Harold Brown (October 31, 1909 - September 26, 1979)

Harold Brown - violist, composer, teacher, choral director - was born October 31, 1909 in New York City to Rose and Sam Brown (originally Braunstein), the year after the birth of his sister Blanche. His father's work in retail management took the family to New Haven, Connecticut for several years, but brought them back to Manhattan's upper west side in time for Harold to attend Townsend Harris High School (1922-25). Neither of Harold's parents was particularly musical, nor did they play musical instruments, but both of them considered it culturally important for their children to have music in their lives. So from their earliest years, Blanche studied piano and Harold, the viola.

While at Columbia College (1925-29), Harold's musical abilities were recognized and acknowledged by faculty members who referred him to summer resort orchestral jobs as violinist/violist. By the age of twenty, in 1929, Harold was managing and playing in the Columbia University Orchestra under the direction of Douglas Moore. The following year, his composition, the "Christopher Robin String Quartet," won the Bearns Prize, and he was named the Mosenthal Fellow in Composition in 1930. He earned his Master's degree at Columbia University, 1948-49.

Over the years, his teachers included L. J. Bostelmann and H. Dittler for the violin, Leonard Bernstein, Seymour Lipkin, Leon Barzin for conducting, and Aaron Copland, Bernard Wagenaar and Rubin Goldmark for composition. He also studied under Nadia Boulanger at École Normale de Musique in Paris in 1930-31 as part of the Mosenthal Fellowship. He often acknowledged the early influence of Herman Katims, elder brother of Milton; this relationship might have contributed in some way to Harold's unique views. Although he took classes with Copland, he also mentioned other composers whose work he was personally attracted to. One was Alexi Haieff, who like Harold, was also drawn to an ancient – in his case Russian Orthodox – liturgical tradition. He was also quite fond of Otto Luening, with whom he shared performances at Yaddo in the summer of 1938. Moreover, Edgard Varese showed an interest in Brown's choral work. Harold's expertise in musicology, first stimulated by Boulanger, and continually supported by student colleagues exposed to Medieval works at Notre Dame c. 1930, — L. Engel (whose important Flanner publications were subsequently used by Harold), Bernard Herrmann, Elie Siegmeister — was further developed by his study of Gregorian Chant at the College of the Sacred Heart under Mother Stevens in 1938. The decades 1930-1950 are the years during which most of his compositions were written.

During his years at Columbia, Harold met and married Lucy Robison, a gifted concert pianist in her own right. They had no children and the marriage was short-lived. (Some of Robison's recorded performances were given by Harold to the Hammerstein sound library in the research branch of the New York public library, and can be heard as part of the Harold Brown Collection.) Lucy Brown died from a cerebral hemorrhage on January 3, 1971.

Harold's service in the war effort was as a shipyard spot welder in Camden (or Philadelphia) where he met and mentored many Curtis Institute students.

Teaching was always both a formal and informal activity for Harold. Whether he was teaching music in a public school setting, at a university, or as choral director, teaching was an integral part of who he was. His many students over the years would attest to the fact that he was clearly gifted at it; it was obvious he enjoyed doing it. "Deeply involved with the music and how it was supposed to come out of us, gentle in his approach, clear in his explanations, frustrated often with our performances but never angry with us personally, and very appreciative of each of us," that is how one chorus member described him. The shape of his teaching career was dictated by his marriage during the fifties to Nancy Clemens, a gifted photographer and French teacher, and by his principled positions which often clashed with the directives of the people who paid his salary. Nancy and Harold had two daughters, Chelanne and Lyssa, and remained together until his death in 1979. Nancy died December 22, 2002.

As early as his college years, Harold free-lanced as a string player. He eventually played for the National Orchestral Association, The New York City Center Orchestra (in both its opera and ballet performances), The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and in the sixties, the Huntington Symphony Orchestra, when his family re-located to Massapequa, Long Island.

