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Why Is American Classical Music So White?

Antonin Dvorak predicted that American classical music would draw from African American traditions. A new article wonders why American classical music has remained so white.
Karen Chan
Getty Images/EyeEm
Antonin Dvorak predicted that American classical music would draw from African American traditions. A new article wonders why American classical music has remained so white.

When the first enslaved Africans landed on American shores in 1619, their musical traditions landed with them. Four centuries later, the primacy of African American music is indisputable, not only in this country but in much of the world. How that music has evolved, blending with or giving rise to other traditions — from African songs and dances to field hollers and spirituals, from ragtime and blues to jazz, R&B and hip-hop — is a topic of endless discussion.

More difficult to decode is the relationship African American music has had — or should have had — with America's classical music tradition. Today, it's not uncommon for Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar toperform alongside a symphony orchestra, yet African Americans generally aren't performing in those orchestras themselves. Less than 2% of musicians in American orchestras are African American, according to a 2014 study by the League of American Orchestras. Only 4.3% of conductors are black, and composers remain predominantly white as well.

All of these ratios are skewed, of course, by decades of institutional racial bias. Still, it's fair to wonder why the sound of American classical music, especially as it developed in the early 20th century, remained so European, drawing heavily from the harmonic language of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. Had the vernacular of slave songs, spirituals and jazz taken root in our classical music, we would have a different landscape today — and a classical sound that is uniquely American.

Joseph Horowitz says it almost happened. In his article "New World Prophecy," published last week in the autumn edition of The American Scholar, the cultural historian argues that the seeds of a truly American sound were sown but never watered, as American composers in the late 19th century largely resisted the influence of African American music. Horowitz, who has written numerous books about the history of music in America, pays special attention to George Gershwin — one white composer who did embrace black music — and a handful of African American composers who found genuine success in the 1930s, only to see it quickly fade. William Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony, premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra with superstar conductor Leopold Stokowski, is held up in particular as a neglected American treasure.

Horowitz joined me to talk about what he sees as a long series of missed opportunities, from Antonín Dvořák's insistence in the 1890s that the "Negro melodies" were the future of American music, to the acclaimed but undervalued work of African American composers like Florence Price and William Grant Still. That trove of melody-rich, expressive black music could have taken root in America's classical music, Horowitz maintains, but it didn't — and as a result, our classical music has remained overwhelmingly white and increasingly marginalized.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Huizenga: Looming over your article about the trajectory of American classical music is a foreigner, the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. The story starts in the early 1890s, when he was hired by a wealthy American philanthropist, Jeanette Thurber, to lead a music school in New York. His goal was to help American composers shake off the European influences and discover their own truly American voice. How did Dvořák attempt to do that?

Joseph Horowitz: He did the most obvious and essential thing for him — because he was a cultural nationalist — which was to ask: "Where is your folk music?" And that's a conundrum for America, because we're a melting pot. But Dvořák happened to hear two kinds of music that just galvanized him. He heard what we call African American spirituals, probably for the first time. His assistant Harry Burleigh was black and sang those spirituals. And he heard what he called "Negro melodies," which included minstrel songs from other sources. He was immediately, more or less, satisfied that he'd struck gold. At the same time, like so many Europeans of his generation, he was fascinated by [American] Indians, because there were no Indians in Bohemia — so he made it his business to investigate Indian music, especially in the summer he spent in Iowa. He was consumed by these new methodologies: using Indian music, using African American music, to help foster an American classical music style.

Then Dvořák made a radical prediction. In 1893, he told The New York Herald: "The future of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States." In other words, he was telling white composers that their future was bound to the very people they enslaved and killed. How was that prediction received?

It was instantly influential and instantly controversial. And it's amazing to use this as a mirror on the American experience in the 1890s, because in Boston Dvořák is scientifically categorized as a barbarian — read the reviews. It reflects the racial thinking in Boston, based on a hierarchy of races with the Anglo Saxons at the top. Slavs, including Dvořák, were at a lower rung; of course, they were higher up than Native Americans or African Americans. [Whereas] New York thought Dvořák was an inspirational prophet, because New York was a city of immigrants.

So back to Dvořák's prediction. In one sense he was right because American music did turn out to be black, if you trace ragtime, spirituals, blues and jazz right up through today's hip-hop. But Dvořák was talking about American classical music – symphonies and operas etc. Did anyone take up Dvořák's call to action?

