The standard account, the Authorized Version as it were, of how American classical music came about and developed, posits an infancy with the Colonial and Federal era hymnodists (William Billings, Lowell Mason) and the odd Moravian isolate (John Antes), an adolescence in the 19th century in which talented composers wrote undistinguished and imitative pieces in the prevailing German style (Paine, Chadwick, Foote, Huss, Beach), and then came into its own with a distinctly American voice after World War I in the persons of those born in the 1890s and later such as Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, and the leader of the pack, Aaron Copland.
Joseph Horowitz, former New York Times music critic, artistic administrator (latterly of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and more recently of PostClassican Ensemble in Washington DC) and cultural historian, has written Dvořák’s Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music (W. W. Norton, 2022, $30 list, $20.99 Amazon hardcover, $14.16 Kindle), to tell you that, how, and why the Authorized Version is bunk, and how its perpetrators pushed aside the sources and exemplars of the true national American idiom. While the extended title gives away his primary thesis, Horowitz goes out of his way to clear the air about many of the earlier (at least, late 19th-century) composers from these shores. It’s a pacey, vexatious, and entertaining 230-page rant.
The fulcrum of American musical history, as Horowitz sees it, sat in the 3-year (1892-95) residency of Antonin Dvořák in the US as the director of the National Conservatory of Music in America, established by Jeannette Thurber in 1885. Tasked, among other things, with in effect consulting to all American composers on how to create an American national music, Dvořák researched his subject with reference, of course, to how in his own music he expressed the spirit of Czech music, which was through the amalgamation of folkloric material into the matrix of Western classical traditions (dominated at that point by Germans, who also dominated in America following the inrush of immigrant musicians fleeing the abortive 1848 revolutions in Europe). To this end Dvořák, with the help of a talented amanuensis named Harry T. Burleigh, a Black musician and composer then a student at the conservatory, amassed a catalogue of spirituals and other Black American music, and to some extent also music of Native Americans. Analogizing these materials to the Czech folk music he knew (which, quite conveniently, also featured pentatonic scales, which indeed are common in many cultures around the world from Ireland to China), Dvořák proclaimed them the ground from which a true American music tradition would grow. It didn’t quite happen the way Dvořák prophesied, and Horowitz has woven a tale of perfidy to explain why.
Every good tale like this requires heroes and villains, and Horowitz finds them aplenty. The heroes, of course, start with Dvořák himself, Burleigh, and some music critics, notably Henry Krehbiel of the New York Tribune. While reaching back a generation or two to account for voces clamantes in deserto like Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Horowitz points to a small handful of composers who investigated and either incorporated folk or other native materials or were sympathetic to those who did, for example George Chadwick (more on him later, but he was an influence on his students Florence Price and William Grant Still encouraging their use of Black musical sources), Charles Ives, and perhaps most controversially George Gershwin, about whom more later. Among the villains were the Boston (natch) music critics John Sullivan Dwight and Philip Hale, horrified to think that a decent high-minded universalist American composer would get his fingernails dirty rummaging in such plebeian muck, and then the very composer cohort mentioned above (Piston, Thomson, Harris, Copland) whose idea of American music involved “flattening” its affect into the brittle modernism of Stravinskyan and Boulangerian neoclassicism, a group abetted by their explainers-in-chief, the critics Paul Rosenfeld and Carl Van Vechten plus Thomson himself as critic and Copland as essayist.
This may seem like a lot of inside baseball for many readers, but Horowitz weaves his story well, starting from the proposition that the essence of Black music is its intensity of feeling, of both sorrow and joy, and that the chief barrier to its propagation through the natural development of American art music was the sharp elbowing aside of those composers inclined to feature that kind of emotional expressivity, which included not only the Black composers themselves, like Price, Still, William Levi Dawson, and the Canadian-born R. Nathaniel Dett, but White composers as well—Horowitz mentions only Arthur Farwell, who worked with Native American materials, and Charles Wakefield Cadman, whose output he regards as kitsch, but one should also mention Henry F. Gilbert, Daniel Gregory Mason (whose String Quartet on Negro Themes is a masterpiece), and even Amy Beach, whose string quartet employs Inuit themes.
Two chapters in Dvořák’s Prophecy seem to digress but are essential elements in constructing Horowitz’s argument. One is about the use of vernacular expression in American literary and musical art, focusing on Mark Twain and Ives, and the other on the bifurcation of American music into “serious” and “popular” strands, the latter being the most highly informed by the Black heritage, with jazz its epitome, but flowing through to most everything one listens to now. We need not dwell too much here on Twain, whose use of both White and Black vernacular idioms was as controversial in his time as it is now, for seemingly opposite but really the same reasons. The case of Ives is interesting, and perhaps more nuanced than Horowitz lets on. Going back a bit, Horowitz singles out for high praise Chadwick’s String Quartet No. 4 and the Jubilee movement from his Symphonic Sketches (why stop with one movement? that entire work is a marvel), but he may have mistaken Chadwick’s intent. The quartet, from 1896, is a kind of direct response to Dvořák, but it’s a negative one in the sense that Chadwick saw no reason for American composers to quote from folk materials, particularly materials outside their own range of experience, when they could make up their own: each movement contains original themes in different folk and popular idioms (almost all are pentatonic), culminating in a passacaglia and fugue on what amounts to a sea chanty. In this regard it’s the Mason quartet (1918, rev. 1930) that signs on most directly to Dvořák’s program—and it earned him no end of derision in his academic milieu. Ives also incorporated “vulgar” musical materials, but did not quite endorse the Dvořák project. In fact, though Ives respected Black spirituals, he was quick to point out the strong influence of White hymnody on them (“white spirituals,” he called them), which of course form the bedrock of Ives’s quoted matter. He did occasionally refer to ragtime, one of the earliest instances in which Black music crept into a general American musical vernacular: see in particular the First Piano Sonata, and the tone poem Central Park in the Dark. Ives never touched jazz.
