Commentary Magazine


Noah Greenberg's Revolution

Of the many ways in which the culture of classical music has changed in the past 50 years, perhaps the most dramatic is the sharply increased frequency with which one can hear music written before the mid-18th century. Prior to 1950, few artists specialized in pre-classical music, and the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska was the only one whose name had marquee value; full-time chamber orchestras were all but nonexistent, and opera companies performed nothing older than Mozart. Today, the early-music “movement,” as it used to be called, has become less a movement than an industry, with groups such as the Academy of Ancient Music, Anonymous 4, and Les Arts Florissants ranking among the best-known brand names in the music business.

One who made a seminal contribution to this revolution in taste was Noah Greenberg. His name is now mostly forgotten—the entry for him in the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians consists of only three brief paragraphs—but New Yorkers who attended his concerts in the 50’s and 60’s will need no reminder of the pivotal role he played in introducing early music to a generation of American listeners. The New York Pro Musica Antiqua, founded by Greenberg in 1952, was the first ensemble in this country to win widespread critical acclaim for its performances of medieval, Renaissance, and baroque music. Its staging of The Play of Daniel, an 11th-century liturgical drama that had not been performed for 700 years before being presented by Greenberg in 1958 at the Cloisters (the medieval branch of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art), is still remembered as one of the key moments in the history of the early-music revival.

Why, then, is Greenberg himself no longer remembered? One reason is that he died in 1966, just as the audience for early music was starting to mushroom. Another is that he was a self-taught musician who held no academic degree in musicology—indeed, he never went to college at all—whereas the early-music scene is now dominated by extensively credentialed scholar-artists. In addition, only one of the 28 albums he recorded with the Pro Musica is now in print.

The publication of James Gollin’s Pied Piper: The Many Lives of Noah Greenberg, the first biography of Greenberg, is thus of particular significance.1 Not only does it contain a full account of his musical career, but it has much to say about another aspect of Greenberg’s life of which most readers will be unaware. Prior to founding the Pro Musica, he had been deeply involved in radical politics, working throughout much of the 1940’s as a labor organizer for the Workers party, a splinter group of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers party.

The story of Greenberg’s political life is fascinating in its own right. Most musicians are left-liberal, but few do much about it beyond performing at benefit concerts and voting a straight Democratic ticket. Greenberg, by contrast, was for a time as “engaged” an artist as has ever lived. No less interesting, though, is the fact that once he founded the Pro Musica, he turned his back on politics, completely and permanently—so completely, in fact, that most of those who met him after 1953 had no idea that he had once served as a front-line soldier in the war between the Stalinists and the Trotskyists, or that the Pro Musica was itself an indirect manifestation of the left-wing disillusion that transformed high culture in postwar America.

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Noah Greenberg was born in the Bronx in 1919, the only child of a teenaged couple who had fled Warsaw as part of the great Jewish emigration that followed World War I. Like nearly everyone in the Jewish Bronx, the Greenbergs were socialists and union members, and their son absorbed that heady political brew from his earliest days, joining a Communist club in high school. In those days, radicalism still went hand in hand with lofty cultural aspirations, and young Noah, who was deeply interested in music, also taught himself to play the double bass well enough to perform in the school orchestra.

In 1937, he became a member of the Socialist Workers party, a group formed by the radical activist Max Schachtman after he was thrown out of the American Communist party for opposing Stalin. Greenberg thus found himself keeping company with such budding intellectuals as Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Dwight Macdonald, all of whom then believed in the promise of a socialism not controlled by Stalin’s henchmen. Around the same time, pursuing his other main interest in life, he put together an informal group to sing the little-known Renaissance choral music that had recently been published in performing editions prepared by Lehman Engel under the auspices of the WPA Federal Music Project. By chance, he had stumbled onto the one musical profession—choral conducting—open to an untrained enthusiast with a charismatic personality, simultaneously discovering the repertoire that would dominate his life as a performer.

