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Dvorak’s Prophecy — A Two-Hour Webcast

My brand-new book Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music (already a best book of the year in The Financial Times and Kirkus Reviews) proposes a “new paradigm” for the history of American classical music. 

Replacing the modernist “standard narrative” popularized by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, it begins not ca. 1920 but with the sorrow songs so memorably extolled by W E. B. Du Bois and Antonin Dvorak. Emphasizing proximity to vernacular speech and song, it privileges Charles Ives and George Gershwin as our two great creative talents. And it necessarily incorporates the Black Classical Music now being belatedly exhumed.

In effect, I am presenting a buried lineage, beginning with the American Dvorak and proceeding to Harry Burleigh, Nathaniel Dett, William Levi Dawson, Florence Price, William Grant Still – all of whom absorbed Dvorak’s roots-in-the-soil Romantic cultural nationalism. The peak achievements here include (I would say) Burleigh’s “Steal Away” and (setting Langston Hughes) “Lovely Dark and Lonely One,” Dett’s The Ordering of Moses, and Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony.

Another way of looking at it all is to fix on the composers left out of the standard narrative – the American Dvorak, Burleigh, Ives, Gershwin, Dawson – and also, e.g.,  Silvestre Revueltas, Bernard Herrmann, and Lou Harrison. (My series of Dvorak’s Prophecies” films, just now released on Naxos, includes treatments of Ives, Dawson, Herrmann, and Harrison.)

These eight “left out” composers have long been explored and promoted by PostClassical Ensemble and my PCE colleague Angel Gil-Ordonez – and the most recent “PostClassical” webcast, on WWFM, is dedicated to Dvorak’s Prophecy and compositions by these eight formidable American voices. In conversation with Angel and the inimitable Bill McGlaughlin, we ask and re-ask: “How is it possible these pieces aren’t known?” Angel calls the American neglect of Ives “the biggest mystery in American music.” I comment that Revueltas is “the composer we should be studying right now” – because he knows how to embed the call for social justice into enduring works of art.

Basically, American classical musicians have lacked curiosity about American music; they remain fundamentally Eurocentric. In my book, I treat this as a larger American self-affliction; the epigraph quotes George Santayana: “The American mind does not oppose tradition it forgets it.”

And this matters more than ever. Never before have we so urgently needed a common cultural inheritance to foster a newly consolidated national self-awareness. 

This is a need so acute that it isn’t noticed or discussed.  

Here (below) is a Listeners Guide for our three-part WWFM webcast. Profuse thanks, as ever, to David Osenberg, who makes WWFM the nation’s most enterprising classical-music radio station.

For information on the book and the films:

COMING UP: “DVORAK’S PROPHECY ON NPR: “1A” Thursday, Nov 25 at 10 am ET.


00:00 – Harry BurleighSteal Away (Kevin Deas and Joe Horowitz at the National Cathedral)

7:00 – Burleigh as a forgotten hero of American music. His place in the new narrative proposed by Horowitz in Dvorak’s Prophecy, replacing the modernist “standard narrative” of American classical music 

15:00 – Antonin Dvorak’s little-known “American” style after the New World Symphony. His American Suite, movement 3, performed by PostClassical Ensemble and Angel Gil-Ordóñez, for whom it proclaims “This is America!”

23:00 – Dvorak’s three American tropes: African-American, Native American, the American West. How to account for our continued ignorance of his later American output? Horowitz: “We’re just not interested in ourselves, we lack curiosity.” The Metropolitan Museum traces a lineage of American painting; the NY Philharmonic does not trace a lineage of American music.

29:00 – The “most striking omission”: Charles Ives. Gil-Ordóñez: the failure to play Ives is “the biggest mystery” in American music, “really a tragedy.”

36:00 – Ives: The Housatonic at Stockbridge (as presented in the new “Dvorak’s Prophecy” film “Charles Ives’ America”)


00:00 – George Gershwin and “the Gershwin threat.” An under-rated Gershwin piece: the Cuban Overture, with its surprising Andalusian episode

2:08 – Gershwin Cuban Overture, performed by Angel Gil-Ordóñez and PCE

14:08 – Why don’t we know the Cuban Overture? It fails the criteria of modernism

18:55 – William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony: “buried treasure”

20:26 – Dawson’s symphony, movement 2: “Hope in the Night,” performed by Leopold Stokowski

41:00 – Could the Black musical motherlode that fostered popular genres have equally served American classical music?


2:00 – Silvestre Revueltas: another major composer who falls outside the modernist narrative. Gil-Ordóñez: “another tragedy.”

8:15 – Revueltas: Redes (ending), with PCE conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez

11:52 – Why Revueltas is “the composer we should be studying right now” re: political art and social justice.

22:00 – Lou Harrison and his Violin Concerto

25:00 – Harrison Violin Concerto, movement 3, with Tim Fain and PCE led by Gil-Ordóñez

35:25 – Bernard Herrmann as “the most under-rated 20th century American composer”

38:00 – Herrmann’s Psycho Narrative performed by PCE and Gil-Ordóñez


  1. George Santayana: “The American mind does not oppose tradition it forgets it.” The difficulty with this statement is that “mind” is such a broad and nebulous term. Perhaps more to the point is that nothing is sacred to an all-pervasive profit motive. No precious building or manifestation of culture is immune to destruction for the sake of profit.

    In 1848, Karl Marx pointed out the conflicts between tradition and capitalism:

    “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.”

    Even if one doesn’t embrace Marxism, the observation is relevant.

    Another interesting thought you mention is the idea that we need “a common cultural inheritance to foster a newly consolidated national self-awareness.” True, but one might ask if he USA too big to be cultured? How can a country with so many disparate regions be cultured if it is subjected to the uniformity of a mass market, mass media, and a mass economy? In some respects, the USA is about nine countries. This is no big secret. The US Census map does a pretty good job of outlining the nine countries that could be seen as comprising the USA::

    Others have suggested variants of these divisions.

    Regionality is the essence of culture. When regionality is erased into a mass culture and market, culture is destroyed. If the nine regions in that map were autonomous, culture would flourish.

    This is, of course, impossible and unthinkable. Given the American “mind,” war between them would probably also flourish, but perhaps the idea offers insights into the suppression of culture in the USA and how it could be mitigated. It also tells us something about how the NEA might be better organized.

    Thank you again for the interesting thoughts. I look forward to listening to the whole program.

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