Absolutely. This is a buried history, which we are only now exhuming. And it's shocking to realize how plausible Dvořák's prophecy was: It could have happened, but it didn't. We know that it could have happened because we haveGershwin's operaPorgy and Bess. I would say Porgy and Bess, with all of its problems, is the highest creative achievement in American classical music, and it is exactly the kind of American classical music that Dvořák predicted.

The buried history is a narrative that begins with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who was, in the 1890s, really famous. He was a black British composer who was challenged by W.E.B. Du Bois and Harry Burleigh to utilize African American roots. But he was born in London and he didn't have any African American roots at his immediate disposal. The main composers who comprise this buried history, then, were Nathaniel Dett, William Grant Still,Florence Price and William Dawson.

These are all African American composers who made highly acclaimed work in the 1930s. But you say the success they had with that work didn't lead to long-term recognition.

It went underground. Even though Dett's oratorio [The Ordering of Moses] was nationally broadcast, and Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony [conducted by Leopold Stokowski] was nationally broadcast and had an enormous impact in 1934, and Price'sSymphony in E minor was performed by Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony a year earlier, and Still'sAfro-American Symphony was prominently performed by Howard Hanson in Rochester. The most regrettable of these consequences is that Dawson never composed another symphony. Because to my ears, the buried treasure here is the Dawson.

Indeed, Dawson and his Negro Folk Symphony are, musically at least, at the heart of your essay. You maintain that the symphony is not only neglected, but undervalued. What makes it so great?

This is an amazing work and was immediately recognized as such. First of all, this is not a cookie-cutter structure. Even though it's his first symphony, it does not seem the work of a fledgling symphonist. It's structurally dynamic and original.

More subjectively I would say that it captures a kind of wild energy: These amazing syncopated explosions in the first movement, especially in the Stokowski performance, they just ignite. I think that it actually manages to transcend the decorum of the concert hall. You feel you're in the presence of something that's so vitally charged that the concert hall can barely contain it. The pièce de résistance in this symphony — which everyone recognized from the moment it was first heard — is the coda to the second movement. It's seismic. There are three seismic upheavals, the scoring of which is unique. It's actually an original inspiration. This is in 1934 at the Philadelphia Academy of Music and at Carnegie Hall, and the audience broke out into applause in the middle of this symphony. It was not in any way a normal thing in 1934 for an audience to interrupt a symphony with applause. That wasn't done because the composer happened to be black. That was done because people were stunned by the power of this symphony, which then proceeded to disappear.

I love this quote from Dawson that you include in your essay. When he talks about his symphony, even before Stokowski premiered it, he says: "I've tried not to imitate Beethoven or Brahms, Franck or Ravel — but to be just myself, a Negro. To me the finest compliment that could be paid to my symphony when it has its premiere is that it unmistakably is not the work of a white man. I want the audience to say: 'Only a Negro could have written that.' " But it seems Dvořák was suggesting that white composers should be writing symphonies that sound like Dawson's. Are you also arguing for that?

Well, Morton Gould wrote a piece called Spirituals, and of course Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess, which contains some spirituals of his own. More generally, we've had innumerable examples of white composers drawing on the African American vernacular. The problem has been the quality of that work and its marginality.

I'll say explicitly I don't believe you have to be black in order to write a great symphony or opera galvanized by great black vernacular music. That's my personal opinion. I happen to think Porgy and Bess is a great opera. The guy who wrote it happened to be white.

And you have this quote from Dawson that would seem to suggest otherwise. And it's a compelling quote. It has actually been suggested that the Negro Folk Symphony is "black" not only for its sources but for its very style, which evokes improvisation. But that's a dangerous topic to speculate about — what is "essentially" black or white. You've asked an uncomfortable question, right? And I'm giving you an uncomfortable answer.

So we've got William Dawson, and a handful of other African American composers, who had kind of a moment in the 1930s. I'm wondering why that moment passed so quickly and why we haven't heard much of their music performed by our most prominent institutions since?

Well that's the nub of my article. There are two reasons, and one is obvious and the other is not. The obvious reason is that our institutions of classical music were racially biased. We know that story. What's new in my article is the other reason, which is aesthetic. And in some ways it's even more interesting — that the aesthetic of modernism, which prevailed in these decades, was not comfortable with the vernacular.

I can demonstrate that, just quoting the things that were said by composer and criticVirgil Thomson andAaron Copland about black music. Thomson insisted that American folk music was fundamentally white, including black spirituals. Copland rather famously said that a composer of classical music would quickly exhaust the utility of jazz. He didn't care very much for Gershwin's music, at least at that stage in the game — in the 1930s and '40s. He felt it was under-composed, the reason being it was too close to its vernacular sources.

