When the American mind closed to classical music

When the American mind closed to classical music


norman lebrecht

January 25, 2020

Joseph Horowitz has written an extended reflection on the crisis in American culture:

American classical music is today a scholarly minefield. The question “What is America?” is central. So is the topic of race. The American music that most matters, nationally and internationally, is black. But classical music in the United States has mainly rejected this influence, which is one reason it has remained impossibly Eurocentric. As the visiting Czech composer Antonin Dvorak emphasized in 1893, two obvious sources for an “American” concert idiom are the sorrow songs of the slave, and the songs and rituals of Native America. Issues of appropriation are front and center. It is a perfect storm.

Read on here.


  • Someone better tell all the thousands of conservatory students coming to the great American schools of music

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    Sad but largely true. On one end there’s the part of society that has never been interested in anything but popular music, and on the other (positive) end classical music devotees.

    People, like Andrea Moore (negative end of classical devotees), proposing A Beethoven ban are well out of touch with reality, and as much as she would probably throw around the “privilege” name, she too represents a highly snooty class of academics and “privileged” elites.

    Beethoven and the concert hall go hand-in-hand. They say ban Beethoven so we can listen to up-and-coming composers, but the ridiculousness of this idea needs no further explanation.
    They actually think audiences could equate the pleasure the average concertgoer has hearing a brilliant Beethoven symphony with something that will likely survive a half dozen performances—if even.

    Is there a reason why Monet gets more attention at museums than living artists? Should people give up Monet for a year so they can see more torn canvases?
    It’s the same as how some people gasp and look down at people who eat at McDonald’s who simply don’t have many dining options for whatever reasons; not everyone has lived so “privileged” as to afford and enjoy regularly avocado toast and oat milk while relaxing at 10:45 at a cafe.

    • Patrick says:

      imagine if the Viennese had felt that way when Beethoven was alive.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        Very many of them did. Do some reading. Beethoven was often absolutely disgusted by the Viennese.

      • Gerry Feinsteen says:

        Check out your music history books. Before Beethoven performances were typically by living composers.
        Beethoven didn’t need support from culturally guilt-tripped to get his music performed. He was an excellent pianist and his name had been known for quite some time before his Vienna debut. Again, he is the first composer to be programmed regularly since his own time. His late music was ahead of its time then and even now.

        You just cannot replace Beethoven with some PhD grad whose music is his/her sonic representation of a parabola. Music of the last 50 years largely comes and goes—not Beethoven.

    • John Kelly says:

      Quite right, to the travelling New Yorker in large tracts of this great country, the Golden Arches are a welcome sight indeed…….you know what you’re getting at least………….

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Gerry writes: “Is there a reason why Monet gets more attention at museums than living artists?”

      Actually, modern art has a huge audience, judged by the number of people who go to shows. Most cultured people know and have seen pieces by Rothko and Jackson Pollack, as well as even more modern pieces. Similarly for modern literature, and the literary novel; this stuff has established an audience among middle-class educated people.

      Modern classical music is the exception, in that it has not: in fact it has been consciously rejected by much of this audience.

      • John Borstlap says:

        And there is a reason for this. Modern visual art is, in spite of its often pretentious wrapping paper, populist and harmless.

        “This ambiguity – that art can mean anything a viewer wants, or nothing at all – makes contemporary [visual] art more appealing to wider audiences. There is no need to learn the history, the characters or the symbols that artists of old portrayed and employed in their works. And therefore there is no reason to feel deficient.”


  • Barry Guerrero says:

    “But classical music in the United States has mainly rejected this influence (black), which is one reason it has remained impossibly Eurocentric. As the visiting Czech composer Antonin Dvorak . . . ”

    I’m not sure what’s precisely being said here. Gershwin and Bernstein, among others, display jazz and blues influences in their music. Ornstein and few others too. There’s definitely a ‘closing of the American mind’ happening. However, this isn’t the time or place to go deeply into the causes. Regardless, I’m not sure that classical music plays any role in that at all. Blues is popular among the unwashed masses, but jazz certainly struggles (both being ‘black’ forms of music, to a large degree). People don’t frequent smoky, loud bars at all hours of the nights these days. Those who do, generally want to hear some form of rock or dance music. That being the case, jazz is being relegated to concert halls almost as much as Euro-centric classical music.

