And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music
Named a best book of the year by The Financial Times, The Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews
A provocative interpretation of why classical music in America "stayed white"—how it got to be that way and what can be done about it.
In 1893 the composer Antonín Dvorák prophesied a “great and noble school” of American classical music based on the “negro melodies” he had excitedly discovered since arriving in the United States a year before. But while Black music would foster popular genres known the world over, it never gained a foothold in the concert hall. Black composers found few opportunities to have their works performed, and white composers mainly rejected Dvorák’s lead.
Joseph Horowitz ranges throughout American cultural history, from Frederick Douglass and Huckleberry Finn to George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and the work of Ralph Ellison, searching for explanations. Challenging the standard narrative for American classical music fashioned by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, he looks back to literary figures—Emerson, Melville, and Twain—to ponder how American music can connect with a “usable past.” The result is a new paradigm that makes room for Black composers, including Harry Burleigh, Nathaniel Dett, William Levi Dawson, and Florence Price, while giving increased prominence to Charles Ives and George Gershwin.
Dvorák’s Prophecy arrives in the midst of an important conversation about race in America—a conversation that is taking place in music schools and concert halls as well as capitols and boardrooms. As George Shirley writes in his foreword to the book, “We have been left unprepared for the current cultural moment. [Joseph Horowitz] explains how we got there [and] proposes a bigger world of American classical music than what we have known before. It is more diverse and more equitable. And it is more truthful.”
“Horowitz has taught me to listen to Black classical music as what the most is. His lesson should resound.”
— John McWhorter, The New York Times
“The disconnection between the rich history of Black American music and the classical music we typically hear has proved impoverishing. Because of our current conversation about race we now observe a seemingly desperate effort to make up for lost time, to present Black faces in the concert hall. I think that's only fair. But if it's going to become a permanent new way of thinking, there has to be new understanding. Dvorak's Prophecy is on time, it's a bull's-eye. We have been left unprepared for the current cultural moment. Joe Horowitz's book explains how we got there. . . . Dvorak's Prophecy proposes a bigger world of American classical music than what we have known before. It is more diverse and more equitable. And it is more truthful.”
— from George Shirley's Foreword to Dvorak's Prophecy
“Dvorak’s Prophecy explores the richness and variety of the most original American artists, be they composers, performers, writers, painters. What I find most arresting is the way Joseph Horowitz digs into the past to discover a dark secret: because of the “original sin” of slavery and its aftermath of segregation and racism, the folk music heritage on which a distinct American classical music idiom might have been built was a poisoned well. No usable past was available when most of what was past had to be suppressed or willfully ignored.
“Horowitz is a master of what I would call “passionate scholarship.” There is a lot of very sensitive skin in his game. His book is a superb national gallery of portraits, drawn with the unfailing eye of a novelist developing life-size characters. He doesn’t pretend to assume the timeless vantage point of the all-knowing scholar: he openly and daringly challenges the all-pervading contemporary pieties of political correctness and an almost totalitarian attempt to sanitize and simplify the complexities of the past in order to compensate for indisputably gruesome abuses committed in the present.
“Dvorak’s Prophecy is as original, as all-embracing, as fearlessly unlike anything else as some of the American novels or poems or compositions it deals with. Quite aside from Horowitz’s scholarly credentials, and his lifelong engagement with music and performance, there is a reason for his way of writing about American outliers and mavericks. Deep down, he is one of them. A kind of enlightened nostalgia deeply undergirds the whole book: not about the past, but about promising roads not taken, about promises of democratic cultural excellence and social justice never fulfilled ”
— Antonio Muñoz Molina (winner of the Jerusalem Prize)
“Dvorak's Prophecy is a passionately-argued and -written book that will stir deep and long, long overdue discussion... Horowitz is a master of the hitherto unrevealed, and he's on his best game in this book.” (Dale Cockrell, author of Everybody's Doin' It: Sex, Music, and Dance in New York)
“Dvorak's Prophecy... will facilitate much-needed discussion about the way we regard the American classical music traditions ― discussions not at all limited to the classroom.” (Larry Starr, author of American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to mp3)
“This is an important, passionate, and timely book that traces how American classical music lost its past―and suggests how to reclaim that past and create a vital future.” (J. Peter Burkholder, author of Listening to Charles Ives)
“Joseph Horowitz...reveals a hidden musical history that can have a rich and profound influence on the future of music in our country.” (JoAnn Falletta, Music Director, Buffalo Philharmonic)
“At a time in our history when a better understanding of the tensions of race is so important to our future as a nation, Dvorak's Prophecy is a central point from which to begin. It is the eleventh of Joe Horowitz's splendid books on the history of music in America, all worth reading. I strongly believe that he represents the gold standard in his field.” (Robert Freeman, Director, the Eastman School of Music 1972-96; President, The New England Conservatory 1996-99; Dean, College of Fine Arts, the University of Texas at Austin 1999-2006)
“Dvorak's Prophecy will become a flashpoint for necessary conversations not only about the performing arts, but also broader issues of import: race, American historiography, and the search for our national soul.” (Lorenzo Candelaria, Dean of the Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University)
“In his exploration of the unused past of Dvorak, Ives, Farwell, Burleigh, Dett, Dawson, Price and Gershwin, Joseph Horowitz invites us to a marvelous rediscovery... A feast awaits, both in this book and in the music it describes.” (Allen C. Guelzo, James Madison Program in American Ideal and Institutions, Princeton University)
“Joseph Horowitz's Dvorak's Prophecy is unique in its emphasis on the connections between major nineteenth-century American literary figures like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain and American classical music, and it is admirable in its demonstration of the centrality of African American literature, culture, and history to both the American musical tradition and the American literary tradition.” (Brian Yothers, author of Reading Abolition)