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John McWhorter on “Dvorak’s Prophecy”

In his New York Times column two days ago, John McWhorter wrote of Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music: “Horowitz has taught me a new way of processing the timeline of American classical music. . . . His lesson should resound.”

Attending Porgy and Bess at the Met, McWhorter continued, “I experienced the opera for the first time as an imperious touchstone rather than as a fascinating question. . . . Horowitz teaches us to stop hearing Porgy and Bess narrowly, as a Black opera, or as some sideline oddity called a folk opera. It is what opera should be in this country, with our history, period. Under this analysis, the scores to Copland’s Billy the Kid and Rodeo, for all their beauty, are the fascinating but sideline development, not Porgy and Bess.” 

Most recently the author of Woke Racism, McWhorter is more a social critic than a music critic. But he knows music (his take on the notorious Heinrich Schenker controversy at the University of Texas is the most sensible I have read). In the case of my Dvorak book, he has swallowed and digested it whole, then applied its findings in one commanding gesture. His Times column registers what any author craves – understanding of a writer’s intentions so true that he can run with it. 

Here he is again:

“Porgy and Bess can feel, at times, messy. You never quite know what’s coming and might wonder whether it all hangs together. But that’s just it: Maybe as an American piece it shouldn’t hang together any more than America ever has. Horowitz cherishes this quality in what he regards as true American art in an eternally hybrid experiment of a nation, charting a commonality between the narratively baggy quality of Mark Twain’s greatest works and the splashy, smashed-up quality of so much of Charles Ives’s work, where despite the stringent classical structure overall, a folk tune can come crashing into the proceedings. Those who saw Copland as the real thing tended to find Ives’s work interesting but somewhat quaint and unfinished. But Horowitz points to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thought that ‘in the mud and scum of things, there alway, alway something sings.’ That mud and scum, for Emerson, was what we now call authenticity.”

Yes, yes, and yes. I discard the modernist paradigm that assumes that nothing of real interest was composed by an American before 1915, that views Ives and Gershwin as gifted amateurs, that for decades patronized Porgy and Bess as if it were not an overwhelming cathartic experience (in a good production). 

In my book, I find Emersonian “mud and scum” not only in Ives (who himself cited this poem), but other self-made, “unfinished” American creators, including Whitman, Melville, and Twain. Emily Dickinson and William Faulkner (my favorite American novelist, who was no Henry James) also fit this list. And extolling the necessary pertinence of the Black vernacular to American creativity, to the perenialy unfinished project of national identity, I cite W. E. B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison, William Levi Dawson and Toni Morrison.

I think it can be agreed that modernism is over – but the obituaries remain insufficiently framed. In the closing pages of Dvorak’s Prophecy, I write:

“The new American classical-music paradigm I have here proposed, reaching into the past, treats the twentieth century as an aberration in an Ur-narrative. The modernist juggernaut, whatever its triumphs, elevated art to lonely heights. It cherished highbrow pedigrees. It also punished the past. The triumphs remain. But the punishments, whether inflicted by Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford, or by Alfred Barr’s Museum of Modern Art, proved transient. It is time that the American musical pastlessness proclaimed by Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein also be put to rest.” 

The revisionist reckoning I have attempted to apply to American classical music will doubtless resonate in other fields of American creative and intellectual endeavor. The rehabilitation of John Singer Sargent (for decades dismissed by modernists as a society painter) is a related phenomenon I could not resist inserting in Dvorak’s Prophecy. The historian Allen Guelzo – an appreciative reader of my book – adds: 

“The fate of American classical music has a definite parallel to American philosophy in the same period. The cognate to Dvorak and Dawson is the collegiate moral philosophy tradition and the idealist pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce and Josiah Royce. All of them were consigned to the same “pastlessness,” and a new philosophic narrative was created around William James and John Dewey in much the same way that a new musical narrative was confected by Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland.”

Did American philosophy begin with William James? Did American intellectual history slumber through the Gilded Age? Some people think so — still. 

For information on the six “Dvorak’s Prophecy” documentary films just released by Naxos, click here.