While teaching theory at The New York High School of Music and Art in the fifties, Harold developed a performance grade chorus from an after-school group of interested students. A midnight performance of Bach at Carnegie Hall (December 25, 1954) in direct opposition to his Principal's injunction, cost Harold his teaching job. Undaunted, the after school singing group followed their teacher to other rehearsal venues. Harold was subsequently hired as Associate Professor of Music (1957-61) at Mansfield State College, Pennsylvania, where he taught composition and orchestration and conducted the orchestra, making the long weekly commute to Manhattan to rehearse the chorus. Now, completely involved in music from the Renaissance, Harold cultivated in the singers the low vibrato and accurate pitch he felt the music demanded, and trained their voices exclusively for a cappella singing. Young people other than his students asked to sing in the chorus and Harold welcomed them. This expanded group, which included college students and musicians, became the official Renaissance Chorus of New York. It gave concerts and cut several records under the direction of Harold from 1952-1975, bringing the repertoire to many new venues, including churches, concert halls, and once, to Carnegie Recital Hall. Throughout the years, Harold continually stressed the open, clear sound he felt was needed by Renaissance music and taught the techniques to produce that particular sound. His last concert and services offered the Missa Tecum Principium by Fayrfax in May/June 1975.

The period which comprised his work with Renaissance music, including choral conducting and editing, extended from about 1951 to his death from an embolism during treatment for liver cancer in WallaWalla, Washington on September 26, 1979.

Many of the predominantly amateur singers trained by Harold in this latter period were unaware of his compositional career and legacy. It was only during his final illness and preparations for what turned out to be the Memorial Concert for him at Rutgers Church on December 9, 1979 that his own compositions were played, thereby gaining an audience among his devoted singers.


Original compositions:

Brown's orchestral scores are most interesting, but were rarely performed. They include:

  • a 1937 suite for strings (ACA #1663);
  • a piano transcription of a Frescobaldi Passacaglia & Fugue;
  • Introduction & Allegro (Sym. #1), (1938) (ACA #1664, #1671);
  • Orchestral Suite #1 (ACA# 1669);
  • Divertimento for small Orchestra (1945) (ACA #1660);
  • Four Symphonic Movements (Sym. #2) (1950) (ACA #5036), which was also Brown's compositional piece for his Master's degree at Columbia.

Of these, the 1937 Suite was broadcast June 14, 1937 over the Mutual Broadcasting System (WOR) by the Symphonic Strings under Alfred Wallenstein; the Symphonic works have been read and recorded at Eastman by Howard Hanson: The Introduction and Allegro, October 29 & 31, 1941, The Orchestral Suite no. 1, October 26 & 28, 1943 and the Divertimento on October 23, 1946. The Divertimento was also performed by Milton Katims and the NBC Symphony in the same period. The first three of the Four Symphonic Movements were read by Howard Hanson November 6, 1951; parts to movement 4 were not completed due to Harold's failing health. A Standard MIDI file has been created of this unrecorded movement by Harold's former student Louis Lantz of Lock Haven, Pa., as well as of the 1945 Divertimento, and can be heard on CD.

We feel from these recordings that these works deserve an honored place in the concert hall — or at least that modern recordings be made that do justice to the complex and brilliant orchestration. The Divertimento is a light, klezmer-inflected two-movement work of 9 minutes, and the 1950 Symphony is a 20-minute statement which equals the best of the era.

Most of Brown's scores and parts are at the American Composers Alliance archive, at University of Maryland, College Park. The Special Collections Manager of the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library is Leahkim Gannett, telephone 301-314-7614. Orchestral scores are also available for loan at the Philadelphia Public Library, Fleisher Music collection; Columbia University Library; and the New York Public Library, Rogers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound at the Lincoln Center branch, which has many recordings, including chamber works, and 1938 Yaddo performances of and by Brown. The file is called, "the Harold Brown Collection" (formerly mislabeled the J. Harold Brown Collection).

