The title of this book, Classical Music in America, is a good summation of its scope and purpose: “to excavate the saga of American classical music.” Joseph Horowitz gives three reasons for writing this comprehensive history. First, no histories of classical music in the United States exist, and in histories of American music, the classical genre occupies a minor position. Second, Horowitz believes that classical music in America focuses on a culture of performance, not composition. The development of American institutions such as the symphony orchestra for performing classical music has received little attention from scholars.
At the same time, Horowitz admits that in this historical study of classical music in America, he was motivated by his conviction that classical music in the United States has not fulfilled its promise and is in danger of self-destructing. He turns to history to provide, if not answers, at least a crucial context for understanding the present dilemma.
The subtitle of his book conveys his message: A History of Its Rise and Fall. Horowitz sees a trajectory of classical music in America that begins with a period of education and growth in the second half of the nineteenth century. During the Gilded Age through the early twentieth century, Horowitz finds a peak characterized by a balance between performance and composition. Finally, after World War I he identifies a decline through the remainder of the twentieth century down to the present. This fall is driven by various aspects of the music business that came to dominate and overpower the creative energies of composition.
The author structures his narrative into two major sections. Book 1, titled “’Queen of the Arts’: Birth and Growth,” begins in the mid-nineteenth century when classical music began to put down roots in American soil. This section focuses on the two major cities where classical music was cultivated, Boston and New York. By the end of this first section, classical music in America has reached a peak in the Gilded Age and in the years before World War I. Growth and optimism are the predominant themes in this section, just as this spirit was reflected in other aspects of American culture at this historical period.
In book 2, “’Great Performances’: Decline and Fall,” the curve goes in the opposite directiondownward. This second major section covers most of the twentieth century. Horowitz identifies the “culture of performance” as the primary culprit. In book 2, he examines the interlinking components of the culture of performance: the “star” system of conductors and soloists, including famous opera singers, the “new” audience, demands of new media including radio, television, film, and recording, and the business managers of the classical music enterprise. In the author’s view, this unwieldy composite of the classical music package pushed the invigorating creativity of composers and new music to the sidelines, leaving classical music in the United States to stagnate and inevitably decline.
This book has many strengths. One of its most significant features is its comprehensive treatment of the subject. The author brings together most of the major components of the experience of classical music in the United States. In addition, he integrates the place of classical music into other features of American culture.
This ability to cover so many diverse topics relating to classical music comes out of Horowitz’s years of professional engagement with classical music in America. He was a music critic for The New York Times. He has published numerous books on more specific subjects that appear in this book including Understanding Toscanini (1986) and Wagner Nights (1994). He has also worked on the management side of classical music, having served as executive director and consultant to orchestras such as the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony, and the Pacific Symphony. All of his scholarly and administrative expertise is distilled in this book, a veritable magnum opus.
Another strength of Classical Music in America is its treatment of topics that have been relatively neglected in studies of classical...