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.

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.

What makes this absorbing narrative so convincing is Horowitz’s gift for storytelling and his flair for the representative anecdote. Consider, for example, his breathtaking chronicle of the career of Arthur Judson. A business class of one who from 1922 to 1935 managed the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic simultaneously and who was pivotal in creating the Columbia Broadcasting System, he rose to become the power behind the throne of an increasingly populist industry; his Columbia Concerts Corporation controlled two-thirds of the country’s most successful artists and conductors. Judson’s reach was awesome:

When the Portland [Oregon] Symphony’s music director suddenly died in 1925, it was Judson whom the orchestra phoned. He recommended Willem van Hoogstraten; Hoogstraten was hired. It was Judson who recommended Eugene Ormandy to the Minneapolis Symphony, and who recommended Ormandy’s successor, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and who recommended Mitropoulos’s successor, Antal Dorati, and who recommended Walter Hendl to succeed Dorati in Dallas…. Looking back, Ormandy said of Judson, “I owe everything to him.”

Horowitz clearly loves big personalities like Judson and Henry Lee Higginson, who built the Boston Symphony Orchestra from scratch into one of the world’s leading orchestras. But behind his enraptured tributes lies a moralistic strand that sours our enjoyment of their creative contradictions. As the pages of history turn, as the big players come and go, Horowitz continually asks the Jesus question: What would Dvorak (or Seidl, or Stokowski) do?

Early in the book, Horowitz contrasts conservative Boston–in the figure of the influential but puritanical critic John Sullivan Dwight–with progressive New York, the stomping ground of such dynamic conductors as Seidl and Theodore Thomas. George Whitefield Chadwick, however, is presented as a more unifying figure. The most frequently performed of late-nineteenth-century Boston composers, he joins in the chorus of faint praise that greets Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony at its Boston premiere (some critics were openly racist in their denunciations); like the impeccably professional Amy Beach, Charles Martin Loeffler and others, he is alternately supported and stifled by Boston’s genteel culture. But Horowitz praises the “tangy American flavor” of Chadwick’s music, proclaiming the composer as “the first American symphonic nationalist” and ceaselessly hyping “Jubilee,” a slight if charming overture that owes quite a lot to Dvorak’s “Carnival” overture without contributing much of its own.

One could excuse this as a connoisseur’s indulgence. But Horowitz cannot forget Chadwick. The composer haunts the pages that follow: Conductor Serge Koussevitzky, composer-critic Virgil Thomson and composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, all of whom Horowitz admires to varying degrees, are slapped on the wrist for failing to recognize his genius. In his introduction, Horowitz protests that although “I devote more space to Dvorak than Stravinsky, to Toscanini than Furtwängler…[this] does not imply that Dvorak was the greater composer, Toscanini the greater conductor.” He wants to focus “on representative people, institutions, and events.” The flaw in this approach is that it emphasizes what classical music stands for rather than what it actually is. Chadwick’s flaws are lovingly forgiven; he is seen (improbably) as a comrade of Ives and (absurdly) as a precursor to Gershwin–whom Horowitz rightly celebrates, along with Griffes, Varèse and Ruth Crawford Seeger. But great music begins with strong ideas, not good intentions. Barber, who gave us Knoxville: Summer of 1915, the Violin Concerto and the ubiquitous Piano Sonata, and Copland, who not only wrote Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid and all the rest but also mapped out an original, homegrown classical style on which American composers have ceaselessly drawn, are picked apart like flies, treated as secondary figures instead of the hugely influential creators they became.

As we advance more toward the present, Horowitz’s concentration on institutions gets entangled with his own biases in an unsettling way: Lincoln Center bad, Brooklyn Academy of Music good. This is tendentious on its face. BAM was once a trailblazer, but as Brooklyn has become an interior suburb of Manhattan, BAM has cherished its own conservative tradition: the music of Glass, Reich and Laurie Anderson. Horowitz is of course correct that orchestral performance standards at the Met had sharply declined by the 1960s, and that the synergy promised by grouping the Met, City Opera, the Philharmonic and other companies all on West 65th Street has never been truly fulfilled. But did the new Met look “cheap”? Does James Levine lack “a public personality” and a “highly delineated institutional vision”? Horowitz rightly lauds the work of Valery Gergiev (whom he and Lichtenstein brought to BAM long before the Met grabbed him) but neglects to mention the Russian conductor’s shallow technique and lack of discipline. (And did Marian Anderson really make her Met debut in La forza del destino?) The innovative programming that Jane Moss has brought to Lincoln Center–and the similar work of the late Judith Arron at Carnegie Hall–goes uncredited.

Horowitz diligently lays out the considerable problems that face American classical music today, and his warnings cannot go unheeded. Yet his verdict that “it would be naïve to deny the greater freshness of the entire enterprise before 1950” is dismal and counterproductive. It may not even be true. He whines that an “average Carnegie Hall season of the 1920’s might list recitals by (among many others) Backhaus, Casals, Cortot, Flesch, Gieseking, Hofmann, Hubermann, Landowska, [Vladimir] Horowitz, Szigeti, and Thibaud.” It doesn’t get much better than that. But if the author picked up his 2004-’05 Carnegie Hall calendar, he could note appearances by Renée Fleming, Ian Bostridge, Richard Goode, Dawn Upshaw, Christian Tetzlaff, Daniel Barenboim, Mitsuko Uchida and a whole series of concerts with Leif Ove Andsnes–not to mention a parade of magnificent orchestras and chamber groups. The pianist Gary Graffman has recalled that when he was growing up during the so-called “golden age,” Carnegie never sold out unless a Horowitz, a Heifetz or a Rubinstein was onstage.

Imprisoned in a marketing culture, we all expect too much. Horowitz wants to point the way to a vital future, and he is right to instill in us a proper sense of shame. But his visions are haunted by ghosts.