The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He saw a ‘noble’ future for Black and Indigenous composers. He was wrong.

Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, right, with his wife, children and friends shortly after arriving in New York in 1892. Dvorak was intrigued by America’s Black and Indigenous music. (Photo by ullstein bild / Getty Images)
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In “Dvorak’s Prophecy,” Joseph Horowitz examines the systematic exclusion of Black and Indigenous composers from the American classical repertory. The book is a timely contribution to our growing national recognition that this type of exclusion characterizes most aspects of American culture.

The title refers to a prediction by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) that Black music would be the foundation of a “great and noble” school of American classical music. Dvorak lived in the United States from 1892 to 1895, recruited to help create a national music conservatory in New York. As he had done at home in Bohemia, he went in search of homegrown music. He quickly concluded that in America, homegrown meant music created by Black and Indigenous people.

Against the specter of American racism, Horowitz takes a nuanced look at why Dvorak’s prediction did not come true. He cites the failure of America’s 20th-century classical-music establishment — including luminaries such as Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein — to acknowledge, much less mine, its cultural past. In a depressingly familiar trope, Horowitz exposes a deliberateness in denying Black and Indigenous composers and musicians their role in America’s classical-music development. This whitewashing of history — so very American — means generations of composers and other musicians, as well as audiences, have not studied, learned about or listened to a key part of their national heritage.

Count me among them. I’m a classically trained viola player and an undergraduate music major. My music education was typically White, steeped in European-Russian tradition. This book made clear how much was missing.

Horowitz has the credentials to make his case. He’s an esteemed writer and scholar; a former classical music critic for the New York Times; and a prodigious music producer, orchestra administrator and adviser. His specialty is American classical music. If “American classical music” sounds like an oxymoron, this book offers strong grounds to differ.

Horowitz couples his critique with a plea to take Dvorak’s vision seriously. His book, he says, is a “call for action.”

In New York, Dvorak had a class full of Black students whom philanthropist Jeannette Thurber recruited on scholarship. He hired a brilliant young Black composer, Harry Burleigh, to be his assistant. Dvorak learned the sorrow songs that Burleigh knew from his blind grandfather, who had been enslaved. “It was Burleigh more than anyone else who transformed spirituals into concert songs,” Horowitz writes. “If you have heard Marian Anderson or Paul Robeson sing ‘Deep River,’ that is Burleigh’s arrangement.”

Horowitz also gives rightful credit to the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville. A generation earlier, they were “the first to popularly purvey African-American spirituals in concert,” making a great impact in an 1872 American tour and a widely celebrated European tour in 1873.

At the time he made it, Horowitz writes, “no one could dispute the accuracy of Dvorak’s prophecy that American music would be Black.” Horowitz wonders why this foreknowledge was “less accessible to Aaron Copland three decades later.” He concludes that Copland and many other American composers were “insufficient” in their reckoning with both jazz and “the Black sorrow songs that came first.” Horowitz surmises that jazz evolved in part because Black musicians were excluded from the classical-music establishment as it was maturing in the late 19th and early 20th century. “In fact,” he writes, “antipathy to jazz within classical music after World War I resonated with American prejudice.”

“The post-World War I bifurcation of American music — ‘popular’ versus ‘classical’ — was an unhappy bifurcation of Black versus white,” he writes. “Indeed, an aversion to jazz, less virulent abroad, became a defining feature of the interwar musical high culture of the United States.”

Horowitz cites both Dvorak and George Gershwin as exceptions who were eager to learn as much as they could about the music of their Black contemporaries and forebears. It is not an accident that American classical musicians also turned against Gershwin, relegating his music to “pops.” The unjust obscurity cloaking William Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony,” Nathaniel Dett’s “The Ordering of Moses” and Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3 — formidable creative achievements — was part of the same skewed picture.

If you’ve never heard of these Black composers, you’re not alone. Fortunately, there seems to be some current effort to rectify this. The Philadelphia Orchestra, for instance, released a recording of two Florence Price symphonies in September. Horowitz has also created a series of documentaries for Naxos Records, as well as a new CD called “Arthur Farwell: America’s Neglected Composer.” He describes Farwell as “the leader of the ‘Indianists’ movement in American music — a huge and yet forgotten swath of cultural history, amassing many hundreds of operas, symphonies, chamber works, and songs.”

Horowitz groups together the writer Mark Twain, the composer Charles Ives and the painter Winslow Homer as creative artists who bucked the prevailing beliefs of their age and plumbed the “vernacular.” Homer, he writes, “memorably inscribed the African American” and had a “warm regard for the American past.” He agrees with Ralph Ellison, who believed that the American creative artist should have “an imagination perennially engaged by the problem of national type.” Ellison was disappointed that American novelists were “disengaged with the puzzle of America.”

Horowitz toggles back and forth between an intimate knowledge of late-19th and 20th-century American music and his views on contemporaneous literature. He holds strong opinions and states them definitively, unafraid to rank one composer over another, one writer over another. In his view, Dvorak and Gershwin were serious students of their Black musical forebears, and thus the melodies that thread through Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” and his many other compositions, as well as Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess,” are not appropriation but respectful homage. The author of a highly informative foreword, George Shirley — the first Black tenor to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, with a distinguished career singing in opera houses around the world — shares this view.

Horowitz, a serious educator, takes his mission seriously. Yet I am concerned that “Dvorak’s Prophecy” presumes a level of knowledge that many readers will not have and that its meanderings may be difficult to access, even for those steeped in classical music. On the other hand, the book is a sincere and erudite effort to right ignorance and wrongs, and to bring this long-forgotten music into the sunlight.

Dvorak’s Prophecy

And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music

By Joseph Horowitz

256 pp. $30