The reigning aesthetic of those decades was one that insisted on a kind of compositional ingenuity and complexity. So it was inherently uncomfortable with the unadulterated vernacular, and that is the reason Copland and Thomson and all those guys so grossly underratedCharles Ives and George Gershwin. They didn't think they were real composers. They thought they were gifted dilettantes, because Gershwin and Ives were in love with the vernacular and didn't feel any need to dress it up or improve it or enhance it. They would take a vernacular tune and be perfectly happy with it, without fracturing it or turning it upside down or running it backwards.

I want to be clear that I'm not suggesting that Thomson or Copland were racists. Copland was very far on the left. He was completely committed to social justice. He was a friend to African Americans. Politically, he was anything but a racist. But he was also a modernist schooled in France. The fact remains that the dirt of the vernacular was a milieu in which he really wasn't that comfortable, compared to a Gershwin or Ives.

I was wondering why European composers likeRavel, Milhaud andStravinsky seem to acknowledge black music, jazz especially, and incorporate it into their own music while Copland and Thomson, and many other Americans, didn't? And they were the ones right here who had all the exposure to it.

So this is an established phenomenon. In my book Classical Music in America, I call it the "jazz threat" and the "Gershwin threat." The more I read about the reception of Gershwin, the more I realized that the people who appreciated him in the United States were foreign-born. It's incredible once you begin adding up the names: People likeJascha Heifetz, Otto Klemperer, Fritz Reiner,Arnold Schoenberg were in the Gershwin camp. You can't really find American-born classical musicians of that stature, within that period, who feel that same enthusiasm for Gershwin. I would say it's a symptom of provincialism — that Americans felt they needed a pedigree, and they felt self-conscious as practitioners of classical music. Europeans didn't need a pedigree. The pedigree was automatic; it was already there. I think it's partly as simple as that.

And perhaps it's partly one of those things where sometimes it takes an outsider to point out the true and valuable characteristics of a culture.

The Europeans tried. They actually would come and lecture the Americans: They would say, "You don't realize the importance of your own African American music." Ravel said that;Arthur Honegger said that. And the Americans — especially in the case of Olin Downes, the chief music critic of The New York Times — said shut up, you're wrong, don't tell us what to do. If you read Olin Downes' New York Timesobituary for George Gershwin, your skin will crawl. There is a feeling of contempt there, that Gershwin was overrated and not the real thing.

Earlier, you said Porgy and Bess is the highest achievement in American classical music. Why do you think that?

Well, partly, it's just empirical: Look at how popular it is, and how esteemed it is abroad. Shostakovich thought Porgy and Bess was a great opera. It's a flawed opera, and all first operas are flawed. But it deals with race in ways that are in some ways discomfiting and in other ways illuminating. If you attend an excellent performance of Porgy and Bess — or at least in my experience — it's profoundly moving. It does all the things a great opera is supposed to do: It excites empathy, it excites interest and it furnishes a cathartic experience in the opera house.

I wonder why it hasn't spawned any kind of progeny, so to speak?

Gershwin was a genius — that's certainly the most obvious reason. That sounds like a very kind of imprecise thing to say, but as a creative force he transcends his colleagues. To me it's self-evident that he's a greater composer than Copland. In my article, there's a statement by David Gockley, the impresario whose Houston Grand Opera played a key role in the revival of Porgy and Bess, who says if Gershwin hadn't died young, he would have changed the course of classical music in America.

My take on that is to extrapolate it to the orchestra. If Dawson had been entitled to write six symphonies, it's really ponderable that Dvorak's prophecy might have actually taken hold. And had Dvorak's prophecy taken hold — it almost happened — everything would have changed. Classical music today in the United States would be indigenous rather than imported. The fact that it didn't happen, I guess, ultimately is partly just a sociological reality about race relations and race and culture. But if Gershwin had lived to be 80, those sociological realities, as they played out in music, could actually have shifted.

Near the end of your essay, you write: "Might American classical music have canonized, in parallel with jazz, an 'American school' privileging the black vernacular?"

I don't want to sound grandiose, but really it's a question that all of us should be asking today — all of us who care about the fate of classical music in America. What we're looking at right now, this extreme marginalization of classical music, is really the chickens coming home to roost. When I wrote Understanding Toscanini in 1987 and said, "This is a classical music culture built on sand, because it's European sand," most people beat me up for that and thought that I was out of my mind. But I was right. And we're now suffering those consequences. We don't have deep roots for our American classical music culture.

Joseph Horowitz is the author of 10 books, including Classical Music in America and Artists in Exile. He is the executive director of the Post Classical Ensemble, based in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.