In the late nineteenth century American publishers began to answer a burgeoning demand for histories of classical music. Although some of the authors they contracted are well-known to scholars of music in the United States—most notably Edward MacDowell and John Knowles Paine—the books themselves have been neglected. The reason is that these histories are almost exclusively concerned with the European musical past; the United States is a marginal presence in their narratives. But much can be learned about American musical culture by looking more closely at the historiographical practices employed in these histories and the changes that took place in the books that succeeded them in the first half of the twentieth century. In particular, they shed light on the shifting transatlantic connections that shaped American attitudes toward classical music. Marked at first by an Anglo-American consensus bolstered by the social evolutionary theory of prominent Victorians, American classical music histories came to be variegated, a result of the influence of Central European émigrés who fled Hitler’s Germany and settled in North America. The most dramatic part of this transformation pertains to American attitudes toward the link between music and modernity. A case study, the American reception of Gustav Mahler, reveals why Americans began to see signs of cultural decline in classical music only in the 1930s, despite the precedent set by many pessimistic fin-de-siècle European writers.

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