Here’s my take on it: Harold Brown is the unacknowledged and unsung pioneer, the one who pretty single-handedly sowed the seed for the phenomenon of Early Music in the United States. He should be recognized.
In 1956 there was no such thing as “Early Music.” In 2008, Google lists 35,200,000 sites relating to it. You can get a Ph.D. in the history of this music; you would get the degree, actually, in a relatively narrow sub-field of it. You can get a graduate degree in its performance now. It’s taught and revered in academies, conservatories, summer and winter festivals, any music department of any consequence at any reputable university.
This was not at all the case in the 1950s. Nobody had heard of this music. It did exist in Europe, and in the UK. I remember a song parody called “The Pro-Musica Antiqua” about an English group by that name—maybe it was by Beatrice Lillie—and in New York there was Noah Greenberg’s Pro-Musica Antiqua, a professional group founded in 1952, which was really the first to carve out a spot for this music in the concert hall. But it was Harold Brown who first introduced Noah Greenberg to this music, and Harold Brown who mentored Greenberg through the enterprise of actually forming a performing group.
I’ve just been reading around in the fascinating 2004 dissertation of Eriko Aoyama (see http://www.ohiolink.edu/etd/view.cgi?acc_num=ucin1092344734, about Noah Greenberg and his work). Harold Brown is mentioned frequently in this monograph, and some interesting things emerge. The two met when Harold Brown was a substitute teacher at James Monroe High School in the Bronx, and Noah Greenberg was a student there. Of course, as a teacher, Harold mentored the student Greenberg: Harold had his own philosophy of music in general. “Brown, an accomplished violist and aspiring composer, Columbia University’s Mosenthal Fellow in Music Composition in 1930....was very critical of the contemporary classical music scene with its over-emphasis on virtuosity and fame. He thought that this system of making classical music into a business was corrupting the music itself.”
Greenberg moved in with Harold. It turns out the pair were, in a strange way, opposing personalities. Harold was a visionary; Greenberg an enthusiastic organizer—not to minimize his contributions, of course. Oddly, I had just written, below,* that Harold had an “air of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” A few minutes later, I read in Aoyama’s dissertation that Noah Greenberg “was in the right place at the right time” (p. 41 ) and that Greenberg “was able to turn a disadvantage into an advantage and use this point to hook the listeners” (p. 47). Not so Harold. His irony always got in the way, though others have judged it more harshly: “introverted, intense argumentative style” (Jeremy Noble, Obituary: Noah Greenberg, Musical Times (March 1966), or even the “arrogance and iconoclasm of youth and chronic dissatisfaction with life” (James Gollin, Noah Greenberg’s biographer, cited in Aoyama).
But that’s not how I see it. In my mind’s eye I see Harold shaking his head and chuckling. Chronic dissatisfaction? So be it...and a good thing it was, too, if it led him to the music of Obrecht, Ockeghem and Josquin. Aoyama reports that Brown and Greenberg studied scores and manuscripts of works by early masters at the Fifty-eighth Street Music Library, and they “puzzled over Gregorian neumes and tried to imagine what the masses of Isaac, Ockeghem, Josquin, and Lasso would sound like if singers could be found to sing them” (ibid.)
At the High School of Music and Art, Harold found the singers to sing the music. He managed to interest twenty-five or thirty kids from his violin classes, or his music theory or music history classes. I became one of these happy few in 1955, the year I entered Music and Art as a sophomore. The Chorus had been in existence for several years already. I joined because it seemed like a cool group. And I loved to sing, though I was a cello student, not a voice major.
New York City’s public High School of Music and Art in Harlem was an extraordinary place, a true testament to public education. There was a rigorous audition: I remember it well. We studied a full academic program, with the crucial additions of a performance instrument, ensemble practice, and courses like music history, music theory, ear training and even counterpoint or music composition. The teachers were exemplary, mostly.
But among these influential and responsible teachers, Harold stood out. Rumpled, spontaneous, quirky, clearly different: at the time in his forties, he had a harried yet ruefully good-humored air of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.* [see above]. You could see that Harold did not fit the mold. Other teachers were fine, intelligent, good people: but Harold was from another plane. We knew that Harold had studied Composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and we knew that was an impressive thing. We knew that somewhere along the line, he’d discovered this music: Renaissance music, he called it. Our music textbooks, and even standard reference works of the time, if they referred to it at all, called it “ancient music,” and considered it essentially of little interest for moderns.
Harold Brown was ready for this music. He heard the depth in it; he heard the exaltation in it. Like Felix Mendlessohn re-introducing Baroque music to European audiences, he was the first to tap a subterranean vein, one which had been there, been forgotten, and now was approaching its time again. Musical audiences were about to be ready to be reintroduced to it.
