In Conversation with Joseph Horowitz

Joseph Horowitz
Photo by Charles Abbot

Author of Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall

Daniel Felsenfeld: Do you feel that one of the things that makes American music American is this inability to pin it down?

Joseph Horowitz: I pin down four schools, none of which could be called more important than the others.

Daniel Felsenfeld: What were they again?

Joseph Horowitz: Music composed before WWI, the Copland/Boulangerie people, the so-called ultra-moderns, and what I call the interlopers. And what I said was that although there’s the conventional wisdom that American music was born with Copland after WWI, I’ve seen none of these four movements reach fruition. They all produced interesting music—whether by Chadwick or Ives or Copland or Harris or Kurt Weill or George Gershwin or Varèse or Ruggles—but in its totality and its variety it’s hard to make a statement about American music. And yet at the same time it’s a fractured culture which is another undeniable feature of American music. There’s an eclecticism which is embodied in those four streams and a failure to consummate a canon which of course is one of the major themes of my book. We don’t have as our foundation this canon of native works which is promoted and regarded as such. The Italians, the French, the Germans, the Russians, they have that as a firmament for their musical high culture.

Daniel Felsenfeld: This is pure speculation, but do you think that in 100 years there will be this canon in America?

Joseph Horowitz: Oh, no. When our musical high culture was democratized after WWI, we hadn’t progressed far enough in finding our own voice. Once that pressure of the new audience was exerted, it made it that much more difficult for composers to do their work. They were sidelined by the act of performing. The other problem which I think is unignorable is that the composers who came into the picture after WWI had no interest in building on what had been predominantly a Germanic tradition fostered by people like Chadwick and Ives.

Daniel Felsenfeld: A hundred years from now will Copland be canonized more than he is now? Or Ives, Chadwick, or any of these people? Does it take longer to become aware of these things? Because you can’t declare a canon; a canon is sort of an organism and it grows. If there are orchestras and an America 100 years from now, will there also be a canon?

Joseph Horowitz: Well, there are interesting examples of related canonization. Mahler is such an example. Mahler famously said, “My time will come.” Mahler said that and he was right. Schoenberg said that too but he was wrong. [laughs] I do think that Chadwick, whether or not he’ll be canonized—that may be expecting too much—will certainly become a much better known American composer and a work like Jubilee sooner or later will either become well known or iconic. But I think that the candidates are too scattered for us ever to acquire at this late date a foundation of native repertoire.

Daniel Felsenfeld: I would like to go more in-depth about post-classical music. I read Kerman’s review and he made a point that was really interesting asking why you don’t consider this just another phase? Why is post-classical not just another stream in classical music?

Joseph Horowitz: Well, I thought about that. I feel honored to have been reviewed by Joseph Kerman. Of all writers about music and such in the English language in recent decades, he’s the writer I most admire. And when you read a review of your work by somebody that you respect you’re always eager to learn something you don’t know. I found out long ago as an author that you’re never completely in control of your own work and there is no definitive reading of a book. So if somebody says to me about the book, “It’s too gloomy!” they may be right, although I don’t think of it as a gloomy book. In the case of Kerman, I can’t quite get a handle on his criticism because I begin by showing that classical music was defined for Americans by John Sullivan Dwight as a distinction from popular music. He called Steven Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” a melodic itch, so from the get-go classical music in America was formulated as a rarified high culture, better than anything popular or vernacular. Therefore, if we’re in a moment in which we don’t stratify culture or make this pejorative distinction between popular culture and high culture, or classical music and popular culture, by definition it can’t be called classical music, and that’s why I call it post-classical music. And I don’t feel we can comfortably assign this label classical music to the composers who most obviously matter today in the United States. I’m thinking of especially John Adams, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, who are billboard names. It would be completely misleading, inappropriate. You’ve got to find another niche for them.

Daniel Felsenfeld: How does it not apply to John Cage or the others?

Joseph Horowitz: Ruggles is a classical musician, Ives is a classical musician. In fact I would say they both are kind of aberrations of the Germanic genteel tradition. Cage is not a classical musician. Is he a post-classical musician? Yeah, I suppose I would call him an early post-classical musician.

Daniel Felsenfeld: On NewMusicBox there’s a lot of discussion about what we call ourselves and I’m wondering why one would feel compelled to label this so much.

Joseph Horowitz: Well, I don’t think you can call it classical music if you accept the definition of classical music as defined in contradistinction to popular music which is not as good. I think that post-classical music is absorbing two tendencies primarily, the interest in non-western music and the interest in popular culture. And that’s a very good fit for all these names we just mentioned. I do believe that the future resilience of what we used to call classical music and what we can still call classical music within the larger post-classical picture, is going to depend on whether we establish a synergistic relationship with this larger group of music, this global network of music that we now all count on.

