Criticism at the Crossroads

By Joseph Horowitz

William James Henderson’s review of the premiere of Dvorak’s Symphony “From the New World,” in the New York Times of December 17, 1893, is one of the most impressive feats in the history of American music journalism. Henderson begins:

The attempt to describe a new musical composition may not be quite so futile as an effort to photograph the perfume of a flower, yet is it is an experiment of similar nature. Only an imperfect and perhaps misleading idea of the character of so complex a work of art as a symphony can be conveyed through the medium of cold type; yet when there is no other way, even that must be tried.

There follows a detailed account – of origins and intentions, methodology and programmatic allusions – that to this day may be the most evocative description of Dvorak’s symphony ever penned. No one has more eloquently put into words the polyvalence of the famous Largo, in which the influences of plantation song and Hiawatha intermingle. “It is,” wrote Henderson, “an idealized slave song made to fit the impressive quiet of night on the prairie.” He continued:

When the star of empire took its way over those mighty Western plains blood and sweat and agony and bleaching human bones marked its course. Something of this awful buried sorrow of the prairie must have forced itself upon Dr. Dvorak’s mind when he saw the plains after reading “The Famine” [Henderson here assumes familiarity with Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, which all literate Americans once knew]. It is a picture of the peace and beauty of to-day colored by a memory of sorrows gone that the composer has given us at the beginning and end of his second movement.

But Henderson’s review is most remarkable where it deals with the question most debated about this work a century ago: “Is it American?” Boston’s critics would answer: no. To Philip Hale, of the Journal, Dvorak was a naive interloper, a “negrophile” susceptible to the notion that “the future of American music rests on the use of Congo, North American Indian Creole, Greaser and Cowboy ditties, whinings, yawps, and whoopings.” New York critics disagreed, none more inspirationally than Henderson:

In spite of all assertion to the contrary, the plantation songs of the American negro possess a striking individuality. No matter whence their germs came, they have in their growth been subjected to local influences which have made of them a new species. That species is the direct result of causes climatic and political, but never anything else than American. Our South is ours. Its twin does not exist. Our system of slavery, with all its domestic and racial conditions, was ours, and its twin never existed. Out of the heart of this slavery, environed by this sweet and languorous South, from the canebrake and the cotton field, arose the spontaneous musical utterance of a people. That folk music struck an answering note in the American heart. . . . If those songs are not national, then there is no such thing as national music. It is a fallacy to suppose that a national song must be one which gives direct and intentional expression to a patriotic sentiment. A national song is one that is of the people, for the people, by the people. The negroes gave us this music and we accepted it, not with proclamations from the housetops, but with our voices and our hearts in the household. Dr. Dvorak has penetrated the spirit of this music, and with themes suitable for symphonic treatment, he has written a beautiful symphony, which throbs with American feeling, which voices the melancholy of our Western wastes, and predicts their final subjection to the tremendous activity of the most energetic of all peoples.

Henderson’s review is today inconceivable in our daily press for three powerful reasons. The first is simply its length: 3,000 words. Our reading and editorial habits preclude such leisurely exegesis. (Were Henderson’s review to be quoted in the Times today, not a single paragraph would survive untrimmed.)

Secondly, Henderson was intimately familiar with the symphony and its composer before he sat down to listen to or write about it. A century ago, New York’s leading musicians and critics were members of the same community of culture. Contemporary accounts tell us that no sooner had the symphony ended than Dvorak’s box was mobbed by music critics falling over one another in their eagerness to be the first to congratulate him. Henderson received the city’s most notable conductors, singers, and composers weekly at his home. His great friend Henry Krehbiel of the Tribune — the acknowledged “dean” of New York’s music-critical fraternity — was then the leading scholarly authority on plantation song; he was a de facto artistic advisor to Dvorak in America, feeding him samples of “Negro melodies” and Native American chants. On December 15 – the day before the premiere; two days before Henderson’s review appeared — Krehbiel published a 2,500-word analysis of the New World Symphony, based in part on discussions with the composer and incorporating no fewer than 14 musical examples. Henderson also had the benefit of attending a “public rehearsal” of the New World Symphony, also on Dec. 15. When it came time to file his review, he was ready.

