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Dvorak's Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music

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In 1893 the composer Antonín Dvorák prophesied a “great and noble school” of American classical music based on the “negro melodies” he had excitedly discovered since arriving in the United States a year before. But while Black music would foster popular genres known the world over, it never gained a foothold in the concert hall. Black composers found few opportunities to h In 1893 the composer Antonín Dvorák prophesied a “great and noble school” of American classical music based on the “negro melodies” he had excitedly discovered since arriving in the United States a year before. But while Black music would foster popular genres known the world over, it never gained a foothold in the concert hall. Black composers found few opportunities to have their works performed, and white composers mainly rejected Dvorák’s lead. Joseph Horowitz ranges throughout American cultural history, from Frederick Douglass and Huckleberry Finn to George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and the work of Ralph Ellison, searching for explanations. Challenging the standard narrative for American classical music fashioned by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, he looks back to literary figures—Emerson, Melville, and Twain—to ponder how American music can connect with a “usable past.” The result is a new paradigm that makes room for Black composers, including Harry Burleigh, Nathaniel Dett, William Levi Dawson, and Florence Price, while giving increased prominence to Charles Ives and George Gershwin. Dvorák’s Prophecy arrives in the midst of an important conversation about race in America—a conversation that is taking place in music schools and concert halls as well as capitols and boardrooms. As George Shirley writes in his foreword to the book, “We have been left unprepared for the current cultural moment. [Joseph Horowitz] explains how we got there [and] proposes a bigger world of American classical music than what we have known before. It is more diverse and more equitable. And it is more truthful.”


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In 1893 the composer Antonín Dvorák prophesied a “great and noble school” of American classical music based on the “negro melodies” he had excitedly discovered since arriving in the United States a year before. But while Black music would foster popular genres known the world over, it never gained a foothold in the concert hall. Black composers found few opportunities to h In 1893 the composer Antonín Dvorák prophesied a “great and noble school” of American classical music based on the “negro melodies” he had excitedly discovered since arriving in the United States a year before. But while Black music would foster popular genres known the world over, it never gained a foothold in the concert hall. Black composers found few opportunities to have their works performed, and white composers mainly rejected Dvorák’s lead. Joseph Horowitz ranges throughout American cultural history, from Frederick Douglass and Huckleberry Finn to George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and the work of Ralph Ellison, searching for explanations. Challenging the standard narrative for American classical music fashioned by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, he looks back to literary figures—Emerson, Melville, and Twain—to ponder how American music can connect with a “usable past.” The result is a new paradigm that makes room for Black composers, including Harry Burleigh, Nathaniel Dett, William Levi Dawson, and Florence Price, while giving increased prominence to Charles Ives and George Gershwin. Dvorák’s Prophecy arrives in the midst of an important conversation about race in America—a conversation that is taking place in music schools and concert halls as well as capitols and boardrooms. As George Shirley writes in his foreword to the book, “We have been left unprepared for the current cultural moment. [Joseph Horowitz] explains how we got there [and] proposes a bigger world of American classical music than what we have known before. It is more diverse and more equitable. And it is more truthful.”

30 review for Dvorak's Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music

  1. 4 out of 5

    Fontine

    I learned a lot, but I also felt that it was mostly a research paper on white people's views on other cultures' music. I learned a lot, but I also felt that it was mostly a research paper on white people's views on other cultures' music.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Kelly Buchanan