Daniel Felsenfeld: I’m curious about the words on the cover “the rise and fall”. I think people will have a rather strong reaction to that, A) because it’s a gloomy subtitle and, B) because there’s been endless discussion of this, especially lately, about the death of classical music.

Joseph Horowitz: Well, I think the trajectory is absolutely incontrovertible. Nobody could possibly question that classical music has had a rising and falling trajectory. It just seems to me self-evident and not even worthy of debate. I find in the United States that it peaks in the 1890s, which is worthy of debate, and that the decline sets in after WWI. What defines the decline is the focus on the act of performance, on the great conductors and orchestras and instrumentalists, rather than on the composer. I came to that realization not through my study of classical music after WWI but through my study of classical music before WWI. For instance, there was an American composers’ movement in the 1880s. There were a plethora of concerts all over the United States featuring programs comprised exclusively of works by Americans with major performers, and critics were leading proponents of this music. When you begin to exhume facts like that or when you just generally absorb the discourse of classical music and you discover that all these guys confidently looked forward to the acquisition of a native canon, an informative attribute in American classical music, once you’ve absorbed all that, it becomes dramatically apparent what changed after WWI. It’s something you might otherwise not have noticed because we’ve become accustomed to it. That a Toscanini or a Heifetz looms larger than a Copland or a Harris is something that we take for granted, but it was a development that was completely unanticipated at the turn of the 20th century.

Daniel Felsenfeld: I want to go back a little bit because I love the Peace Jubilee and that was the thing in your book that I didn’t know at all. I thought that was fascinating and I wanted to ask you just to talk about that a little bit just to frame why that’s so important and why you start your book with that.

Joseph Horowitz: Well, I start my book with the act of defining classical music, and John Sullivan Dwight was so threatened by Patrick Gilmore’s Peace Jubilee because he thought it potentially undermined the basic understanding and purpose of great music that deserved to be propagated in the United States. Here was the most famous band leader in America, a precursor to John Philip Sousa, creating an event lasting five days in a specially constructed structure with a chorus of 10,000 and an orchestra of 1,000 that mixed together Verdi, Handel, and Beethoven with patriotic anthems and hymns. Of course the piece de resistance, which had to be repeated many times, was the Anvil Chorus with 100 helmeted, red-shirted Boston firemen banging the anvils. I emphasize this event for at least two reasons. One is that it’s an enthralling prospect to imagine such a musical event. And the second is that it was so anathema to classical music at an incipient stage. And I say at the end of my book, I circle back very consciously to my beginning and I say:

This account of classical music in the United States began with John Sullivan Dwight, whose worshipful promulgation of dead European composers defined “classical music” in contradistinction to popular culture generally and—in the case of the Peace Jubilee of 1869, with its anvil-pounding firemen—Patrick Gilmore specifically. Gilmore’s eclecticism—mixing high and low, New Worlds and Old—blithely embodied what classical music was not. Today, closing the circle, it is Dwight who signifies the past and Gilmore who suggests the future.

And certainly I don’t think my reaction is unique. I’d much rather encounter Patrick Gilmore than John Sullivan Dwight.

Daniel Felsenfeld: Well, I thought this before when I read your Toscanini book and I thought it as I read this book. I think our inclination as a culture is to say that’s a good guy or that’s a bad guy. Do you think Toscanini was a bad guy?

Joseph Horowitz: Well, there are large cultural forces at work in this story that transcend the impact of individuals. I think the story in its most general terms would have played out regardless of the individuals. At the same time I don’t want to minimize, especially the constructive contributions, of somebody like Theodore Thomas or Henry Higginson. There would have been a Boston Symphony had there never been a Henry Higginson and there would have been concert orchestras in the United States had there never been a Theodore Thomas, and yet one could hardly imagine a more heroic embodiment of these inventions than these two men. So I do ask myself, as a thought experiment in the book, what if there’d been no Toscanini, what if there’d been no Arthur Judson? Clearly had Toscanini never come to the United States, all other things being equal, the most famous American classical musician would have been Leopold Stokowski. And Stokowski’s a very different phenomenon. He’s a conductor who’s interested passionately in contemporary music and he does not really care very much about what we would regard as the European tradition. His orchestra looked different, sounded different, served different purposes—I’m talking about the Philadelphia Orchestra—than any orchestra abroad. And Stokowski himself was self-invented. I call him an inspired fantasy. He invented what year he was born. The accent of his speech was invented. He said he was born in Poland when he was born in England. This kind of self-invention is something that we associate with Hollywood.

