When the first enslaved Africans landed on American shores in 1619, their musical traditions landed with them. Four centuries later, the primacy of African American music is indisputable, not only in this country but in much of the world. How that music has evolved, blending with or giving rise to other traditions — from African songs and dances to field hollers and spirituals, from ragtime and blues to jazz, R&B and hip-hop — is a topic of endless discussion.
More difficult to decode is the relationship African American music has had — or should have had — with America’s classical music tradition. Today, it’s not uncommon for Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar to perform alongside a symphony orchestra, yet African Americans generally aren’t performing in those orchestras themselves. Less than 2% of musicians in American orchestras are African American, according to a 2014 study by the League of American Orchestras. Only 4.3% of conductors are black, and composers remain predominantly white as well.
All of these ratios are skewed, of course, by decades of institutional racial bias. Still, it’s fair to wonder why the sound of American classical music, especially as it developed in the early 20th century, remained so European, drawing heavily from the harmonic language of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. Had the vernacular of slave songs, spirituals and jazz taken root in our classical music, we would have a different landscape today — and a classical sound that is uniquely American.
Joseph Horowitz says it almost happened. In his article “New World Prophecy,” published last week in the autumn edition of The American Scholar, the cultural historian argues that the seeds of a truly American sound were sown but never watered, as American composers in the late 19th century largely resisted the influence of African American music. Horowitz, who has written numerous books about the history of music in America, pays special attention to George Gershwin — one white composer who did embrace black music — and a handful of African American composers who found genuine success in the 1930s, only to see it quickly fade. William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra with superstar conductor Leopold Stokowski, is held up in particular as a neglected American treasure.
Horowitz joined me to talk about what he sees as a long series of missed opportunities, from Antonín Dvořák’s insistence in the 1890s that the “Negro melodies” were the future of American music, to the acclaimed but undervalued work of African American composers like Florence Price and William Grant Still. That trove of melody-rich, expressive black music could have taken root in America’s classical music, Horowitz maintains, but it didn’t — and as a result, our classical music has remained overwhelmingly white and increasingly marginalized.
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