    Okay, I have more than a few issues with this book, the first being that I just don't really feel that it is the book that its title seems to imply. Perhaps I would have reacted less harshly if it were called something like 'American Classical Music's Usable Past: Gershwin, Copland, Ives, and the Influence of Jazz,' or some other such thing. However, this work purports to center the narrative of suppressed voices of America's Black composers, but I feel it does not succeed in doing this. Firstly Okay, I have more than a few issues with this book, the first being that I just don't really feel that it is the book that its title seems to imply. Perhaps I would have reacted less harshly if it were called something like 'American Classical Music's Usable Past: Gershwin, Copland, Ives, and the Influence of Jazz,' or some other such thing. However, this work purports to center the narrative of suppressed voices of America's Black composers, but I feel it does not succeed in doing this. Firstly, I understand that "appropriation" as the term we know it to be today, would not have been something that was recognizable in Dvorak's time. Writing a study of this magnitude, however, that finds itself exploring the 'New World Symphony' and Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess' as central questions, I believe necessitates some serious discussion of the concept. Horowitz's work disagrees and essentially sidelines appropriation as a consideration because Gershwin wouldn't have known what we mean by it. He even goes on to essentially ridicule other scholars for giving this issue the consideration it deserves, recounting a reading of a scholarly introduction to Willa Cather's 'The Song of the Lark' and being "mystified" to find this term appearing there. Apart from all of this, my main problem here is that this book ends up doing the very thing it is attempting to condemn - sidelining the Black artists and musicians that grace its cover. We do get some meaningful discussion of Florence Price, Nathaniel Dett, William Dawson, Harry T. Burleigh, and others, but far more pages of this study are reserved for discussions of Gershwin (whose 'Porgy and Bess' Horowitz seems to have no issues considering as pretty much the same as works by Black composers), Ives, and Copland, whether or not they were open to jazz influences, and how, seemingly, if composers had only been more open to these sorts of influences, we might have been left with a greater Classical tradition that felt specifically "American," rather than grounded in the European standard repertoire. Horowitz spends a great amount of time being an apologist for other white composers whose music has fallen out of the repertoire, sometimes for being considered appropriative -such as Arthur Farwell's "Indianist" pieces. However much time and many resources Horowitz has spent attempting to further the cause of finding a "usable past" in American Classical music and bringing under-programmed pieces to light (and this seems to be considerable, given the amount of time that is spent discussing this towards the end of the work), I don't know that this makes up for what I felt to be the broad blind spots of this discussion, which must be complex given its racial, historical, and cultural implications.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jud Barry

    This is a much-needed piece of musical history and cultural criticism. Or cultural history and music criticism. One of its strengths is the breadth of its vision: when assessing American classical music of the so-called "Gilded Age" -- his cornerstone subject -- Horowitz takes pains to consider the other fine arts in addition to music as well as the bodies of critical interpretation that have grown up around them. This is crucial to part of the story he has to tell: one of the reasons American c This is a much-needed piece of musical history and cultural criticism. Or cultural history and music criticism. One of its strengths is the breadth of its vision: when assessing American classical music of the so-called "Gilded Age" -- his cornerstone subject -- Horowitz takes pains to consider the other fine arts in addition to music as well as the bodies of critical interpretation that have grown up around them. This is crucial to part of the story he has to tell: one of the reasons American classical music turned its back on African-American and Indigenous influences in favor of a rootless modernism is that the American prophets of modernism -- Copland and Bernstein -- sealed themselves inside an ahistorical silo deaf to the sounds of a recent past and the broader culture that produced them. That said, the book is finally only tantalizing in regard to "the vexed fate of Black classical music." There is lengthy, elaborate, and repetitious treatment given Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," for example, but scant mention of Joplin's "Treemonisha." What were the realities that so vexed Black classical music between, say, 1880 and 1980? The answers are there, but they are sketchy for the most part; some of the real lightning is found in footnotes. The effect is to leave the reader wanting a more comprehensive history of the very subject promised by the subtitle. I hope Horowitz returns with such. I also hope this book reaches the hands of those charged with programming for classical music organizations, which are badly in need of horizon-broadening.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    I hate leaving bad reviews, but wow, this book was a disappointment. For a book that purports to have something to do with Black classical music (it’s right there in the title, after all, and portraits of several Black composers adorn the cover), there is precious little mention of any Black composers, let alone any in-depth discussion of their work. Horowitz writes more about Mark Twain—neither Black nor a composer, obviously—in this book than about Dett, Dawson, Price, and his other Black subj I hate leaving bad reviews, but wow, this book was a disappointment. For a book that purports to have something to do with Black classical music (it’s right there in the title, after all, and portraits of several Black composers adorn the cover), there is precious little mention of any Black composers, let alone any in-depth discussion of their work. Horowitz writes more about Mark Twain—neither Black nor a composer, obviously—in this book than about Dett, Dawson, Price, and his other Black subjects combined. Horowitz argues that Dvorak’s prophecy (that Black music would form the basis of an American classical canon) didn’t come to pass because figures like Copland, Thomson, and Bernstein failed to home in on a “usable past.” I’m not an expert, but isn’t it possible that these white cultural gatekeepers discounted the work of Black composers because of, um, racism? To be fair, it isn’t that Horowitz doesn’t mention race at all, but it is barely acknowledged until the final few pages of the book. There is a truly bizarre, six-page digression decrying “trigger warnings” and belittling concerns about cultural appropriation. Seriously, I was worried he was going to spend the rest of the book complaining about “cancel culture.” Where was Horowitz’s editor? Finally, and again touching on the need for a better editor, Horowitz’s writing is pedantic and belabored. Lotta SAT words in here. Lotta extra adjectives. Lotta 30-word sentences that coulda been 10-word sentences. Woof.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Brian De

