Joseph Horowitz: Dvorak’s Prophecy

Joseph Horowitz, Dvorak's Prophecy, Book cover

Joseph Horowitz’s new book, Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music, asks refreshing questions and offers practical suggestions.
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For several years, newspapers and social media have drawn attention to the relative absence of African-Americans within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and within the list of nominees (and hence winners) for the Oscars. As a result, some progress is beginning to be made. A similar challenge, but regarding the classical-music industry, has been presented by music critic Joseph Horowitz over the past two decades in a series of articles, books, and festivals

Horowitz’s latest book—short, punchy, well-sourced, and compulsively readable, if loosely structured—argues for bringing back the forgotten works of important Black composers such as Harry (Henry T.) Burleigh, Florence B. Price, R. Nathaniel Dett, William Levi Dawson, Margaret Bonds, and William Grant Still, along with those of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Black British composer whose cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was performed rather often in North America a century ago.

The book touches on many other topics, notably the longstanding tendency of the classical-music establishment, over the past century, to favor music that displays high modernist complexity and to sneer at, or simply ignore, works that are written in an easily accessible style using—even if in fresh and rejuvenating ways—familiar harmonies and easily grasped melodies. Joseph Horowitz argues that the American classical-music industry has consistently suppressed or rejected any and all attempts at creating a distinctive American style of composition that would connect with musical styles and genres widely enjoyed by the broad public. These accessible styles and genres included not only the living stream of African-American music (e.g., “Negro spirituals” and early jazz) but also whole swaths of “mainstream” musical practice, including popular song, commercial dance music, the Broadway musical, and the hymn tunes of white churches.

The topic that I just sketched connects to the one with which I began (and to the book’s title) because the composers that I named at the outset were all primarily traditionalist, rather than modernist, in orientation. But Joseph Horowitz also devotes much attention to composers who were not Black. He argues for recognizing the symphonies of Charles Ives for their fresh and compelling uses of relatively accessible materials (e.g., catchy college tunes, or the rhythms and phrase structures familiar from marches, social dances, and—here’s where African-American music comes into this particular case—ragtime). The same line of thinking leads him to appreciate, not castigate George Gershwin for making imaginative and powerful use of African-American “sorrow songs” (once widely known as “Negro spirituals”) in Porgy and Bess and of jazz elements in Rhapsody in Blue and the Piano Concerto in F.

Horowitz is surely correct. Self-appointed American tastemakers—concert organizers, conductors, conservatory directors, music critics, women’s music-club members, and so on—long insisted that European models of musical “high culture” be rigidly followed in this very different land. This policy was carried out, at an increasingly high technical and interpretive level in the ensuing decades, by solo performers, symphony orchestras, and opera companies, and by the composition departments of many music schools.

One particularly unfortunate result has been (to go back to the book’s title) a severing of the natural and productive bond between members of the African-American community and the classical-music world, a bond that was emphatically encouraged by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák during his two-plus years in the US and that, for a time, did exist, beginning with Dvořák’s talented and determined student Harry Burleigh.

Several of America’s most-respected names come in for repeated bashing in Horowitz’s book, most notably Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Leonard Bernstein. All three, in published statements, minimized the importance of American concert and opera composers (whether Black or white) that came before them in order to promote the work of composers who, like them, had imbibed the fashionable modernisms of the day: modernisms that included neoclassicism (in its Stravinskyan and Hindemithian variants) and Schoenbergian twelve-tone writing. (This argument requires Horowitz to downplay the more accessible aspects of these three composers’ output, such as Copland’s Rodeo and Bernstein’s Broadway musicals.)

The myopic view of Copland et al. (according to Joseph Horowitz) helped produce the near-total absence from our concert halls of important nineteenth-century American symphonic works by white composers (e.g., William Henry Fry, George Frederick Bristow, John Knowles Paine, and George Whitefield Chadwick; Chadwick was open to influence from Black traditions) and also of the largely non-modernist works of important Black composers, such as Price (who studied with Chadwick), Dett, Bonds, Dawson, and Still. One partial exception to this silencing, Still’s 1930 Afro-American Symphony, received a number of prominent performances but slipped out of fashion in the 1960s, perhaps because it was too populist in tone: that is, it lacked modernist asperity.

Horowitz’s book is full of juicy quotations and intriguing statistics, with fascinating side-glances at some other composers and issues (e.g., Arthur Farwell’s imaginative pieces based on Native American tunes and rhythms). Occasionally I felt that he was pushing the evidence too far. By repeatedly hailing Ives for quoting hymn tunes and patriotic songs (such as “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean”), he draws a veil over the intense levels of dissonance—and structural audacity or perhaps incoherence—that make many of that composer’s works so challenging for listeners even today. These works are populist in the materials they use (e.g., hymn tunes, march melodies, and ragtime rhythms) but intensely elitist in manner and effect.

