Skip to main content

Prejudicial Treatment

An alternate history of American classical music comes across as a smokescreen for bias.

Dvořák’s Prophecy And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music

W. W. Norton; 256 pp. $30

ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK, in a newspaper interview during his three-year sojourn in the U.S., said that “negro melodies … must be the foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” The statement serves as the ostensible starting point of the present volume. Joseph Horowitz shows how Dvořák put his thesis into operation in works such as the New World Symphony, with its Largo inspired by the “sorrow songs” of former slaves, and by hiring as his assistant the Black composer and singer Harry T. Burleigh, who went on to write well-regarded art songs, as well as solo and choral arrangements of spirituals.

The subsequent fulfillment of “Dvořák’s prophecy” was fitful at best. Black composers such as Nathaniel Dett, William Dawson, William Grant Still and Florence Price worked prolifically in the first half of the twentieth century but made few inroads into the mainstream. As Horowitz writes, “prejudice and habit … deflected most Black creative talent from American classical music.” Until recently, their works had fallen into a “memory hole.”

But Horowitz’s discursive book in truth seems only peripherally concerned with “the vexed fate of Black classical music.” It rambles into all manner of seemingly distant territory, much of which the author has covered in previous volumes. As in Moral Fire, he offers a vigorous, revisionist defense of the Gilded Age, challenging the received wisdom that it was a time marked by philistine materialism. As in Understanding Toscanini, he decries the commodification of the American classical-music scene. He strays into a twenty-five-page digression comparing Charles Ives and Mark Twain—men who were both indeed influenced by Black culture, but whose output nonetheless lies at some distance from the “prophecy.” Toward the end, he offers a recapitulatory chapter that attempts to present the book’s contents as a cohesive argument, but I found it singularly unconvincing.

Dvořák’s Prophecy is not only loosely organized; it is deeply angry. Horowitz’s true subject, rather than Black classical music, emerges as the baleful influence of “modernism” on American music history. Modernism, he writes, created “a standard narrative for American classical music in which the sorrow songs and Dvořák’s prophecy do not fit … a characteristic product of a time, empowered by newness, during which the present and future mattered more than any fond backward glance.” Worshipping the “false god” of “twelve-tone serialism,” the modernists “invented a pastless musical history.”

The chief agents of this deracination, in Horowitz’s telling, were three gay composers—Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein. Even though all three have been dead for more than three decades, Horowitz writes about the trio as real and present dangers—three Francophiles who turned their backs on America to embrace the teachings of Nadia Boulanger, their influence continuing to poison American musical discourse.

As I read, I began to suspect an agenda behind the author’s presentation of Copland, Thomson and Bernstein as a cabal working toward the corruption of American music. He hints at it strongly when he compares Copland to “Dvořák swigging his beer with inebriated Iowa farmers” and “Ives in cleats, hurling his fastball for Yale”—manly pursuits in marked contrast to the later composer’s effete, “antiseptic” efforts. He shows his hand most nakedly in a footnote citing Nadine Hubbs’s Queer Composition of America’s Sound, a 2004 book that adduces “a queer network of professional influence.” Horowitz writes, “Also doubtless pertinent is my own heterosexuality.… I vividly remember being taken aback, in the 1970s, by an encomium to Copland written by [gay composer] William Flanagan…. Flanagan’s assessment of Copland as a master composer of world stature seemed to me a fulsome verdict arising from a community to which I was an outsider.”

Horowitz’s “outsider” rantings leave a nasty taste. The further I proceeded into Dvořák’s Prophecy, the more I became convinced that the book, rather than being an examination of the Black strain in our nation’s music, is in fact a sophisticated form of hate speech. —Fred Cohn