A culture of performance

A century ago, the United States confidently predicted the arrival of its answer to Beethoven or Wag

With the re-election of George W Bush, many Americans found themselves asking questions about the future of American democracy: about the impact of money and of political machination, and about the power of both to sway an electorate already addicted to fast-food news and talk radio.

Considered as an experiment in the democratisation of high culture, classical music in America restates these questions. Orchestras and opera companies, composers and broadcasters have done without government guidance and subsidy taken for granted elsewhere. Half a century ago, and before, individuals of vision - conductors, composers, entrepreneurs, even critics - heroically shaped the course of America's musical high culture. In more recent times, the fate of classical music in the US has been governed by the market place.

The indulged and uninquisitive American electorate is paralleled by classical music audiences that ask for little and give little back. A tangible acuity of knowing attention still found in Berlin or Budapest is no longer much encountered in New York. Every US orchestra and opera house of size has, or hopes to obtain, its own marketing guru whose business it is to devise strategies - invariably impinging on repertoire - to sell more tickets. They may succeed, but does music benefit?

Certainly, American classical music has proved a distinct variant of the European parent culture. It may be likened to a mutant transplant. Deep roots were neither imported nor newly cultivated. By "roots" I mean a vital canon of home-grown symphonies and/or operas. An "American Beethoven" or an "American Wagner" were once predicted - but none materialised. At the same time, the institutional trappings of Europe's musical high culture were regrown with amazing alacrity: even before 1900, America's best orchestras and opera companies challenged comparison with any abroad.

In short, American classical music describes a simple trajec- tory of rise and fall. Before the First World War, the American composer, striving impressively towards prominence, was a central focus of attention and expectation. After the First World War, American classical music slipped into a "culture of performance", chiefly celebrating great orchestras and conductors, singers and instrumentalists.

The contributions of such early pioneers as Theodore Thomas can scarcely be overemphasised. Thomas arrived in the New World from Germany in 1845 at the age of ten. In his teens, he toured the South by himself - on horseback, packing a pistol - as "Master T T", the prodigy violinist; he acted as his own manager, publicist and ticket-taker. He first led an orchestra of his own in 1862. Busy though it was, the Thomas Orchestra could not offer its members steady employment unless it travelled. Its core itinerary of 28 cities became known as the Thomas Highway. Thomas byways included railroad stations and churches. Visiting virtuosos were astonished by the discipline and dedication of the players. Thomas's credo was that "a symphony orchestra shows the culture of a community, not opera". In European cities, the opera house was central, and orchestras - like today's Vienna Philharmonic - played opera first, concerts second. The "symphony orchestra" (the term was coined in the US) became an American specialty. Thomas him-self founded the Chicago Orchestra, later the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in 1891.

What Thomas was to Chicago, Henry Lee Higginson was to Boston - and more. As a young man in Vienna, Higginson dreamed of becoming a musician. When this dream fizzled out, he amassed enough money as a banker to realise what had become his crowning ambition: beginning in 1881, he created, owned and operated the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Higginson was a democrat who insisted on reserving 25-cent seats for non-subscribers. His world-class orchestra hired world-class conductors such as Arthur Nikisch and Karl Muck. Another of Higginson's conductors, Wilhelm Gericke, exclaimed upon examining symphonic programmes from previous Boston seasons: "I am completely dumbfounded. I do not see what is left for me to do here. You seem to have heard everything already: more, much more, than we ever heard in Vienna!"

Thomas and Higginson espoused Germanic music and Germanic uplift. An anomaly within the same meliorist tradition was America's greatest concert composer: Charles Ives. More than we tend to realise, Ives also belongs to the heroic pioneer chap-ters of American classical music. He is less a proto-modernist, anticipating the future, than a New England transcendentalist, celebrating his Connecticut past.

After the First World War, the culture of performance produced heroes of a glossier kind. Leopold Stokowski, who re-created the Philadelphia Orchestra, was a Londoner who claimed to have been born in Poland. He also invented exotic habits of speech. He blithely discarded all conventional wisdom about how orchestras should look and sound. Rather than having his violinists bow up and down in unison, he espoused "free bowing"; by inviting his players to bow individually and naturally, he reasoned, he could obtain a warmer, more intense, more continuous sound. His own individuality was also expressed in various seating arrangements unique to Philadelphia. He tried positioning the strings at the rear of the stage, or massed to the left. "I shall keep on experimenting," he pledged. "I have no system." He kept his word.

Like Stokowski himself, the Philadelphia sound, with its seamless line and satin finish, was a singular American creation, remote from European experience. Equally singular among conductors of his generation was Stokowski's Hollywood glamour: he shook hands with Mickey Mouse; he dated Greta Garbo. Stokowski's rivals - Serge Koussevitzky in Boston and Arturo Toscanini in New York - were also lustrous celebrities. Though Stokowski and Koussevitzky championed new music, Toscanini's recanonisation of dead European masters proved more influential. On the cultural commodity exchange, it proved especially attractive to a new interwar audience: the "new middle classes".

These culture consumers were sold a bill of goods - that all great music was old and European - by the "music appreciation" movement, a commercial enterprise whose chief exponents included David Sarnoff of the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). Notwithstanding the efforts of America's composers, of whom the most voluble was Aaron Copland, an avalanche of music appreciation bibles, recordings and broadcasts sidelined the quest for an indigenous musical voice earlier pursued by Ives, George Whitefield Chadwick (yet to be acknowledged as America's first symphonic nationalist) and (even earlier) Louis Moreau Gottschalk, with his saucy Caribbean delicacies.

In retrospect, a watershed moment was the defeat of proposals to set aside one-quarter of all radio frequencies for non-profit use. This 1930s threat of an "American BBC" was one factor in the creation of Toscanini's NBC Symphony and other instructional and cultural radio offerings. Sarnoff and CBS's William Paley were practical idealists for whom the new broadcast medium was both a cultural and a commercial opportunity. But without federal intervention of the kind they helped to defeat, there was nothing to prevent their successors from abandoning the many music-education strategies undertaken during radio's early heyday.

Where are the Thomases and Higginsons, Stokowskis and Sarnoffs of today? In his 2002 biography of Bill Clinton, the political analyst Joe Klein wrote:

Marketing has been the most insidious force in the shrinking of public life. The ubiquitous pollsters and advertising consultants who dominated late 20th-century politics were thuddingly pragmatic. They asked people what they wanted. The answers were always predictable . . . And so, the politicians themselves became thuddingly pragmatic. They became followers, not leaders.

The same crisis in leadership afflicts American classical music.

For all that, the present moment is not unpropitious. Leonard Bernstein, in his 1973 Norton Lectures, asked "whither music?" - and could not find an answer. At the turn of the 21st century, the answer is all around us. It is global. Non-western music and contemporary culture are what have refreshed the musical traditions Bernstein held dear - and nowhere more than in the US, where those traditions were less deeply instilled. Today's iconic American composers - John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich - cannot be called "classical musicians". They enjoy a robust and diverse following. They embody a "postclassical music" which, if we are lucky, will absorb and redirect a musical high culture that has mainly run its course.

Joseph Horowitz is the author of Classical Music in America: a history of its rise and fall, published by Norton in June

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