For readers who discover a paywall attempting to access John McWhorter, here’s part of what he wrote:

“Much of the history of classical music in America has been written as if indigenous American musical forms were ultimately insufficient to form the basis of mature art, such that Dvořák’s call fell largely upon deaf ears. . . . Joseph Horowitz writes in his new book, Dvořák’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music, that in the first half of the 20th century, a cadre of American composers created American classical music that either held Native American and Black music at an arm’s length or ignored it . . .

“Hence, the music of Aaron Copland, in works such as Appalachian Spring, is often treated as where American classical music went for real, with Porgy and Bess often treated as a zesty but idiosyncratic business created by an undertrained upstart. One can love Porgy and Bess deeply and yet fall for this perception . . . 

“No more: Horowitz has taught me a new way of processing the timeline of American classical music. If Dvořák’s counsel made sense — that is, if America is to develop a native classical music in the sense that a Bartók used Hungarian folk music to shape his work — then the through line runs directly through “Porgy and Bess.” Taking in the Metropolitan Opera’s fine production a few days ago, I experienced the opera for the first time as an imperious touchstone rather than as a fascinating question. . . .

Porgy and Bess can feel, at times, messy. You never quite know what’s coming and might wonder whether it all hangs together. But that’s just it: Maybe as an American piece it shouldn’t hang together any more than America ever has. Horowitz cherishes this quality in what he regards as true American art in an eternally hybrid experiment of a nation, charting a commonality between the narratively baggy quality of Mark Twain’s greatest works and the splashy, smashed-up quality of so much of Charles Ives’s work, where despite the stringent classical structure overall, a folk tune can come crashing into the proceedings. Those who saw Copland as the real thing tended to find Ives’s work interesting but somewhat quaint and unfinished. But Horowitz points to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thought that “in the mud and scum of things, there alway, alway something sings.” That mud and scum, for Emerson, was what we now call authenticity.

“Black composers, of course, created truly American classical music of this kind — William Dawson’s smashing Negro Folk Symphony is one example. Yet Porgy and Bess qualifies, despite its white creators, as a keystone of where truly American classical music had gone by its time, as well as one guide for where it should go. . . . 

“Horowitz teaches us to stop hearing Porgy and Bess narrowly, as a Black opera, or as some sideline oddity called a folk opera. It is what opera should be in this country, with our history, period. Under this analysis, the scores to Copland’s Billy the Kid and Rodeo, for all their beauty, are the fascinating but sideline development, not Porgy and Bess. Broadway pieces incorporating Black and immigrant musical styles that play plausibly in opera houses, like Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes’s Street Scene and Marc Blitzstein’s Regina, are less collectors’ oddities than pavers on the path to true American classical music, landing farther from the bull’s-eye than Porgy and Bess but worth attending to.

“Horowitz has taught me to listen to Black classical music as what the most American of classical music is. His lesson should resound.”

Comments

  1. In Germany and Austria, there is an ongoing and often troubling debate about the term “Leitkultur.” I think the discussion and its concepts might be relevant to your work, even if in a somewhat varied form:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leitkultur

  2. Anthony F Princiotti says

    It feels trite to say it, but I think the decoupling of “art music” from its previously assumed basis in physics that took place in the early 20th century fundamentally affected its perceived relevance. And this also played a role in the fate of Classical Music in America.

    Previous musical revolutions had come and gone without significantly affecting the public’s interest in hearing new music. But the rupture of the pre-existing syntax – which allowed for some relationship between the acoustical basis of folk/indigenous/popular music and that of art music – resulted in a significant decline in audience interest and many composers feeling they were faced with a (false) choice between accessibility and artistic integrity.

    Even as America became a world power, African-American composers of classical music were facing dual challenges: 1) the plague of racial discrimination, and 2) composing in a genre that was losing its audience.

    I’ll be curious to see if the book also examines the extent to which the decoupling of “art music” from its previously assumed basis in physics that took place in the early 20th century (i.e. at the time when America was becoming an international power) played a role in the fate of Classical Music in America. Musical revolutions had come and gone without significantly affecting the public’s interest in hearing new music was prioritized on concert programs until the late 19th c.

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