Eric's Reviews > Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts

Artists in Exile by Joseph Horowitz
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's review
May 07, 09

bookshelves: music, criticism
Read in May, 2009

This is one of those suggestive, compendious, richly anecdotal cultural histories that are impossible to summarize. Suffice to say that Horowitz provoked me to rehearse everything I've ever thought about American Life, dum dum dum!

Horowitz's focus is not entirely on the performing arts--he writes briefly but significantly about Thomas Mann and Vladimir Nabokov. His discussion of those two writers, in the book's coda, ties up what for me was the most interesting theme: the difference between the Germans and the Russians as agents of cultural exchange. The German composers, conductors and performers (and social critics and writers) come off as imperious cultural colonizers, bearing on high the monstrance of Kultur into the wilds of the New World, where they were received with fawning deference by an American musical establishment already thoroughly Eurocentric and Germanized long before the emigrations of the 20s-40s. Horowitz argues that the isolated high-mindedness of the Germans (Germans as in imbued with a worship of Bach-Mozart-Beethoven; many were Austrian, Czech, or Hungarian by birth) and the trying-too-hard snobbery of American classical music audiences combined to sideline living American composers and indigenous American dance and music traditions. The Russians--Balanchine, Stravinsky, Koussevitsky, Dukelsky, Nabokov, Aronson, etc--by contrast, are paragons of adaptability and openness. Horowitz speaks of them all when he says of Balanchine that he came to America a layered personality that had no trouble accepting yet another--this time American--layer. The Russians in Horowitz's account graft American realities to their ongoing creative and personal lives: Balanchine works on Broadway and for the circus, spikes classic ballet with western and African-American influences (and sports bolo ties and vests); Nabokov switches to English and writes, in Lolita, a road-novel, a prose poem of "delicious Americana"; and Stravinsky remains, as ever, "the cultural magpie." Tellingly, they all had a thing for road trips. Horowitz's Russians are poised, balanced, confident enough of their inner artistic missions to assimilate "lowbrow" fare, less prone to depression and less burdened than the Germans by fidelity to some portentous and exclusive religion of high culture.

And there's of course so much more to this book than the above. Horowitz writes extensively and brilliantly about film and theater. His prose is polished and pregnant--he reminds me of David Thomson and the New Biographical Dictionary of Film in the laconism imposed by the encyclopedic format, and the compressed, epigrammatic elegance of his judgments and descriptions.
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message 1: by Ann (new)

Ann Klefstad What a beautiful take on the book! now I have to read it.

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