It always struck me that my sister and brother singers were the most unlikely of choristers for the Latin Mass. Dorothy Brodkin, Susan Goldberg, Sandy Burd, Laurie Israel, Joel Meltz, Marc Estrin, Ray Rosenstock, Peter Schlosser, Laurie Lorber: these are names I remember: mostly, they were Jewish. In fact, most seemed to be children of left-wingish Jewish atheists—those who are now called red diaper babies...people who went to Pete Seeger concerts and Woody Guthrie hootenannies, and loved Paul Robeson. We girls wore black stockings and white sneakers for the Bohemian look: we were influenced by the Art Students. We were proto-hippies (it was still the fifties). We hung out in Washington Square Park on Sundays and sang workers and union songs with banjo players and guitarists and washboard basses.
And there we were, also singing Latin Masses of Josquin Desprez, Johannes Ockhegem, Heinrich Isaak, and other forgotten composers of genius, who created their polyphonic compositions set to the liturgy of the Mass in Burgundy and Flanders in the later years of the fifteenth century. Those were interesting times: years of turmoil for desperate Spanish Jews, many of them former court musicians in Ferdinand and Isabella’s court and elsewhere in Spain, who struggled to find footholds in northern Europe, and to escape the coming Expulsion from Spain and the horrendous Inquisition that would come after. Interesting times long, long ago.
But how could this be? How did it happen that Jewish kids would be singing the Latin Mass?
My mother would entreat me not to mention the music to her father. “Zayde would have a fit! Please don’t mention it. And don’t say that Daddy and I came to your concert, please.” My Zayde, my mother’s father, was born in Berditchev, Ukraine (and, I must mention, was a master of the improvisatory art of the Cantor). He would have good reason to be horrified, since this very Latin Mass, or probably the Cyrillic version, had been the backdrop for the torture and murder of Zayde’s and Bubbe’s close relations and ancestors for centuries. This Mass designated my ancestors as heretics, infidels to be persecuted. In fact, my mother herself as an infant only narrowly survived the pogrom of Easter 1905 in Berditchev and Zhitomir, when Jewish infants were routinely bayoneted. Zayde ran to the forest and hid with the week-old baby. The family immigrated to New York City later that year, and my mother never believed in her father’s God.
Anyway, Harold Brown, originally of the Bronx, was Jewish as well, and, as a matter of fact, a member of a most decidedly Red-Diaper family (see the redoubtable David Horowitz, nephew of Harold Brown, in Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, for a fuller account of his and Harold’s family politics).
Zayde’s disapproval didn’t make a whole lot of difference to me, actually. I was with Harold, as we all were. And Harold had gone straight for the musical passion, not dwelling on the cruel ironies of European history.
Again: Harold was a musical pioneer, a trailblazer. His single-minded and unquestioning love—no, his passion—was what counted: for polyphony and for the unearthly harmonies of the sacred music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. His ficta, i.e., his interpretations of accidentals, sharps and flats, led to striking and original harmonies, which he himself acknowledged would be questioned or even, he said, derided by later generations of scholars—these would be the scholars who would develop in the academies that evolved decades after Harold’s pioneer work. Harold knew that his were original, unconventional and singular interpretations: he felt himself within his rights. “Romantic,” he’d admit sheepishly. “Like Berlioz.” But it worked, right there in the Kyrie.
I must say a word about Harold’s conducting style. I have sung in choral ensembles for more than fifty years now; I have even conducted a few myself. I have experienced the conducting personae of dozens of dedicated, musical, knowledgeable and talented individuals. But I have never seen again the particular kind of passion that Harold brought to his musical direction. It was an intense, quiet, deep, intimate state that appeared in his face. He went into a sort of trance. His concentration was transporting; his countenance glowed, his half-closed eyes communicated the sublime power that overtook him as these complex and yet inevitable turns and returns and recapitulations and resolutions wove themselves into a Credo or a Gloria or an Agnus Dei. And we singers felt it too.
And then, inevitably too, one of the fifteen year-olds would do something stupid: musically, or vocally, or socially, or maybe just some teenage thing with chewing gum. And the moment would be shattered, and Harold’s sublime trance state would be in tatters...irrevocably. At worst, he’d shout in genuine horror: “ALTOS!! You’re flat!!” (It was often the Alto section that went flat. The Sopranos tended to sharp. I don’t think any of us were actually voice students, and we didn’t know too much about vocal production. What we were able to achieve is remarkable: I think it was the music itself that enabled us mostly to manage. For many of us, the study of vocal production would come later.) Sometimes Harold would groan. Often he’d just laugh and shake his head. He knew, after all, whom he was dealing with, and he was familiar with the ways of mid-teens, for all their urbane and bohemian ways!
That was a bit of my experience of The Renaissance Chorus of New York...and so glad I am to have had it. I join others on this website who thank Harold Brown for his immense vision. We who were lucky enough to know him were forever touched by his uncanny prescience. On a human level, we were inspired by his sense of fun, his modesty, his understanding and of course, the depth of his musicianship. For the rest of the musical world, it needs to be recognized that his was the energy that grew into the ripple that became the wave called Early Music, which is still growing and still touching more and more listeners and performers.
Harold, may your memory be for a blessing. I am eternally grateful that I was one of your recruits.