The Schachtmanites responded to the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 by breaking with Leon Trotsky, who continued to preach loyalty to the Soviet Union, if not to Joseph Stalin. They formed the tiny but resolutely independent Workers party, whose members sought to infiltrate the American labor movement (and also earn a living) by teaching themselves to become skilled machinists and metalworkers. Greenberg learned how to run a lathe and embarked on a series of factory jobs that eventually led him to California, where his assignment was to “colonize” CIO-organized shipbuilders.

Greenberg lost his work-related draft deferment in 1944 and joined the U.S. Merchant Marine. After the war ended, he could have studied music under the GI Bill, and a close friend encouraged him to go to Yale to work with Paul Hindemith, who had an interest in early music exceptional for a composer of his generation (he would later organize the Collegium Musicum of Yale University and present a series of influential concerts of pre-classical music played on period instruments). But Greenberg had no college degree and thus was ineligible to enter Hindemith’s graduate-level program; in addition, as he would have been well aware, Yale enforced a strict Jewish quota.

Adding to his uncertainty was the fact that he was losing interest in politics. Gollin has failed to unearth any relevant correspondence from this period, nor does Greenberg appear to have discussed his change of heart with any of his friends, then or later, but it is likely that his experience mirrored that of the other Workers-party members who drifted away after the war, mostly to enter the anti-Communist wing of the American labor movement. The party itself voted to disband in 1948, reorganizing as the pro-labor Independent Socialist League, and Schachtman ended up supporting U.S. involvement in Vietnam and backing Henry Jackson’s 1972 presidential campaign.

As for Greenberg, he shipped out with the Merchant Marine for the last time in 1949, and when he returned to New York, he gave up politics for good. From then on, he would devote his considerable energies to starting a different sort of revolution.

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In 1950, Greenberg went to France to attend the first Prades Festival, at which the cellist-conductor Pablo Casals and a band of virtuosos from Europe and America performed the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Never before had so much of Bach’s music been played at one time, or by so illustrious a group of musicians, and he came home with a new sense of mission.

He was already directing amateur choruses consisting of members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, and by 1950 was earning a decent wage from choral conducting and music copying. It was already clear that his natural gift for conducting was sufficient to make up for his lack of formal training, and once he returned from Prades, he put together a new group of singers who met privately for sight-reading sessions at which they—and Greenberg—familiarized themselves with the vast body of pre-classical choral music that had yet to be recorded.

As it happens, a fair amount of early music, both vocal and instrumental, had been released on 78-rpm records, but most of it was available only in such classroom-oriented library sets as Percy Scholes’s Columbia History of Music and the French L’Anthologie Sonore. Nadia Boulanger’s celebrated 1937 set, Oeuvres de Monteverdi, was the only commercially released major-label album of pre-baroque music performed by artists of note, but the vocal selections were anachronistically accompanied on a modern piano.2

All this began to change with the invention of the LP in 1948, which opened the way for independent record labels run by entrepreneurs who engaged in what is now known as “niche marketing.” These low-budget operations typically recorded nonstandard repertoire—much of it early music—performed by small groups of unknown performers who were more interested in winning exposure than in making money. One of these labels, the Greenwich Village-based Esoteric Records, signed up Greenberg and his band of singers at the end of 1952, and the New York Pro Musica Antiqua was born.

The original Pro Musica was a semiprofessional sextet with one world-class member. Russell Oberlin was a tenor whose small-toned but vibrant voice had a memorably austere timbre and an unusually high upper extension that enabled him to sing alto parts—the kind of voice known in the Renaissance as a countertenor. This voice type fell out of fashion in the 19th century, but the English countertenor Alfred Deller, who began performing and recording early music in the 40’s, had singlehandedly revived interest in the expressive possibilities of the male alto voice. Oberlin was the first modern American countertenor to specialize in early music, and his distinctive voice lent a special touch of authenticity to the Pro Musica’s performances.3

Greenberg soon added four accompanying instrumentalists who played more or less authentic copies of such older instruments as the harpsichord and viola da gamba. In addition to being a compelling conductor, he had a knack for putting together excitingly diverse programs. No one else in New York was performing such music so well, and the Pro Musica immediately attracted favorable attention from local critics.