    Another reviewer called this “a white person’s view on other cultures.” I agree. I first found it odd, then annoying, then upsetting how Charles Ives and George Gershwin, both white, are the standard-bearers for black classical music over and over from one chapter to the next. Precious few pages are devoted to the faces on the cover and other black composers. This is bad enough, but where the book really went off the rails was in his defense of white composer Arthur Farwell’s “Indianist” music. Another reviewer called this “a white person’s view on other cultures.” I agree. I first found it odd, then annoying, then upsetting how Charles Ives and George Gershwin, both white, are the standard-bearers for black classical music over and over from one chapter to the next. Precious few pages are devoted to the faces on the cover and other black composers. This is bad enough, but where the book really went off the rails was in his defense of white composer Arthur Farwell’s “Indianist” music. On page 179 the author complains of the “challenges enlisting Native American participants” in performing Farwell’s music. Well…maybe instead of telling them they’re wrong, you should listen to their objections… As an aside, it is ironic that an author who fetishizes vernacular compulsively uses the words “capacious” and “protean.” A fun drinking game would be to take a shot each time he uses either…except you’d be passed out by the third chapter.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Reading

    My problems with this book: 1. It's not about black musicians. It's also not really about "black music". It's frequently not about musicians. The most frequent artist mentioned in this book after Dvorak is Mark Twain. 2. Horowitz spends a large chunk of this book reviewing works by other academics, which in turn are often analyses of contemporary critics from the 1880s-1920s, commenting on the art in questions. So essentially this book is a critique of critiques of critiques of works of art. It is My problems with this book: 1. It's not about black musicians. It's also not really about "black music". It's frequently not about musicians. The most frequent artist mentioned in this book after Dvorak is Mark Twain. 2. Horowitz spends a large chunk of this book reviewing works by other academics, which in turn are often analyses of contemporary critics from the 1880s-1920s, commenting on the art in questions. So essentially this book is a critique of critiques of critiques of works of art. It is so far removed from the art itself as to be entirely pointless. 3. Horowitz dedicates an entire chapter to his annoyance with people being 'triggered' and 'cancel culture'. This barely has anything to do with the topic at hand. At one point he dedicates a few paragraphs to how upset he is that statues of confederate soldiers are being taken down. 4. Instead of learning anything about the (apparently very frequent) complains he gets regarding his thesis (that true "black" music and true "indian" music is the purview of white people), he just dismisses them out of hand. He expresses incredulity that Native Americans weren't interested in taking part in his "Native American Music Festival" but seems entirely uninterested in investigating why. 5. Horowitz spends a troubling amount of time in this book marketing his other books and projects. He frequently uses his own work as citation, and is always sure to mention where you can buy the CDs he has helped to produce. I spent most of this book thinking Horowitz was a well meaning if out of touch old white dude, but by the end I was pretty sure he is a bad person acting in bad faith, and is mostly just interested in making money. Avoid.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen Hulser

