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New World Symphony | The Nation

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New World Symphony

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Classical music in America, we are frequently told, is in its death throes: its orchestras bled dry by expensive guest soloists and greedy musicians unions, its media presence shrinking, its prestige diminished, its educational role ignored, its big record labels dying out or merging into faceless corporate entities. We seem to have too many well-trained musicians in need of work, too many good composers going without commissions, too many concerts to offer an already satiated public.

About the Author

Russell Platt
Russell Platt, a composer and critic, is on the staff of The New Yorker.

Also by the Author

It's a cliché to say that an artist draws his power from his
contradictions, but the lives of the great composers provide easy grist
for the mill.

Near the end of Parallels and Paradoxes, a recent collection of
dialogues on music and society between the conductor and pianist Daniel
Barenboim, music director of the Chicago Symphony

And yet classical music has proved to be a pretty tough beast. Major orchestras (such as the St. Louis Symphony, which returned to work this year after a two-month lockout) survive as civic institutions; most are too big to fail. The opera business, which half a century ago was virtually controlled by the widely touring Metropolitan Opera, has spread like wildfire across the land: Audiences love the genre's theatricality and verve. We live in a golden age of string quartets. And while the era of singers like Tebaldi, Merrill, Steber, Price, Callas and Tozzi has all but passed, American stages are graced by the likes of Dawn Upshaw, Plácido Domingo, Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Ben Heppner and Susan Graham, not to mention a stable of starry Europeans and South Americans. One could do worse. But there are still serious problems, and Joseph Horowitz's new book is devoted to searching out their origins.

His is not the only new volume devoted to this often morbid and fascinating subject. There is, for example, Blair Tindall's Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, a garishly titled tome that offers both a helping of tabloid-ready tidbits and an analysis of the profession's economic woes. Like Tindall, a musician-journalist, Horowitz has been on the "front lines" of the classical-music war in a number of capacities: as a New York Times critic in the late 1970s, an executive administrator at the Brooklyn Academy of Music under the benevolent dictatorship of its inspiring leader, Harvey Lichtenstein, and as a prolific author of books and articles. Classical Music in America is the type of book we need more of: bold, beautifully written and rich in challenges and courtesies. It is also annoyingly contradictory, maddeningly overlong and gripped by a nostalgia for a time its author could not have known.

For Horowitz, the 1890s were a paradise--a culture where music, especially new music, mattered more than the musicians who played it, and whose most beloved composer, Antonin Dvorak, was a Czech butcher's son who didn't put on lofty airs and who (unlike most Europeans) thought highly enough of American musical potential that he immigrated here, however briefly, to head up the country's new National Conservatory. The era's heyday came on December 15, 1893, the world premiere of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World"), led by Anton Seidl, a renowned Wagnerian conductor, at Andrew Carnegie's magnificent two-year-old Music Hall in New York. The second movement, "Largo" (so deeply inspired by "Negro" plantation songs that it was eventually turned into an ersatz spiritual), is so immediately poignant that it stops the show. After the performance, the composer is not only showered with applause but is eagerly greeted by the city's music critics who, unlike today, were a vital part of the scene they covered.

But a great schism, Horowitz argues, was about to shatter this perfect world, partially impelled by the anti-German feelings provoked by World War I. Arturo Toscanini, whose exacting standards of musical perfection and political integrity made him both a matchless maestro and a hugely compelling public figure, was packaged by the slick postwar "public relations" industry into a modern god; Toscanini's deification (the subject of an earlier book by Horowitz) reached a climax in the 1940s with the help of David Sarnoff, who gave him a crack NBC Symphony with which to broadcast nationally. The pattern first took hold in the 1920s:

Toscanini shock was international, but varied according to local need and disposition.... He offered [Americans] living proof that one did not have to be German to understand Beethoven. As significant, he and his New York Philharmonic fostered a new musical priority: performance as an end in itself.
 Older priorities shrank accordingly.... Every previous conductor of consequence to Americans...was vitally concerned with introducing new and unfamiliar music. To a degree unprecedented in New York or elsewhere, Toscanini recycled canonized masterworks.

Further consequences foreshadowed the predicament of our own day:

[Such conductors as] Seidl, Gericke, Nikisch, Muck, Mahler, and (initially) Stokowski were full-time conductors in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.... With their rangy programs, they were educators, alert to the music of the moment. They pursued a mission larger than themselves. Toscanini was a new species: a part-time principal conductor.

Musicians like Jascha Heifetz, Van Cliburn, Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould, all of whom lived within carefully crafted publicity bubbles, continued a trend that promoted "the world's greatest soloists" and conductors over the music they performed. As pop music, rock and rap increasingly challenged classical music's prestige, the celebrity cult metastasized into the 1990s phenomenon of the Three Tenors, whose appallingly sloppy but outrageously well-compensated stadium performances--which, by virtue of being marketed as "accessible" and non-elitist, were inoculated against snob criticism--made Toscanini's awesome standards seem less than a memory.

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