Greenberg recognized early on that the group would never appeal to middlebrow concertgoers who wanted to hear the classics performed by celebrity soloists. As Oberlin explained to Gollin:

You know 57th Street [in New York]? Where all the agents and managers are, the string quartets and symphonies and everybody? Noah said, “Fifty-seventh Street has a life of its own. We’re not really interested in that. We have to appeal to the intelligentsia.”

Instead of trying to crack the 57th Street monopoly, Greenberg found a way to go around it. The Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association of New York (always called the 92nd Street Y) already had a record of successfully marketing high culture to the intelligentsia, and its small auditorium was ideally suited to concerts by a ten-member ensemble. William Kolodney, who ran the Y’s educational department and booked its classical concerts, heard the Pro Musica’s first public performances in the spring of 1953 and promptly offered to create a special three-concert subscription series for the group, thus making it possible for Greenberg to put the Pro Musica on a fully professional basis.

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Kolodney’s timing, like Green-berg’s, was impeccable. New York in 1953 was a cauldron of modernism, and never before or since has there been a moment when American intellectuals were more passionately interested in a wider range of nonliterary artistic activities, from cool jazz to Abstract Expressionist painting to the neo-classical dance of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet.

It helped that the cultural stranglehold exerted by the Popular Front on the Left in the 30’s had been broken, in large part through the determined efforts of the New York intellectuals associated with Partisan Review and COMMENTARY. Not only were left-wing politics and unabashedly high culture once again considered compatible—as they had been prior to the rise of Stalinist philistinism—but a growing number of chastened leftists, among them Noah Greenberg, had come to feel they could do more to improve man’s lot by making good art than by turning lathes or handing out political pamphlets. The art critic Clement Greenberg summed up this transformation when he observed pithily that “ ‘anti-Stalinism,’ which started out more or less as ‘Trotskyism,’ turned into art for art’s sake.”

It stood to reason that such intellectuals would be attracted by the unfamiliar sounds of medieval and Renaissance music—especially as presented by a Jewish autodidact from the Bronx with a quasiproletarian background—and the Pro Musica was soon taken up by precisely the people Greenberg had in mind. The poet W.H. Auden collaborated with the group in concert and on record, and Lincoln Kirstein, a wealthy aesthete who had helped Balanchine start the New York City Ballet, became one of Greenberg’s financial backers. Before long, the Pro Musica was recording for major labels (first Columbia, then Decca) and appearing on such prestigious TV series as Omnibus.4

What Greenberg needed in order to reach beyond his loyal coterie of New York highbrows was a popular signature piece—the early-music equivalent of Balanchine’s Nutcracker—and he found it in a medieval liturgical drama in which the biblical story of Daniel in the lion’s den was set to plainchant. The English musicologist William Smoldon had described The Play of Daniel in The New Oxford History of Music, and Greenberg, suspecting that the work might be suitable for the Pro Musica, began a correspondence with him. Working in collaboration with Rembert Weakland, a Benedictine medievalist (later archbishop of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Milwaukee) who had studied music history at Columbia University, the two men created a performing edition of The Play of Daniel accompanied by instruments. Greenberg decided to mount it in a full-dress production, persuaded Auden to write an English-language verse narration, enlisted the art historian Meyer Schapiro to supply counsel on matters of period design, and talked Kirstein into putting up the money to present the show at the Cloisters.

The Play of Daniel put Greenberg and the Pro Musica on the map. The reviews were glowing and every performance sold out. “Nothing so fine as this has been done in New York in recent memory,” wrote Brooks Atkinson, the influential drama critic of the New York Times. Decca recorded the production shortly after it opened, and the resulting LP, released that summer, gave Greenberg a gilt-edged calling card. Later that year, Ronald Wilford, Pro Musica’s agent, brought the group to Columbia Artists Management Inc., the most powerful classical-music management firm in America, rightly assuming that they would now be successful as a touring act:

Everything was a story. Noah was a story, a guy from the Merchant Marine leading a music group. How Pro Musica got started was a story. Oberlin was a story. The instruments were a story. The music was a story.

Most important of all, Green-berg’s style of music-making, unlike that of most of the scholar-performers who then specialized in early music, was electrifyingly vital. In Wilford’s words, early music as performed by the Pro Musica “wasn’t dry. It was wet Wet and juicy.”

