Tim Riley

NPR CRITIC, EMERSON COLLEGE PROFESSOR and AUTHOR TIM RILEY reviews pop and classical music for NPR’s ON POINT and HERE AND NOW and COPPER ma

Jan 28, 2022
3 min read

IF YOU’RE LIKE most people, the classical canon tosses up the occasional kink. Some will tell you with the straightest of faces that they “don’t like” Mozart. Others insist on Bruckner over Mahler, as if they were rival baseball teams. Me, I’ve never thrilled to Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony, written during the Czech composer’s celebrated 1890s visit to America, where he came to believe that “Negro” Spirituals and indigenous folk songs pointed toward a new national style. Many learned friends I respect and admire treasure both this Dvořák symphony and its theoretical frame. To me, it suggests George Bernard Shaw’s epithet about Tchaikovsky: “[He] had a thoroughly Byronic power of being tragic, momentous, romantic about nothing at all.” With his Slavonic Dances, his Serenade for Strings, and much of his chamber music, Dvořák hints at greater depths and even outdoes Tchaikovsky for charm. But for me, his cornerstone Ninth Symphony has always sounded like a score in search of a movie, a musical melodrama. Luckily, my esteemed companions mostly forgive my deaf spot.

In his new book, Dvořák’s Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music, Joseph Horowitz spins Dvořák’s theory out to critique the lack of a unified 20th-century American style, choosing Dvořák, George Gershwin, and Charles Ives as eclectic ideals over Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Leonard Bernstein, who favored more European models. Along the way, Horowitz drops juicy asides and outlines a hidden multiracial history of American “classical” music, a shift that makes this book both intriguing and bumpy. You can admire the scholarship and insight without buying into his larger idea, and while the text brims with detailed examples, it lacks charisma. Horowitz should perhaps have led with his closing summary, where he makes his case most persuasively.

As a white man with a prescriptive argument (how to fix American symphonies), Horowitz treads gently around the most sensitive aspects of his topic. He scavenges libraries for overlooked composers like Florence Price, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and George Whitefield Chadwick, but generally honors the tired resolve that Americans ought to take composition lessons from Europeans while mining their own indigenous folk cultures for material. “The story of American music imposes a dense nexus of culture and race, of historical, political, and moral reckonings,” he writes.

We are a nation stained with twin original sins. What was done to the indigenous Americans who came first, and to the enslaved Africans who came after, can neither be undone nor — it increasingly seems — wholly overcome. How should such bitter knowledge inflect historical understanding and interpretation?

But the pedestal Horowitz constructs for Dvořák contains some loose joints:

“I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies,” Dvořák proclaimed. “This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” So, in our era this type of white privilege proclamation smacks of much worse than symbolic colonization: it echoes the very patronizing and contemptible idea that indigenous peoples, and slaves, carry some innate creative force that we ought to tap into to redeem our own exploitation of their kind. “I myself have gone to the simple, half-forgotten tunes of the Bohemian peasants for hints in my most serious work,” he continues. “Only in this way can a musician express the true sentiments of his people. He gets into touch with the common humanity of his country…”

Dvořák “apprehended the heartbreak of the African-American slave,” Horowitz contends, and his use of the “songs of sorrow” — the Spirituals — counts as an artistic act of great empathy.

Let’s start with the notion that a Czech composer could or should prescribe how another culture “ought” to find its national voice. That “nationalist” impulse surely gives pause. But at the start of the 20th century, it held a certain appeal, especially for a country that had yet to figure out a native literary or artistic tradition, but relied on European imports at the expense of homegrown talents. Take Louis Moreau Gottschalk, for example, a half-Creole New Orleans composer and piano virtuoso who found more fame in Europe than at home. Horowitz dubs his first symphony, A Night in the Tropics (1859), “languidly sublime,” a major orchestral masterpiece. (Your mileage may vary.) Gottschalk’s European acclaim would echo in the careers of jazz performers who courted European audiences to survive.

Let’s grant him that national vision: sure, America wants a musical identity to parallel Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain’s literary achievement. Both Dvořák and Brahms knew well how Hungarian folk melodies, with their crooked modalities, could inspire their own music. That they looked down on the Slavs and Roma as pagans, however, didn’t signal their willingness to slaughter them in the same way Americans killed Indians (though historians argue that Richard Wagner’s excessive mythicizing fanned the embers of antisemitism). The classical snobbery involved in resetting a Hungarian folk song, in any case, was implied — an attitude along the lines of: “We have elevated your simple vernacular into a more ennobled style and deserve thanks for it.” Ultimately, this led to carnage, to be sure. But in their own time, these composers had no Stalinist purges to worry about, no death camps. America, however, by 1890, had committed genocide and demolished a Reconstruction that shared power with former slaves. Hitler based many of his antisemitic laws on Jim Crow models from Gottschalk’s South.

Lurking behind Horowitz’s deification of Dvořák’s manifesto is the assumption that this musical master has discovered the hidden-in-plain-sight key to the American voice, and that any composer who disagrees or goes off in another direction composes in vain. Put aside one’s reluctance to trust Horowitz’s argument when, to my ear, he overrates both Dvořák’s Ninth and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935). Eschewing a nationalist style was a revolt of a different kind, especially in the years approaching the two World Wars, but Horowitz doesn’t see those conflicts in that context. We do agree on Charles Ives, who created such a unique voice that one heard genius before anybody considered it “nationalistic.” Ives performed the boldest of hat tricks: turning eclecticism itself into style, while collecting salaries from insurance companies. Nobody would confuse Ives for anything but American, but he was a great composer before he was a great American composer, and the very nature of his voice defies imitation.