    I think Busoni pegged it best, when he said something along the lines of: “In America, the average is higher. Soon, however, it’ll all be average”.

    • Anon says:

      “I’m not sure what’s precisely being said here.”

      Gottschalk composed several works based on Creole folk melodies in the 1840s that were well received, yet it’s another 50 years until Dvorak, and almost 100 until Gerswhin. Certainly not a deep embrace of black influence.

      Not suprisingly, Gottschalk’s lasting influence in America is not his use of folk elements, but rather his piece marked ‘religioso’, The Last Hope, which formed the basis for a Presbyterian hymn, ‘Holy Ghost With Light Divine’.

    • Anon says:

      “I’m not sure what’s precisely being said here.”

      Gottschalk composed several works based on Creole folk melodies in the 1840s that were well received, yet it’s another 50 years until Dvorak, and almost 100 until Gerswhin. Certainly not a deep embrace of black influence.
      Not suprisingly, Gottschalk’s lasting influence in America is not his use of folk elements, but rather his piece marked ‘religioso’, The Last Hope, which formed the basis for a Presbyterian hymn, ‘Holy Ghost With Light Divine’.

    • Monsoon says:

      Gershwin died 83 years ago and Bernstein as a composer is best known for a broadway score written 63 years ago.

      Take the most played contemporary American composers: John Williams, John Adams, Philip Glass, Jen Higdon, etc. They’re all Euro-centric.

      Michael Daugherty is the only American composer I can think of off the top of my head who infuses popular American music styles into his compositions and regularly composes program music about American history, Americans, and popular culture. And he’s never really gotten the attention he deserves by orchestras because he’s not Euro-centric.

      • John Borstlap says:

        There’s nothing against eurocentric American composers writing eurocentric American music to be played by eurocentric American orchestras. The USA still belongs to the Western cultural sphere, and if local musical traditions can be incorporated into eurocentric music, that is an asset, but not a requirement for quality.

        The great difference between American new music and European new music is that in the USA there are much less taboos on accessibility, tonality, experimentation.

  • ketzel says:

    I’m so glad I worked through my issues instead of displaying them as commentary. Mr. Horowitz, you can still get help, but you have to ask.

  • Mark says:

    American minds are closed to many issues today, all of them more important than classical music

    • kelly says:

      Don’t speak for American minds Mark. Almost 3 million more of us voted in the open minded direction back in 2016.

      • Jorge Wallace says:

        JEALOUSY & ENVY of your President pervade Democrat failures.

        Try telling voters how much people like yourselves have to offer as opposed to the same IMPOTENT phraseology. How is your obvious preferred candidate supporting the arts now? What concrete measures did she ever take since Arkansas to directly help the artistic community??

        She’s not ‘with you’ anymore and couldn’t compose herself to address her minions on election night. NO! She sent out a…..MAN when it got too real!! Her OWN entitlement and ‘white privilege’ did her in along with her avarice expressed in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, foreign and 1% donors.

        Vapid individuals like yourself who constantly denigrate the President and vast array of supporters will ASSURE a second term.

        • kelly says:

          Wrong Jorge.

          Jealousy and envy have nothing to do with it. The majority voted for her because we saw her as qualified to address the “many issues more important than classical music” that we are accused of being closed minded to in the original comment.

          If speaking out against this president leads to a 2nd term, as you seem to insinuate it will, then so be it. The Electoral College is an antiquated and unfortunate reality of our political system. One of the virtues of our system is freedom of speech. The majority will continue to speak out against demagoguery. That’s what we have to offer.

          Your tidy little paragraph summing up how the 2016 election unfolded is as vapid (your word) as it gets.

