Gershwin, Ives, and another favorite, William Grant Still. I think a lot of people, in their snobbiness, forget that America does have it's great contributions even though they may not be one of the "big names" like Beethoven or Bach. American music is characterized by it's diversity in sound. Whether nor not it's the "rise" or "fall" it is still something worth mentioning. I happen to be a great defender of American Music because this upcoming Tacoma Youth Symphony season, we are focusing on American Music [previous years include French impressionism, Astro-German, East European, etc], and we will be playing some American repertoire when we visit China during the 2008 Olympics.


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