But the third reason Henderson’s feat is unthinkable today is the one that most interests me. Today’s music reviews are mainly about the act of performance. Henderson’s review of the first performance of the New World Symphony is silent on this topic. The name of the conductor, Anton Seidl, is not once mentioned. Nor is the reader ever told what other music was played on the same program. In the proper order of things, it simply did not matter.

It should not surprise us that this great era in American music criticism – the 1890s – was equally a great decade in American classical music. Critics were focused on the creative act – and so were conductors, orchestras, and audiences. By far the most performed composer in New York was Richard Wagner, who had died just a decade before. A living composer, Antonin Dvorak, was widely acknowledged as the city’s pre-eminent musician (imagine such a thing today). Of paramount importance to Dvorak – as to Seidl or Henderson or Krehbiel — was the creation of an American canon. That is: it was generally assumed that, as in Germany, France, Italy, or Russia, the musical high culture of America would be grounded by a native repertoire of sonatas, symphonies, and operas.

In Boston, the Symphony regularly performed the music of Boston composers. No one pretended that they ranked with Mozart and Beethoven; no one cared. George Chadwick alone was performed 78 times prior to Serge Koussevitzky’s arrival in 1924. In New York, Seidl hailed Edward MacDowell as a greater composer than Brahms. That he was wrong is beside the point.

But no great American symphony was written, and no American canon materialized. Instead, American classical music degenerated after World War I into a culture of performance. Not American composers, but American orchestras, and foreign-born performers resident in America, comprised its spine. The symbol of classical music for millions of Americans was an Italian conductor: Arturo Toscanini. Never before had a non-composer enjoyed such living supremacy in the world of classical music, usurping the place of a Mozart or Beethoven, Wagner or Richard Strauss. Never before had a conductor of such stature and influence been so fundamentally divorced from the music of his own time and place. As if by default, classical music ceded leadership in American musical life to genres more vernacular: popular music proved the more significant, more distinctive American contribution.

Certainly the American composer ceded leadership. However much Aaron Copland, through his writings as much as through his music, tried to redirect attention, Americans remained fastened on the dead European masters. So, over time, did conductors cede leadership. In New York before World War I, a Seidl or Theodore Thomas or Gustav Mahler championed the living composer with missionary fervor. So, in Boston, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis, did Koussevitzky, Leopold Stokowski, and Dimitri Mitropoulos. After 1950, however, only rarely were conductors true tastemakers. Rather, American orchestras became marketing and fundraising machines terrified of alienating their subscribers. Gone, too, were the great classical music entrepreneurs of yesteryear: visionaries like Henry Higginson, who invented, owned, and operated the Boston Symphony; or Oscar Hammerstein, whose short-lived Manhattan Opera bravely defied the elitism of the Met. Instead, the nation’s leading music businessman was Arthur Judson, creator of Columbia Artists Management, who insisted that only the public could lead taste. When the New York Philharmonic’s gutless programming was challenged in 1931, Judson – who was also the Philharmonic’s manager – could write: “I believe within the next few years the Beethoven Fifth, no matter how badly played, will be welcomed because of the message it conveys.” Judson also advised: “There are certain composers like Bruckner and Mahler who have not yet been accepted heartily by the American public. . . . We can only go as far as the public will go with us.”

Today, the leadership vacuum remains. And yet, with the waning of modernism, important American composers (and other American composers alas less important) are reconnecting with orchestras and audiences. The erosion of high culture, the interpenetration of what had been elite and popular arts, may put yet put classical music out of its misery. In my forthcoming history of Classical Music in America, I write:

What does “classical music” mean today? If the term is to retain anything like its old aplomb, it must refer to a moment now past and to its attendant prestige and influence. What comes next in these post-classical times? We will find out. Certainly we will not abandon Bach and Beethoven. Bruckner’s symphonies will continue to furnish cathedral experiences in the concert hall. But this tradition, on its own, can only diminish. Renewal, if renewal there will be, will likely come from the outside – from a postmodernism freed from the pantheon and its backward pull. The possible convergence of old ways and new will greatly depend on composers and other persons determined to lead taste.

What the composers may contribute remains an open question. . . . Equally unknowable, equally crucial is the coming contribution of the tastemakers – the people who run orchestras and opera companies, write about them, broadcast and record them. Traditionally, America’s high-cultural currents have benefited from the shaping initiatives of individuals of vision – or submitted to the vicissitudes of the market. . . .