    Horowitz is a witty and acerbic commentator, and here once again he pokes a stick at our cultural conventions. Dvorak's Prophecy updates the quest for an "American" music by excavating the ignored and forgotten composers that the customary canon of EuroStars left out. Readers will be constructing their playlists as Horowitz incisively discusses such figures at Charles Ives, William Dawson, Florence Price, George Chadwick and Arthur Farwell, among others. The impact of French, German, African-Ame Horowitz is a witty and acerbic commentator, and here once again he pokes a stick at our cultural conventions. Dvorak's Prophecy updates the quest for an "American" music by excavating the ignored and forgotten composers that the customary canon of EuroStars left out. Readers will be constructing their playlists as Horowitz incisively discusses such figures at Charles Ives, William Dawson, Florence Price, George Chadwick and Arthur Farwell, among others. The impact of French, German, African-American, Native American and various folk traditions supplies a fascinating base for hearing "American" music as assemblage, artfully sampled, assimilated and re-arranged. As always, Horowitz places composers at the center of his exegesis, ignoring the celebrity conductor/performer cults that have distorted the repertoire in the US. This is a terrific volume designed to not just make you think; you will hear differently as you sample your way through Frederick Delius and Nathaniel Dett, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and William Grant Still. Indeed, this work poses lots of questions about the historical ear: do we hear things differently in different eras? I have always thought that is a better pathway to understanding, than framing the question as changing musical tastes. Horowitz has done original work in searching through the development of folk, spiritual, ragtime, blues and jazz to trace bilateral influences that made Dvorak and Gershwin, and Frederick Delius change their idiom. His chapter on how Mark Twain and Charles Ives chew on the vernacular in their respective literary and musical traditions is great fun. He makes a convincing argument for appropriation as a natural development which -- if not for the pernicious and endemic racism that Jim Crowed music as surely as water fountains -- should have given us a robust historical black and white music base for 20th century composition. He even resurrects Arthur Farwell, sometimes seen as a naïf or a colonizer, but here appearing as someone whose vocals works sung in Navajo deserve a more thoughtful appraisal. Full of sassy ripostes, Horowitz gathers pungent quotes wherever he goes. Virgil Thompson, the perennial critic/composer who didn't get it, nevertheless characterized Melville's Billy Budd as "Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges." This book is an exhilarating deep dive into a usable past that honors the mavericks that should be at the core of our cultural self image.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Martha Anne Toll

    Here’s my review of this book for the Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outloo... Here’s my review of this book for the Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outloo...

  9. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    This challenged my preconceptions of American classical music and really helped broaden my perspective of what music is performed and why today. While this is not the most approachable book, I found listening to the pieces mentioned while reading to be quite an enjoyable experience. As someone who has played in amateur orchestras for many years, this explains a lot about what music is programmed and why.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Steven

  11. 4 out of 5

    Adriana Pohl

  12. 4 out of 5

    Elena F.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Lyn

  14. 5 out of 5

    Lillian

  15. 4 out of 5

    DKA

  16. 4 out of 5

    Gideon Dabi

  17. 5 out of 5

    Nicolaus S

  18. 4 out of 5

    abby

  19. 5 out of 5

    Colleen

  20. 4 out of 5

    Dan Graser

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sharon

  22. 4 out of 5

    Marie-Eve

  23. 4 out of 5

    Drew Eary

  24. 5 out of 5

    Linda

  25. 4 out of 5

    Lance Lubelski

  26. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

  27. 4 out of 5

    Bob Croft

  28. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Cooper

  29. 4 out of 5

    Edward Benyas

  30. 4 out of 5

    Lillian

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