In 1960, the U.S. State Department underwrote a European tour of The Play of Daniel, and three years later the Ford Foundation awarded the Pro Musica a $465,000 capital grant. By that time, the group had recorded much of its huge repertoire, and such albums as Music of the Medieval Court and Countryside (1957), Elizabethan and Jacobean Ayres, Madrigals, and Dances (1959), and Spanish Music of the Renaissance (1960) were opening the ears of thousands of listeners to the hitherto-unknown beauties of pre-classical music on period instruments.

Unfortunately, Greenberg could not cope with the increasing stress caused by the group’s success. His health began to fail in the early 60’s, forcing him to cancel performances and cut back on his crowded performing schedule, and an aortic aneurysm killed him at the age of forty-six. The Pro Musica survived him by eight years, disbanding in 1974.

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By then, the New York Pro Musica (as it came to be known) had lost much of its uniqueness, not merely because Greenberg was no longer at the helm but because similar ensembles had sprung up throughout Europe and America. Indeed, the explosion of interest in early music proved to be anything but temporary. What once was a novelty has long since become a concert-hall staple. It speaks volumes that the ultra-cautious Metropolitan Opera should now be regularly producing the operas of Handel—and hiring American-born countertenors like David Daniels to sing in them.

At the same time, the relationship of American intellectuals to high culture has undergone a sea change. The advent of a radical egalitarianism oddly reminiscent of the Popular Front philistinism of the 1930’s has led many left-wing intellectuals—particularly those based in universities—to direct their critical attention all but exclusively to popular culture, while many of their conservative counterparts remain stubbornly unwilling to engage with even the more accessible forms of modernism. Few of the descendants of the New York intellectuals who made up the Pro Musica’s original audience now bother to keep up with current developments in classical music, dance, or the visual arts, and it is hard to imagine that anyone undertaking a similar venture would be able to count on their support today.

One wonders what Noah Greenberg would have made of these developments. But as an old-fashioned leftist, he might well have taken comfort in the fact that early music ceased to be a plaything of the intelligentsia and now gives pleasure to music lovers of all kinds. And having witnessed the evil outcome of the political revolution to which he devoted a number of years of his too-short life, he would surely have been pleased to know how differently the other, musical revolution turned out.

Among the many friends of Greenberg whom James Gollin interviewed while working on Pied Piper was Jesse Simons, an ex-Trotskyist and fellow alumnus of the Socialist Workers party who likewise abandoned radical politics, in his case to become a noted labor arbitrator and New York balletomane (and to serve on the Pro Musica’s first board of directors). In Simon’s wry words:

I knew dozens of the people who were around in those days. Politicals, labor people, intellectuals. We were all going to make the world a better place. But the only one who really left the world a better place than he found it was Noah, with his music.

It would be difficult to write a more cutting epitaph for a generation, or a truer one for the founder of the New York Pro Musica Antiqua.

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Footnotes

1 Pendragon Press, 427 pp., $46.00. The only Pro Musica recording currently in print is English Medieval Christmas Carols (Tradition TCD 1056), a 1956 collection of a-cappella vocal music poorly transferred to CD from the original mono tapes. The Play of Daniel, recorded in 1958 for Decca, was briefly available on CD but has since been deleted from the catalogue.

2 This still-impressive 78 set has been transferred to CD, coupled with a performance of the Brahms Op. 52 Liebeslieder Walzer accompanied by Boulanger and Dinu Lipatti (Pearl GEMM CD 9994).

3 Most of Oberlin’s solo recordings, like those he made with the Pro Musica, are out of print, but the haunting sound of his voice in its prime can be heard to excellent effect on a 1958 album of lute songs by John Dow-land (Lyrichord LEMS 8011).

4 An amusing sign of the group’s cachet among the cognoscenti (unmentioned, alas, in Pied Piper) was a mock-madrigal, called “The Pro Musica Antiqua,” written by Jonathan Tunick and Steven Vinaver and recorded by the cabaret singer Blossom Dearie, in which an earnest young maiden confesses to having lost her virginity at the hands of a man who picked her up at the Cloisters after a concert of music by “Ockeghem, Tallis, Purcell, and Byrd.”

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About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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