Alternative cultural histories, Dvořák and American music

I have always enjoyed the music of composer Antonín Dvořák. I am familiar with most of his compositions, starting as a kid listening to Symphony #9 over and over to finding many favorites later.

Photo by Any Lane on Pexels.com

What if American music had followed his lead in weaving American songs, particularly Black music, into classical compositions? I am finishing up the recent book Dvorak’s Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music. The publisher’s description:

In 1893 the composer Antonin Dvorák prophesied a “great and noble” school of American classical music based on the searing “negro melodies” he had excitedly discovered since arriving in the United States a year before. But while Black music would found popular genres known the world over, it never gained a foothold in the concert hall.

Joseph Horowitz ranges throughout American cultural history, from Frederick Douglass and Huckleberry Finn to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and the work of Ralph Ellison, searching for explanations. Challenging the standard narrative for American classical music fashioned by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, 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 Dawson, and Florence Price to redefine the classical canon.

Horowitz argues American classical music ignored and sidelined Black composers and music. Is there an alternative history that could have occurred?

While this falls out of bounds of typical academic research, it can be useful at times to think about ways events and narratives could have gone. In “”Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy,” Max Weber said sociology is interested in “on the one hand the relationships and the cultural significance of individual events in their contemporary manifestations and on the other the causes of their being historically so and not otherwise.

Horowitz hints at least three ways an alternative timeline could have gone: (1) more classical musicians attuned to American songs and culture rather than turning to European forms and/or modernism; (1) more recognition and knowledge about Black composers; (2) the inclusion of jazz in classical music and American culture more broadly; and (3) more classical music attuned to and drawing on American songs and culture rather than turning to European forms and/or modernism.

If these things had happened, what might be different? As a big fan of the Beatles, I think of ways that their music was directly influenced by numerous American Black rock ‘n’ roll artists. And they were not alone; so did Elvis and the Rolling Stones and others. Yet, when they presented their music as white artists, would the reception have been different if Black music had a more prominent role in the classical world starting in the late 1800s?

There is a lot to consider here and I look forward to finishing the book and exploring more of the music Horowitz write about.

One thought on “Alternative cultural histories, Dvořák and American music

  1. Pingback: The popularity of the Beatles, informational cascades, and culture developed by champions and conditions | Legally Sociable

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