Our own historical vantage has less and less sympathy with all these imperialist impulses and high-low tensions. Supposedly, we have emerged in the 21st century blissfully free of the elitist sentiment that cast folk musics on a lower plane than elite (and highly mannered) European styles, and thus want no part of a philosophy where a dominant class “redeems” a lower caste’s culture.

Horowitz’s deaf spots include jazz. When Duke Ellington’s name gets mentioned, it’s by quoting Alain Locke’s observation that he began “testing ‘his ability to carry jazz to the higher level’” with efforts like Reminiscing in Tempo and Symphony in Black (both 1935). The era’s great composer and bandleader doesn’t earn mention until he broaches the European frame. Ellington famously derided Gershwin’s opera as “not distinctly or definitely Negroid,” which certainly has a competitive tone but is completely defensible from a leading Black composer. You wish Horowitz had unpacked what Ellington meant by that. And a figure like Gian Carlo Menotti, who wrote America’s most popular and enduring one-act opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951), goes unmentioned.

Does this mean we should ditch Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony? Of course not — you either go along with the music or you don’t, and my problem with that music is not political so much as aesthetic. I admire his Slavonic Dances (1878, 1886) so much more, not just for the “earthy” energy they capture but for his enchanting orchestral colors. Put on George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra’s famous recordings of Opus 46 and 72 (which began as four-hand music for piano, and still beguiles in that register), and you have something greater than an “elitist” composer sponging off the common people’s music. These melodies don’t find improvement here so much as exposure and respect on their own terms — the same grounds on which Horowitz extols Gershwin.

Horowitz turns critic/composer Virgil Thomson into his villain for underrating Porgy and Bess specifically and Gershwin’s output in general. But he doesn’t explore what Thomson objected to: at the opera’s premiere, one Black composer, J. Rosamond Johnson, whispered to Gershwin, “George, you’ve done it — you’re the Abraham Lincoln of Negro music.” Porgy and Bess corners the market on Black opera, its composer’s whiteness redeemed by his faithfulness to style and unapologetic swing. Gershwin “creates a New World variant of Old World grand opera,” Horowitz writes. But Gershwin approached jazz as an inherently serious art form that demanded its own rigor, and it rewarded him as well as his audience by broadening its appeal without compromising its virtues. Horowitz mischaracterizes Thomson, whose larger point wasn’t that Porgy and Bess was weak but that it wasn’t yet ripe; to Thomson, it sounded like the “early” work of a master who didn’t get the chance to develop further (Gershwin died in 1937 at the age of 38). Of course, Thomson had his own motives: his Four Saints in Three Acts (1928, from a libretto by Gertrude Stein) competed with Gershwin’s opera for stages and resources, but his critique doesn’t come across as mean-spirited. He praised Porgy and Rhapsody in Blue (1924) for expanding the creative repertoire.

In addition to Horowitz’s patronizing attitude toward jazz (except when placed in more “formal” frames), there’s no discussion here of the intense philosophical crisis American music schools went through after the World Wars, when craft itself seemed so attached to elite culture, which had become suspect. If the high European tradition led to so much carnage, how could beauty ever prove redemptive? In response, many fell under the spell of Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone Serialism, as if it had created some reliable new paradigm. This view turned doctrinaire, and many of us have spent a lifetime trying to overcome that noise in our heads and listen to Berg and Webern, and even Stravinsky, with more innocent ears. Reading about the 20th century’s many atrocities is chilling enough; I cannot bear to think what it must have been like to live through those events, never mind imagine how a creative artist might push back against them (see Adorno on poetry after Auschwitz). Dmitri Shostakovich’s music stands taller and taller, and his position as an official symbol of Stalinist culture now seems violently ironic. But does the finale of his Fifth Symphony resound any longer as a momentous celebration of Soviet values, to anyone? Doesn’t it transcend its historical context and accrue new meanings every time some local orchestra attempts its brutal passages, and doesn’t that make whatever nationalistic impulses that may have once charged it fall away?

Why is one of our most high-profile critics arguing about “usable pasts” and “national styles” at this stage, anyway? Haven’t us white guys screwed things up enough already?

Horowitz discounts jazz, but he doesn’t even nod toward rock ’n’ roll, the most popular and universal style of the past 70 years. There’s no worse side of Pete Townshend’s Tommy than its Broadway incarnation or any orchestral suite of its themes. But it was a triumph in 1970 when The Who performed it at the Metropolitan Opera House, smashing both the Met’s pretense and the tradition it supposedly enshrines. An English hard-rock trio had invaded the citadel of American highbrow classicism, playing a sped-up variant of Black R&B adopted by working-class white war babies. Here’s a modern “opera” that rearranged everybody’s idea of the form, narrated by a deaf-dumb-and-blind hero who insisted more on generation than geography. Its staggering new electric poetry never needed the upper caste’s approval, and it still doesn’t — it triumphs in spite of it. There’s the giant kink in the American symphonic imagination: its self-serious insistence on its own relevance.

Tim Riley’s latest book is What Goes On: The Beatles, Their Music, and Their Time (2019), co-written with Walter Everett, from Oxford University Press. It’s the first college textbook on the music of the Beatles. See his personal website for details.

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