        • Larry D says:

          Speaking of vapid…

        • Sharon says:

          Actually, although it is not too well known the Clintons in the Bill Clinton administration, did try to promote the arts, especially folk music and artisitic programs to educate low income youth etc through the NEA awards program and trying to maintain the funding through the the NEA. In some respects the Clintons were trying to imitate the Kennedy administration which promoted the arts (although in the Kennedy administration’s case it was a way to compete with the Russians).

  • John Borstlap says:

    Fascinating article by Horowitz, as usual.

    The politicizing of education destroys development, because it is not understood that knowing comes before acting. The article also shows the importance of music in the formation of young people’s emotional and interrelational capacities, it is part of the formation of personality and character without which a society cannot exist as a culture. We see the results of such misundertanding all around us.

    • V.Lind says:

      I found this the most compelling — and the most depressing — comment in the whole article. Quoting his daughter, “You just don’t get it, she said. The opera barrier was insuperable.”

      THAT’s the challenge.

    • Jorge Wallace says:

      It has been sadly predictable that Democrat imbued “Higher Ed” has created dumbed-down, ‘degreed’ imbeciles who fail to support the Arts. Well, they can barely support themselves save the recent positive economy and job growth…can they??

      Opera audiences continue to languish in favor of trendy, trashy music people actually PAY FOR. (i.e. The MET…back when it had musical standards as opposed to the visual pimping they purvey as Norman and most commenters CONSTANTLY bemoan).

      The US vocal degrees certainly aren’t worth the cost benefit according to thoughtful writers like Norman either. All that (usually borrowed $$$$$) has obviously been WASTED as endless comparisons between the newly ‘educated’…LOL and older stars of the 90’s and before are still the benchmark for legitimate achievements.

      The comments one sees both here and on YouTube say it all. The majority of viewers including Norman see the obvious. Education at these formerly laudable institutions is most certainly not cultivating environments for Great Voices. Some are good but it’s woefully apparent that European teaching is needed. What other countries would one go to besides the ROOTS of classical music? They remain the standard as they are the origin!

      Thank you Norman for upholding fine European standards houses like the MET have lost and keeping readers up to date on Levine’s sickening realities! What’s become of that molester these days now that the board said: “you’re fired”!?

      • Tamino says:

        The brainwashing in America is crazy. People like you, conditioned to see everything only in the Dem/GOP black and white dichotomy. Sad. Total loss of sense of reality.
        As if those demographics that voted Trump into office would support the arts. That’s the joke of the day, my blinded friend.

      • Sharon says:

        Apparently, after a year and a half court battle (although it never actually went to trial)they reached a settlement with a non disclosure agreement. Levine is now maintaining a very low profile

  • D** says:

    Joseph Horowitz never mentioned World War II. He should have, because nothing was the same after 1945.

    Before 1940, musical nationalism was still going strong. Aaron Copland, after using jazz in the 20s, was quite successful with his unique Americana style. William Grant Still, William Dawson, and Florence Price were gaining recognition for their works based on African-American melodies. In the UK, there was Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, both strongly influenced by English folk music. Ernest Bloch was busy writing Jewish music. Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly found inspiration in Hungarian folk music. John Philip Sousa, Edwin Franko Goldman, and Karl King were writing marches that were American through and through. There’s something very British about Kenneth J. Alford’s music, but I’ll leave that for others to discuss.

    For a number of reasons, musical nationalism died after World War II. There were some composers who continued to write in their former styles, but they were considered to be hopelessly conservative. With some exceptions, university music departments heaped scorn on composition students who wrote anything with a trace of tonality. Serialism and electronic music were on the rise, and both represented music of the future. Aaron Copland’s style changed, as did Igor Stravinsky’s, William Grant Still’s, etc. In this new world, there was no longer any room for African American influences, but other ethnic styles were disdained as well.

    In recent years, the pendulum has started to shift. Thank goodness!

    • John Marks says:

      Thanks for an excellent comment.