Another instance: Joseph Horowitz lambasts the Boston Symphony for not putting Gershwin’s  Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F onto its main subscription concerts. But both were frequently performed by the Boston Pops, as were other tuneful works such as the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies and suites from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet and from Grieg’s incidental music to Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. Did the music lovers of Boston really need yet more performances of these two Gershwin works: performances by what was essentially the same orchestra, playing in the same space (Symphony Hall)? Indeed, the 1962 recording of Concerto in F featuring Earl Wild and the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler remains one of the most praised even today, sixty years after its original release on RCA Victor’s eminent Red Seal label.

Joseph Horowitz is at his strongest when he advocates for specific works by Black composers. His enthusiasm for Dett’s The Ordering of Moses (the composer’s master’s thesis, written in his late 40s at the Eastman School of Music) will likely lead some conductors to get to know that work, especially as he helpfully compares two available recordings of it. Horowitz’s high praise for the arrangements of spirituals by Burleigh, Dawson, and others will, I hope, help encourage singers and choruses—regardless of their race and ethnicity—to perform these stirring and effective numbers.

But should whites perform Black music? Isn’t that cultural appropriation?

Horowitz points out that prominent non-Black singers have sometimes sung spirituals in the past, as white and mixed-race choruses have done and still do, around the world, and, to some extent still, in the United States as well. As for instrumental pieces, Black composers have always hoped and expected—indeed worked hard—to get orchestral and chamber works performed by any and all musicians, as with the historic performance of Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor by the (all-white) Chicago Symphony at the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair. (For a detailed and thought-provoking exploration of that event and a critique of how it has been and still is being reported, see three lively blogposts by musicologist John Michael Cooper: 123.) Veteran tenor George Shirley points out in his eloquent three-page foreword to the book, “If [a piece] speaks to us as a way of life, we have no reason not to pursue it. Music is like that; it belongs to no one person or ethnic entity.”

We will all gain from being given the chance to hear these works, some of which were once hailed but then fell into oblivion because of social prejudice and, yes, the exclusive emphasis on modernist “originality.” Bach, we should not forget, was considered old-fashioned in his day. So was Brahms, for refusing to follow Wagner into the supposed “Music of the Future.”

In recent years, individual performers and groups have been programming and recording—partly in response to the Black Lives Matter movement—significant but little-known or even newly discovered pieces by notable Black composers. Some of the artists are Black (such as prominent young baritone Will Liverman) or not (the somewhat more established baritone Lucas Meachem). Some of the recordings are on major labels (Deutsche Grammophon’s release of Symphonies 1 and 3 by Florence Price, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Canadian-born Yannick Nizet-Séguin). At least two (the Liverman and Florence Price recordings just mentioned) have recently been recognized by Grammy nominations. And the Buffalo Philharmonic has just announced its latest release (to be available through Naxos) of works by six composers: Bach, Haydn, Vaughan-Williams, and American composers Wayne Barlow, Ulysses Kay, and George Walker. Kay and Walker were perhaps the most prominent Black composers of concert music in the late twentieth century. The Kay work, Pietà, for English horn and orchestra, is a recorded premiere.

The oft-mentioned principle of increasing “diversity” should also lead us to note the vast number of recent performances and recordings of works by composers who are women (e.g., Lori Laitman) and or whose families came from, say, India. Or both: Reena Esmail has a piece on the new Grammy-nominated CD by Imani Winds, a wind quintet made up primarily of Black players.

A number of musicologists, such as the aforementioned John Michael Cooper (of Southwestern University), have been working overtime to make reliable scores available of neglected works by such important Black composers as Bonds and Price. Many of these newly available works are for piano or voice-and-piano, which makes performances easier to work up than a symphony or oratorio. (Small can be marvelous, as we know from Chopin’s mazurkas and Schubert’s Lieder.) All this is to the good.

Joseph Horowitz
Joseph Horowitz | Photo by Magdalena Horowitz

The publication of Horowitz’s book is being coordinated with the release of six DVDs emphasizing various aspects of his thesis, including one on Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony (a work that invokes “Negro” and “Indian” traditions) and another on such works as Burleigh’s arrangement of the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony. (I was overwhelmed by Kevin Deas’s singing of the spiritual.) The others DVDs, emphasizing Horowitz’s more general interest in populism and accessibility, treat, respectively, Ives, Copland, and two composers who have nearly fallen off the map: Lou Harrison (known, if at all, for a few gamelan-influenced pieces) and film composer Bernard Herrmann. These four DVDs, too, carry the title of the book under review (perhaps confusingly); but, to judge by the trailers, they will all be worth watching and pondering.

Ralph P. Locke

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