The position of jazz is central to Horowitz’s thesis. Black “sorrow songs” as embodied in spirituals, Gospel, and related music are unquestionably the product of Black American culture and have largely remained so (putting aside their influence on rock—Elvis is still in the room!—despite their incorporation of European harmony, meter, and organization. Jazz was a creature of that culture but was so quickly recognized and adopted by White society that it has become common coin throughout the nation. This ought to be the triumph Horowitz is looking for, but the problem was that jazz was never truly amalgamated into the art music culture except as a bit of exotica. Foreign composers were among the earliest to latch on, with Milhaud’s La creation du monde, Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 and piano concerto, and latterly virtually the entire output of Nikolai Kapustin (who more than anyone fully integrated jazz idioms into “classical” forms). In the US, John Alden Carpenter was the pioneer in his 1923 ballet Krazy Kat. Copland looked in with his piano and clarinet concertos (the latter written for Benny Goodman), but with the same objectivity he applied to all other vernacular materials; one could say the same of Samuel Barber’s Excursions, which used boogie and blues along with other vernacular idioms. This is all, one might say, tourist music. Gunther Schuller, whom Horowitz praises for his catholicity of taste, is a special case, but Horowitz is more interested in Schuller as a performer, conductor, and programmer than as a composer—a missed opportunity, we think.
The crucial figure for Horowitz in the potential amalgamation of Black music into American art music is, of course, Gershwin. The author puts Gershwin at the pinnacle of artistic accomplishment, though almost exclusively through his discussion of Porgy and Bess, though of course he was in the game as early as his 1919 Lullabye and of course the 1924 Rhapsody in Blue and 1925 piano concerto. As with Twain and Huckleberry Finn, Gershwin and his opera have been flashpoints of adulation and outrage from the get-go. That P&B is the greatest American opera so far is practically undisputed now (as, it must be here added, the Piano Concerto and An American in Paris are the finest American piano concerto and tone poem, though for some reason Horowitz doesn’t really discuss Gershwin’s other works). The point that Horowitz makes, however, is that the creators of the Authorized Version could never reconcile themselves to Ives and Gershwin, and settled on hurling condescending charges of dilettantism at them.
What is a little disappointing about Dvořák’s Prophecy is that it neglects a number of sources and areas for discussion that could have fleshed out and in some respects fortified its thesis. Although he mentions, among American composers of the generations before Dvořák, William Henry Fry, who bewailed the crushing of American music by the German hordes of 1848, Horowitz fails to paint a fuller picture of how American music was evolving at the time, through figures such as Anthony Philip Heinrich and George Frederick Bristow (though he mentions the latter briefly). This trio formed the core of Douglas Shadle’s 2016 study Orchestrating the Nation, showing again how a native idiom (to these ears deriving from Berlioz and Wagner, but you can judge for yourselves as there is a fair amount represented online) was squashed, first by the Germans who wouldn’t play it and then by—who else?—the Bostonians who found it insufficiently chaste. In addition, Horowitz fails to mention one composer coeval with Ives whose music was widely played and who consciously sought inspiration from Black idioms and American popular music, John Alden Carpenter. Carpenter’s 1912 violin sonata and 1915 Concertino for piano and orchestra assimilated elements of blues and the “sorrow songs” far ahead of anybody else writing concert music. Carpenter, too, was sneered at by the likes of Thomson who, admitting that Carpenter “has been to Paris,” dissed his work as “rich man’s music.” Thomson’s problem with Carpenter, Ives, and Gershwin seems to have been that while these composers, as Thomson did, employed American idiomatic expression, they did not, as Thomson did, mock them. Of this attitude, Horowitz writes: “His Kansas City roots notwithstanding, Thomson was an eccentric urban sophisticate whose common touch was more ‘about’ than ‘of’ the people.” Ditto, per Horowitz, for Copland.
It took two signal developments for Black music to at least start to be accorded the respect and influence it should have in American art music: probably the most important is the loosening of the “party line” mentality that ossified how the self-appointed but influential cultural opinion leaders, whether among composers, academics, orchestras, broadcasters, “music appreciationists,” and other gatekeepers viewed the proper way to write music, especially after World War II as dodecaphony dominated university music departments. It became thus “safe” to take up the cause of pre-modernist musical language, including that of the key Black composers. The other is the sheer amount of research and resuscitation of long-lost or -forgotten repertoire, such as the treasure trove of manuscripts by Florence Price, that have come to light and are now being published, performed and recorded (and put up on YouTube). These trends have favored many of the earlier American composers, so the public can now hear the riches that were cavalierly tossed aside by the authors of the Authorized Version. While Horowitz does sometimes get carried away in his enthusiasm and fails to make some careful distinctions (was Dvořák really an American composer in the years 1894-95?), Dvořák’s Prophecy is a good enough read, especially when supplemented by studies like Shadle’s and the composer biographies, by Howard Pollack (especially his award-winning Gershwin and his earlier Carpenter) and Bill Faucett (his 2012 Chadwick).
N.B.: This article has a correction in response to a reader.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.