      It reminds me of an evening last year when I was in a large-ish gathering of music people from all over the US, mostly academics, and was I across the table from a woman.

      I dared to take issue with her blanket characterizations of prejudice against woman composers.

      I politely stated that I would confine my remarks to the one woman composer I was extremely familiar with, Amy Beach.

      I asserted that the reason Amy Beach (who, while alive had had two premières with the Boston Symphony and one with the Handel & Haydn Society), had lapsed into obscurity for more than 50 years (circa 1920 to circa 1976) was NOT that she was female; it was because her music was tonal, melodic, and used European models,

      E.g., the final movement of Beach’s Violin Sonata (Arturo Delmoni & Yuri Funahashi’s fine recording was released on my label JMR) incorporates a quasi-academic fugue.

      Perhaps in the fin-de-siecle period, that was a light-hearted little musicians’ in-joke. But after The Rite of Spring and Schoenberg, I think it more likely to have been “received” with a big “Puh-leeze!”

      She glowered at me and said through gritted teeth, “It was because. she. was. a. woman!’

      john marks

      • D** says:

        Very interesting comments, John! I first became familiar with Amy Beach after hearing Neeme Jarvi’s recording of her Gaelic Symphony with the Detroit Symphony. It’s wonderful music, and it didn’t deserve to lapse into obscurity.

        Beech was part of the Boston Six, well-known in the early 20th century, but almost totally forgotten today.
        Edward MacDowell’s works are performed now and then, but how often does one hear something by George Whitefield Chadwick, Arthur Foote, Horatio Parker, or John Knowles Paine? I think your answer is correct: after the Rite of Spring, Schoenberg, and I’ll add Debussy, the reaction to all this music was probably, as you said, a big “Puh-leeze.”

        Jarvi showed some interest in Chadwick’s music, and it’s nice to see a renewed interest in Amy Beech. Perhaps there will be a revival of these other composers too.

      • Larry D says:

        That punctuation. has. surely. convinced. me. Women are such glowering gritting-toothed ignoramuses. Be sure to share your anecdote on any number of incel sites.

      • Kolb Slaw says:

        So truly typical. What about Germaine Tailleferre? Feminists make a point of ignoring every single successful woman composer, and do nothing to promote them, so they can preserve their false argument. I had an opportunity to record a concerto by Tailleferre with a Woman’s Symphony, but of course they rejected me because of my GENDER.

  • Stuart says:

    It is a challenging and thoughtful article that is about what has happened to higher education and identity politics – classical music is but part of the perspective. An example: Even Bellow’s introduction reads as if it were written yesterday: “The heat of dispute between Left and Right has grown so fierce in the last decade that the habits of civilized discourse have suffered a scorching. Antagonists seem no longer to listen to one another.” The photo that you chose to go with this story is a mismatch. Whatever argument you were trying to make with it, thanks for sharing as the whole thing is an enlightening read.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    There’s an interesting companion piece now available to complement the Horowitz:


    And, of course, there’s this very important work from 1979:

    “The Culture of Narcissism: American Life and an Age of Diminishing Expectations”, Christopher Lasch.

    Both excellent reads.

    • Cubs Fan says:

      Another great read is “The Twilight of American Culture” by Morris Berman. He and Lasch argue quite honestly and clearly about the problem.

      First, classical music is not dead in the US by any means; there are thousands of smaller, semi-pro and amateur orchestras that are thriving. Opera, ballet, symphony concerts are widespread.

      But yes, our educational system has really let us down, as has the mass media. Long gone are the days of the live broadcasts of the NBC Symphony, the New York Philharmonic. At least the Met Opera is still on the air. What happened? I blame: radio, Elvis, the Beatles and an American obsession for what is new and different. The problem with new music some 65 years ago is no one liked it – they still don’t. Since modern composers of concert music couldn’t provide the need, people turned to pop/country/rock/Broadway and such. Morton Gould was very despondent about the direction of concert music in the late ’50s. His biography is also very insightful on America’s classical scene.