The American Music Festival at Eastman Recordings under Howard Hanson are available from Sibley Music Library, Special collections, per David Peter Coppen, 27 Gibbs Street, Rochester, NY 14604, telephone: 585-274-1335, dcoppen@esm.rochester.edu

Renaissance Music:

Due to the dearth of good performance editions of the great renaissance masses, Brown undertook a series of arrangements suitable for his choral group which included:

  • I - Johannes Ockeghem: Credo Sine Nomine
  • II - Johannes Ockeghem: Missa L'Homme Armé
  • III - Heinrich Finck: Missa De Beata Virgine
  • IV - Johannes Ockeghem: Missa Caput
  • V - Johannes Ockeghem: Missa Au Travail Suis
  • VI - Johannes Ockeghem: Missa Cuisvis toni, modes 1, 5
  • VII - Johannes Ockeghem: Missa Sine Nomine
  • VIII - Josquin des Prez: Missa Una Musque de Buscaya
and many from other scholarly sources. Some of these in The Renaissance Chorus Series are still available from the Renaissance Chorus Association c/o Rosen, 116 Pinehurst Avenue, #B61, New York, NY 10033

Brown's pioneering recordings, all long out of print, included firsts of Isaac's Choralis Constantinus; Josquin's M. Una Musque de Buscaya; Ockeghem's M. Mi-Mi; Finck's M. De Beata Virgine (possibly still the only one); and others of Johannes Martini, Obrecht et al. Most were on the BAROQUE record label associated with Myles Rosenthal, and should be re-released on CD. The Isaac had been recorded on the Counterpoint/Esoteric/Everest labels and was released in Italy as: tank STG 7007 (Produzioni Discografiche DET. CADI Campi Distribuzione, Via Virgilio N.8-00193 Roma). Other works recorded but never released include the extraordinary Martini Salve Regina; the Compère (anti-papal) Sola Caret Monstris/Fera Pessima; and the ever popular Jannequin Chant des oiseaux.

Memorial Concert:

After his death on September 26, 1979, a Memorial Concert was held at Rutgers Church on December 9, 1979; the event was recorded by the noted engineer Marc Aubort and can be heard on CD. The program order, selected by Joel Meltz, assistant choral director for many years, was as follows:

  • Two Experiments for flute, clarinet and bassoon (1930)
  • Four little preludes for piano (1935)
  • Quartet for Strings (1932-3)
  • Songs: Alysoun (1947), Sylvia (1948), Miniver Cheevy (n.d.)
  • String Quintet (2 Violas) (1935)
  • Choral Setting No. 1 (Hopkins: "No Worst") (1940) (ssaaaa)
  • Johannes Martini: Magnificat (satb)
  • Johannes Ockeghem: Credo sine Nomine (du Village) (satb)

In addition to many former choristers and students, the event was supported or attended by family, former professional colleagues and eminent composers, including George Perle, Ned Rorem, Seymour Barab, the late Eugene Istomin and soloists Shirley Rhoads (Perle), Evie Simon, Beverly Myers, and John van Buskirk, who also provided rehearsal space and assisted the producers in mounting the event. The choral presentation and publicity was handled by John Hetland's Renaissance Street Singers, and conducting was done by Harold's former assistant Joel Meltz, who led Harold's "Choral Setting No. 1" on the Gerard Manley Hopkins text "No worst, there is none." Harold's successor, and current director of "Music Divine," Stephen Bonime, led Harold's favorite: Ockeghem's Credo Sine nomine. Cellist Sarah Carter contracted for the string players, and Flutist Katharine Flanders (daughter of Harold's friend the late Peter Flanders), the winds.

Most of the logistics and funds for this concert came from the non-profit organization, The Renaissance Chorus Association, which was formed in order to support the chorus and maintain its still-growing library.

A Brief Appreciation / Afterword

Now that we approach the centennial of Brown's birth, the question that poses itself in the minds of many former choristers and students remains to be answered: why the loyalty to his memory and legacy?

