Pied Piper: The Many Lives of Noah Greenberg. (Musical Men).
As a musician I have been part of the early music community on the East and West coasts since the 1970s. The closest I came to the New York Pro Musica was catching a ride in the car carrying the harpsichord rented for their last performance in Boston (1974, in Symphony 1-lall, if I recall correctly). I had not been to their concert, but to another one in town. By then, even for an early music fanatic, the Pro Musica was not a "must-hear." A quarter-century later it is probably safe to say that the ensemble lives on only for those touched by it directly. Early music in the United States continues to be nourished to a great extent by its interactions with the early music scenes of Western Europe. particularly those in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, and though period instrument ensembles now dominate the market for the recording of music composed until about 1800, these ensembles are still relatively unimportant in the United States, with the promise of the 1970s remaining unfulfilled.
The New York Pro Musica's flowering under Noah Greenberg was not so long ago (the dozen years from 1954 to 1966), but it seems, along with Greenberg's peregrinations before the Pro Musica, remarkably distant, a different world, one almost as remote as Schubert's Vienna, or Gilbert and Sullivan's London. Half of Gollin's volume focuses on the life that brought Greenberg to the New York Pro Musica. What is striking is how various that life was (the "many lives" of Gollin's title) and how it was shaped by the society and culture created by the immigrant Jews of New York City. The almost two hundred pages that carry Gollin from Greenberg's childhood until the beginnings of the Pro Musica are filled with the socialist political activity in New York, most importantly the Socialist Workers Party of Max Schachtman; it would not be off the mark to say that in viewing a trajectory in which Greenberg is employed as a machinist, and later a sailor in the merchant marine, one would expect it to produce a labor organizer r ather than a revered musician. Greenberg's training in music had been informal and his conventional education did not extend past high school--no college degree, no conservatory training. His choral directing prior to the New York Pro Musica was limited to choruses affiliated with the locals of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (I.L.G.W.U)--Gollin mentions Local 22, mostly Jewish, and Local 89, mostly Italian, as well as a number of others.
It was Greenberg's achievement in creating a market for early music in New York in the 1950s that Gollin recreates in the second half of the book. From the vantage of a half-century later, the make-believe involved in resuscitating music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in the midst of the largest and most modern city in the United States seems to bear a certain resemblance to the folk revival of the same period, both being imaginative recreations by uprooted Jewish intellectuals of cultures essentially alien to modernity. One could say that Bob Dylan (though twenty years younger) and Greenberg were essentially responding to the same cultural imperative, although the New York folk scene was drawing on a still existent native culture and the early music scene on a European culture of centuries before.
Gollin's narrative is focused on the personalities that came together to make the New York Pro Musica, the impact the group had on audiences in New York, the forces that fragmented it, and finally on Greenberg himself, who must have been a compelling personality. At least in this telling, the music seems to serve the expression of Greenberg's vitality, rather than vice versa; thus the qualities of the music itself, and any tradition of performance, are secondary. Contemporary events in the performance of early music outside New York, whether in the United States or Europe, are beyond the scope of Gollin's tightly focused examination.
What may remain of Greenberg's legacy with the New York Pro Musica is his influence on the performance of early music in the United States, and the many recordings the group made. Neither of these is examined critically here, giving the volume a hagiographical tone. It is clear that Greenberg was important to his contemporaries, but not so clear why he should be important to us in 2002. His effect on the subsequent history of early music in this country is almost nil in contrast to the far reaching influence of Frans Bruggen and Gustav Leonhardt, to name but two. The New York Pro Musica's recordings are virtually unavailable, perhaps because the performances they preserve sound so different from modern interpretations as to be almost unlistenable; they are mere historic documents showing the state of the art at the time, and now unlikely to be considered aesthetically valid experiences.
Gollin sympathetically presents a life in music, but the life of the music itself is less present here. This is nevertheless an important document for those interested in the history of musical performance in the United States.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2002|
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