[Steve] Reich, [John] Adams, [Gidon] Kremer are not “classical musicians.” Rather, they are eclectics for whom neither Europe nor the concert hall represents the measure of all things musical. Unquestionably, they point toward a post-classical music of the future. But there is no predicting the topography of this new terrain, or its crucial impact upon the residual classical music landscape it will diminish or synergistically refresh.

To chart the history of classical music criticism in the United States is to discover a similar trajectory yielding a comparable crossroads. Krehbiel, to my mind, marks the apex: for his intellectual distinction, for his cultural breadth, for his activist role in advising and supporting Dvorak, in helping to engineer an “all-American” concert movement, in studying and promoting the folk and indigenous music of many nations, in annotating the programs of the New York Philharmonic, in translating German and French librettos as part of the fruitless but enlightened campaign for opera in English, in tirelessly lecturing and teaching professionals and laymen: more than a writer, he was an organizer, a doer. The culture of performance sidelined critics as it did composers. In New York, they were reduced to chronicling Toscanini’s concerts as rites of triumph. As chief music critic of the Times, Olin Downes felt called upon to testify:

The first Toscanini concert of the season by the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra took place yesterday evening in Carnegie Hall. This meant an auditorium again crowded to capacity with the most impressive audience of the season — an occasion when music lovers in all walks of life assembled to hear Mr. Toscanini’s interpretations and do homage with him to the genius of Beethoven.

To his chagrin, Henderson lived long enough to witness this genre of criticism and to groan in 1934: “Critical comment . . . is almost entirely directed to the ‘readings’ of mighty magicians of the conductor’s wand. . . . Can [the public] ever again be trained to love music for its own sake and not because of the marvels wrought upon it by supermen?” Downes was a new critical breed: a populist who advised the layman, in a 1941 essay, to “Be Your Own Music Critic.” This trust-the-public attitude ran parallel to Judson’s wait-and-see repertoire admonitions.

During my own short tenure as a New York Times music critic, I discovered that I did not believe in the vast majority of the musical events I was sent to cover – and I feel quite certain that a Henderson or Krehbiel would have found New York City’s concert fare of the late 1970s mystifyingly superfluous. I did not think that I was a particularly good Times music critic, nor did I think that a Times music critic was a particularly good thing to be. I could not accept the paper’s capitulation to a degenerate status quo. I could not abide its insistence that critics not write in the first person, and the linked prohibition on consorting with those they wrote about. The latter restriction – more an attitude than a coherent policy – was vaguely understood to be as venerable as the Times itself. And yet Henderson did not keep his distance from musicians and musical institutions – and neither, for that matter, did Olin Downes. As far as I am aware, the arms’ length rule originated with Harold Schonberg, who became chief music critic in 1960. And neither Harold nor anyone else on the music staff seemed to share my discomfort with third-person pontification.

In retrospect, the third person was already a terminally embattled posture of “objectivity” during the years — 1976 to 1980 – I was forced to employ it. The third person omniscience of a Henderson or Krehbiel was girded by their confident grasp of music’s trajectory and its necessary future. By the late twentieth century, there no longer exited a cultural consensus to do the girding; the mainstream, or what was left of it, was crippled and diffuse. Today, in an even more variegated and confused cultural environment, first person opinion is inescapable even at the Times. Logically, this concession dictates a more engaged critical presence. Granted, befriending the artist or impresario risks imbalanced judgments. But what personal judgments are not imbalanced?

There is a classical music crisis. It is artistic and economic, sociological and institutional. It cannot adequately be surveyed or understood on the sidelines. Those who write about classical music need to know how and by whom orchestras and opera companies are run. They need to discern whether programming is captive to marketing and development or – as at Harvey Lichtenstein’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, where I toiled in the 1990s – constitutes a creative initiative galvanizing marketing and development in its wake. They need – like Alex Ross, in the New Yorker – to command the full cultural landscape, to know where the high-low synergy is cooking. This degree of knowledge is only possible via immersion and advocacy – the charged posture of W. J. Henderson reviewing the New World Symphony 110 years ago.

Our fractured times require leadership: from institutions, from composers, from conductors, from critics – once, long ago, a more bonded community. For all of us in music, the moment is undeniably difficult – but also opportune.