For this, unfortunately, we might have to await a new generation of scholars and musicologists interested in the intersection of modern composition and the rediscovery of the Medieval and Renaissance masters through new editions. Brown was fully schooled in mainstream and "modern" techniques, which he increasingly felt were lacking, and so, in the words of his former student Ned Rorem, (Knowing When to Stop, 1994), "he sailed above the storm but, unlike the Eagle of Rock, he sailed quite out of sight." Fortunately, he remained in sight of a generation of newly energized devotees of "early music," who founded Collegia and other specialized ensembles. As Mark Davenport describes in Early Music America (Fall 1997), Brown was a key influence on Noah Greenberg, whose New York Pro Musica was and remains a model for presenting and promoting a professional, touring, chamber and vocal ensemble. A fuller discussion of this relationship is in Pied Piper: The many lives of Noah Greenberg by James Gollin (Lives in Music #4, Pendragon Press, Hillsdale, NY, 2001). Some aspects of Brown's career and relationships remain to be sorted out, as hundreds of letters remain with the family, and await scholarly musicological attention. Perhaps this will also rectify the neglect shown by music historians in standard references. A monograph would be most welcome.

Our memories of occasional aesthetic digressions and technical discussions by Brown during rehearsals indicated a fascination with the studies of chromaticism (and attendant musica ficta) initiated by E. Lowinsky, which informed some of his own interpretation, such as in Josquin's M. Una Mousse de Buscaya, or regarding circle of fifths in Obrecht's M. Salve Diva Parens. He delighted in the irritatingly endless possibilities of Ockeghem's multi-modal catholicon, Missa Cuisvis toni. He was always interested in the expressive possibilities of a line and less with researching the "authentic" performance practice, which he felt was unknowable and/or irrelevant to our era or performers. This seems to be in line with his compositional and theoretic teaching in which students describe him as assigning melodic subjects capable of extended fugal development in all modes.

Now would be the time to gather the experiences of students and colleagues in order to flesh out and "canonize" some of the sometimes hilarious anecdotes surrounding Harold. While Paul Ehrlich, Director of The Renaissance Chamber Players, feels that Harold was the most important musical theorist of his generation, his reputation was made through personal influence and teaching, not specific treatise. On occasion, he was published in Partisan Review and The Nation, but his only technical writing seems to have been his essays in Film Music Notes, which explore the expressive effects of the medium in reference to the plots. Oddly enough, except for record jacket notes, he rarely wrote about his passion: early music.

Often, Harold was acerbic in considering Romantic – or romanticizing – music, and denounced aleotoric or reductionist music, which did not endear him to some at Columbia University. He worshiped Haydn, but was critical of Mozart K.516 which, after the great G-minor quintet's early movements, "dissipates" the finale in a less profound mode. He sometimes compared Ockeghem to Beethoven, showing concordances in the late quartets.

In his political/personal memoir, Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey (Free Press, NY, 1997), his nephew, David Horowitz, notes that Harold came from a secular Jewish radical household, and according to Gollin (op. cit.), passed his doubly radical Trotskyite leanings to his students, though not at expense of musical or other considerations — he was comfortable with others' religious or mystical experiences, as he was highly intuitive. This clash of disparate ways of viewing things may have contributed to his depressive bent, which psychoanalysis never rectified, but which may have hampered his productivity. Nevertheless, he was able to compose a few humorous "Psychoanalytic Rounds."

In the end, it will be our great loss if, by inattention, his work is not revived in each generation.

The Renaissance Chorus Association, now located at 116 Pinehurst Avenue, #B61, New York, NY 10033, c/o Sig Rosen, exists to maintain the Renaissance Chorus Library, and will provide copies for study, church choirs, and choruses if requested. We also solicit requests about Brown's scores, and parts for some chamber music. Finally, we welcome memories and anecdotes about Harold from former colleagues and students to fill out the portrait of this unusual man who gave us so much.

This website was created to expedite research, support upcoming Centennial and other events, and continue Brown's legacy.

We can be contacted via email: sigrosen@earthlink.net. Phone/fax: 212-740-4050.

Sigmund Irwin Rosen
February 2, 2009