A Few Questions About The Post-Classical Predicament

I’ve been reading Joseph Horowitz’s collection of magazine articles, The Post-Classical Predicament. Many of the themes of his books – including Wagner Nights, Classical Music in America, and Understanding Toscanini –  are here touched on. In fact Horowitz must have a macro set up on his computer where he can bring up the names of Dvořák, Anton Seidel and Henry Krehbiel (who figure importantly in his writing) with a few keystrokes, seeing how often he refers to them.

Horowitz has made terrific contributions to the conversation about classical music in America, and we should all be grateful to him. I agree in general with Horowitz’s analysis of classical music in 20th century America – how the field suffered from Toscanini-itis. His assessments of Horowitz, Gould, and Bernstein seem on target to me. But there were other matters about which I was more doubtful.

His suggestion that the symphonic music of Chadwick is more “authentic” than that of mid-20th century American symphonists like Harris or Schuman seems rather uncertain to me, but I guess I need to go back and try Chadwick again. (Do I have to?)

I’m not so sure that the choice to do literal-minded productions of Wagner (the Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen Ring at the Met, for example) is a typical reaction of insecurity by an American company in the face of European art. It could be argued that it is insecurity and a failure to trust the power of its own tradition that leads European companies to pursue silly Regietheatre notions. (Let me quickly add that I think of the Chereau Ring that Horowitz discusses as admirable, not silly.)

I am also unconvinced that opera in English would be, or could have been, the salvation of opera in the United States. It’s not that simple. I remember sitting at a performance of Jenůfa in Prague (sung in Czech, of course), and being very much aware of how uncommonly intent the Czech speakers around me seemed to be on following the story and music – rather more so than my sense of audiences in Rome at performances of  L’Elisir or Pagliacci (sung in Italian). (Of course, in Prague there was more to be intent about.) I remember in my student days listening to broadcasts of the Reginald Goodall recordings of the Ring, with Andrew Porter’s English libretto, and making out very few of the words. And I recall reading a remark of John Corigliano’s (I believe quoted in Copland Connotations) that Copland’s The Tender Land would have been more of a success if it had been in Italian!

Sometimes I think that, given our composers’ lack of access to the opera house, American compositional energies that might have gone to opera have instead been directed to the song cycle with chamber ensemble, or, from another angle, to what used to be called musical comedy.

I was troubled by Horowitz’s dismissal of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus – and its film version by Milos Forman – as mid-cult kitsch. First of all, I thought the play was much more worthy of respect than the movie, but more broadly, I am mistrustful of the whole idea of scorning mid-cult in general. There is something ungenerous about declaring everything below the level of Proust and Joyce to be contemptible.

Finally, I am disturbed at how Horowitz bemoans the rejection of contemporary music brought about by Toscanini syndrome – yet he doesn’t seem to be as strong an advocate for new music as he might be. Not one of the pieces in this collection is focused on a contemporary composer. In fact, four are about dead performers. (To be fair, it may be more the choices of the magazines than Horowitz’s own.) While by no means entirely absent, new music does not play a leading role in the programs and festivals Horowitz has devised. Why not commission a new setting of Goethe’s text for an Erlkönig symposium at the 92nd St. Y? Why not – alongside the panel discussions that think in words – program new works by living composers that respond to the pieces included in the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s  Stravinsky festival by thinking in music? My musicological colleagues are very concerned about cultural contexts these days; I suggest that new pieces can also tell us something vital about those contexts.

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