Stokowski was also a much less respectable figure than Toscanini and could never have exerted the kind of moral authority that Toscanini did. Yet the culture of performance would still have triumphed and partly indeed to its embodiment in the person of Stokowski who was the most glamorous classical musician who had ever existed. Certainly in his own time he embodied something new for many reasons, one of which was just the sheer glamour of his persona. So I would like to privilege individuals but at the same time not suggest that they altered the course of history. They reflected the course of history.

Daniel Felsenfeld: I’d maintain that this book should be required reading for composers just so you know what you’re up against. Now there are more composers and instrumentalists than ever, there are more music schools and degrees than ever, there are more people who are actively jumping into what is likely to be a nothing because classical music is taking this decline. And I would actually like to know why you think that is and what you would say to those people, especially the composers.

Joseph Horowitz: I recently interviewed John Adams for a music festival that I help to create every year, the Pacific Symphony’s American Composers Festival, and the topic of American composers came up, meaning today’s younger generation. He made the comment that he thinks these are very challenging times for classical music and that it’s particularly challenging to write for orchestra. It does seem to me that he is our most important living American composer for orchestra and that he’s kept the flame burning with work like Naïve and Sentimental Music. In fact I chastise American orchestras for ignoring this piece which has only been conducted by five people, one of which is Adams, and it was composed in 1999. In this interview Adams says that he thinks that there’s still a gift for orchestral writing in Europe where high modernism had a greater impact and lasted longer, and he specifically mentions Esa-Pekka Salonen as a gifted European composer for orchestra, and one could think of others. Magnus Lindberg comes to mind. I also would like to mention Zhou Long among the Chinese composers living in the United States as somebody who seems to me a very gifted composer for orchestra who’s able to take a fresh view through his capacity to merge not only two traditions—Chinese and Western—but the instruments. He’s able to create this middle ground, pulling the Western instruments towards Chinese practice and pulling the Chinese instruments toward Western practice, and as a result I think he’s a significant composer for orchestra and chamber ensemble.

Adams also says that the most gifted younger American composers are not particularly oriented towards the orchestra; they’re writing for a little more idiosyncratic, or what I would call post-classical, instrumental combinations. That sounds plausible to me. I don’t presume to have anything like a comprehensive view but that sounds right. One thing that strikes me as regrettable with regard to the training of musicians in this country is that we still have music schools without ethnomusicology and without jazz departments. In this post-classical world I just can’t imagine educating a musician without recourse to non-western music and popular music. I also think improvisation is an important skill today whether or not you pursue it professionally. These are tools and resources which are new and vital that are not part of the traditional conservatory curriculum. How you are able to incorporate them and at the same time satisfy the need to inculcate traditional craft is a central challenge. But I don’t even know if it’s always addressed let alone met.

Daniel Felsenfeld: Is there anything else you’d like to add.

Joseph Horowitz: Yeah. I’d like to say this is a propitious time for composers and it’s been a long tome coming. One of the sections in my book is called composers on the sidelines and I write at length about how people like Copland and Thomson struggled to be heard amid the din of the culture of performance and how frustrated and bitter they were that the new audience for classical music was so obsessed with the dead European masters, as were the institutions of performance and the performers. Suddenly we’re at a moment when composers are personally prominent in our music life. A) We have important composers who reach a very large audience, and again I’ll just talk for the moment about the most obvious three guys, Reich, Glass, and Adams. B) They’re performers. That’s enormously important. They’re not Ivory Tower figures. This is not a value judgment. It’s an objective observation. John Adams is on the podium waving his baton. Philip Glass is playing his electronic keyboards, Steve Reich is playing his mallets. This penetrates the culture of performance. And C) They’re post-classical, they’re fresh. Music for Eighteen Musicians has got to be one of the most important concert works ever composed by an American, period. Something changed when these guys hit their stride and it was something positive for the place and future of the American composer. In the post-classical world of things, composers are leaders; they’re not marginal. Toscanini was the leader of American classical music in 1946, for better or for worse. We’re now in a moment where if you’re looking at the leading figures, they’re composers, especially those three. They’re icons. They’re right at the center of things. And they matter in Europe. Do you think Copland mattered in Europe? I don’t. Do you think Roy Harris mattered? Not at all. Do Glass and Reich and Adams matter? You bet they do. And why? Partly I think because it’s self-evident to Europeans that these composers have achieved an authenticity and freshness of voice. They’re definitely Americans. And the composers who most matter to me in previous times and seemed to be the greatest talents are Ives and Gershwin, who again are definitely American.