    • V.Lind says:

      “This is a book for anyone who…is concerned about the growing inability of Americans to live, work, and cooperate across party lines.”

      But, SSF, this describes to a T the people you so constantly stand up for.

  • Larry says:

    There was a brief time — late ’40s, early ’50s — when classical music was just about as “mainstream” in America as anything else. Consider: NBC Symphony with Toscanini on radio and TV; NBC commissioning an opera for children (!!!) in 1951, broadcast live annually; countless live radio orchestra broadcasts all over the country; a classical radio station (WQXR in New York) sponsoring its own string quartet, “Omnibus,” first seen on CBS, then other networks; countless record companies, mandatory music education classes in public schools, etc., etc., etc.

    I could go on but I can’t see the computer screen through the tears I’m shedding. I shall now pour myself a stiff drink and listen to my Eastwood Lane records.

  • Kolb Slaw says:

    Here is what will change things in the USA. It will take miracles, perhaps, but this is what we need: A change in the federal government to support the arts, no matter which party is in office. (This requires self-discipline and moderation among artists to not push the boundaries of funders.) The major foundations and wealthy people must be convinced it is their permanent duty to support all forms of serious culture and the individuals who create it (so the IRS must allow direct support to individuals). Foundations must fund start-ups and small nonprofits. We must have a nationwide magazine (print) for classical music, as exist for other arts and in other countries. The FCC must again require quality program content for all “networks.” A certain percentage must be dedicated to presenting opera, symphony, recitals, ballet, etc. Newspapers/publications, must review all professional performances or do promotional pieces, not only the uppermost echelon. The schools must do their part to educate students as listeners as well as players. We should probably have a national organization for everyone in classical music, not just professional associations, unions and niche groups. Then we can properly lobby the government. There must be financial aid to acquire instruments. I think the rest will pretty much take care of itself.

    • Tamino says:

      I think it’s not primarily about the government. Cultural aspiration, education with ambition and hard work ethics, those are bound to a social vertical mobility and ambition ‘to make it’ and the arts being an essential educational asset in that.
      Capitalism, consumerism, has told people another story. It’s not about your ambition. It’s all about what you can buy. That is what America has become today and I do not see any signs that it will get better, to the contrary.
      Also social mobility is declining. The divide between the rich and the poor is in fact widening at increasing speed. The middle class is disappearing. Even the passive consumption of the arts is thus in decline, because excessive time and income are essential for it, and people have less for it, have to work more than ever, for basics, for housing, for medical care.

  • Kolb Slaw says:

    The problem with blogs and websites for publication is the lack of editorial oversight, and the superior quality, and ease of reading of print publications. I have yet to see a blog or online publication I could stand to read for its content, or even to hear about its existence.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      So why do you read Slipped Disc several times a day and attempt obsessively to comment on it under various names?

  • Tamino says:

    Classical music always was somewhat of a stepchild to American (multi-) culture.
    Classical music is in its evolution the pinnacle of a pyramid of music rooted in the wider population. Singing, particularly in its social forms, is one element that is central to have a lively classical music scene.
    Otherwise it becomes academic, best case. Or extinct, worst case.

  • fflambea says:

    Sorry. I read the Horowitz piece (really a long essay on Swarthmore) and found it disgusting and usually wrong blather. He bases his views on Harold Bloom, a right-wing messenger of elitism.

    One can now listen to an African-American announcer/presenter on FM classical radio, listen to Philip Glass on he same station. He writes that he heard back in its day that Laos was being invaded and “no one cares” (yes, people did care). And just a few days ago, a youngish Italian maestro was chosen to lead the symphony orchestra in Detroit. I would say that classical music is strong today in the USA and that it presents a much more varied face than it did in Bloom’s time. That might be a good change.

  • Rick says:

    Ridiculous article. Composers should be free to create, not judged on whether they’ve included enough street rhythms and flatted fifths and thirds to keep it real.