A central postulate behind Horowitz's history is the impossibility of classical music taking root in America without a repertory of American music. The real damage done by the culture of performance was not so much the disregard of music as the stifling of it in America. The rise-and-fall narrative of "Classical Music in America" meshes with a cyclical quest as generation after generation of composers struggles to found a national repertory.
The book's many composer biographies hinge on two questions: Is the person's music authentically American? Has it been accepted as such by the public -- or, rather, by the promoters and marketeers who manipulate the public? The author has original, perceptive and often laudatory things to say about individual American compositions, but by putting the test this way, his candidates are bound to fail repeatedly (or disqualify themselves, as Charles Ives did by simply shunning the public). The great American symphony that ought to have followed Dvorak's example never came. Durability, let alone greatness, was beyond the reach of the turn-of-the-20th-century Boston composers -- a "genuine American school of shared interests, enthusiasms and interests," discussed at length and with rare sympathy.
It is moving to read of the tireless, multi-tiered campaigns on behalf of American music promoted by Copland after World War I, and by Leonard Bernstein, Horowitz's chief witness after World War II. But their symphonies failed -- as did Harris' "Third Symphony" of 1939, for all the fervid hopes it inspired. The grading curve certainly works to the disadvantage of Copland, who wrote "Billy the Kid" and "Appalachian Spring" (said to have achieved "enduring popularity among American listeners") and who established "the tough and spacious sound world of Hollywood Westerns to come."
The candidate for our own time is John Adams, composer of "Harmonium," "Nixon in China" and "Doctor Atomic," due at the San Francisco Opera this fall. Adams is treated somewhat gingerly in a significant "Postlude" on music since 1975, the year Philip Glass wrote the opera "Einstein on the Beach." For quite some time now, Glass, Steve Reich, Adams and most younger composers have been writing pieces with ample infusions that include rock, Zen, postmodern thought structures and Asian and South American music of all varieties. This, we are told, makes them "post-classical"; they are writing for a new nonelite audience in new nonsymphonic formats. A "new American ripeness" is in the air. Increasingly, Adams is seen -- and sees himself -- as America's composer for the current century.
Horowitz also points to many other good things on classical music's still capacious plate. There are "eclectic" performers such as Yo-Yo Ma and the Kronos Quartet, record companies Nonesuch and Naxos, presenters such as the now-retired Harvey Lichtenstein at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen and Michael Tilson Thomas (yes, California gets a look-in) -- and given his unusually high regard for critics, he could have mentioned Alan Rich of LA Weekly and Alex Ross of the New Yorker.
But there's no good reason to set all this apart as a new category called "post-classical" music. Why isn't it simply the latest phase -- following several other distinguishable phases -- of classical music in America? Horowitz the historian stumbles here, while Horowitz the journalist-chronicler registers more and more occurrences, trends and tendencies, surfing the centuries and leaving no name undropped. It would have taken only a few keystrokes to reconfigure the postlude into a final, rather upbeat chapter. More keystrokes would be needed to mitigate the severe mood imposed more generally on a fascinating and ebullient story.
We would also need a new title, maybe something like "Classical Music in America: Keeps on Truckin'." *