Thursday, October 3, 2013

Harold Brown - Everything Old is New Again

There's always one more out there.  Whether you've given up or not, even if you have no idea where to look, there's always an unturned stone.  Case in point, Harold Brown, who I'd never heard of before a few days ago but now has shot to the top of my Tell Other People About This Guy You Schmuck list.  I'd never have found him unless I was looking for something else entirely: the Instituto Interamericano de Musicología -

- who made this:

Before the McCarthy era clamped down on foreign influences like a death viper, America made serious attempts to musically join hands with Latin America and the Soviet Union, with some publishers, such as Leeds Music, making their mark with importing works by Khatchaturian and Kabalevsky.  For a nation so eager to be disgusted by Stalin-approved art it's interesting how deep Soviet music has burrowed its way into our musical pedagogy.  The Instituto Interamericano de Musicología was a Deco-styled, optimistic organization that published a series of watershed anthologies throughout the late '30's and '40's, ensuring exposure to a who's-who of the Latin-American music scene.  In 1941 they did their first (and possibly only) issue dedicated to U.S. composers, featuring such luminaries as William Schuman and Walter Piston, as well as such unlit corners as Robert Delaney and Mary Howe.  The University of Washington has a copy of this some-150-page gem, and while in a scanning frenzy I came across this:

(Click for larger view)

Effective architecture, a unique modal language, and an attractive Neo-Baroque flair, all in two pages.  Though the name was a mystery (and as unremarkable as they come), I scanned and searched, coming across something rare in my field: a contemporary fanbase.  The Renaissance Chorus of New York, founded by Brown in the '50's, has built a website dedicated to the man and his music, making this one of the few times on this blog that you can actively support a long forgotten composer's revival.

Harold Brown (1909-1971) was a New Yorker from birth to death, and played the viola from childhood; his parents, though not too musical themselves, felt their children should have music in their lives.  While gradually rising in the ranks of local institutions he wrote the Christopher Robin String Quartet at age 21, which earned him a fellowship at Columbia University and is one of three of his works to get a commercial recording as of this writing.  A student of Nadia Boulanger, he was not only involved in modern composition but also Medieval and Renaissance music, the study of which gained him the support of many of his young colleagues, including Lehman Engel and Bernard Herrmann (yes, that one).  Fascinated with the fluid modality of older works, he started working elements of Renaissance composition into his own works, and by the mid-30's (the String Quintet and the Four Little Preludes) had achieved his own personal style.  In his memoir Knowing When to Stop, Ned Rorem recounted his time as a student of Brown's, and admitted to having been influenced by Brown's String Quintet; the evidence could be seen in Rorem's early songs.

Aside from the first Little Prelude (above) and the Choral Setting no. 1, Brown's work went unpublished until the ACA was formed in the early '50's, and after Brown's death in 1971 the manuscripts were returned and now sit in the Special Collections at the University of Maryland.  For many other composers on this blog that's the end of their story - but Brown had cultivated an alternative fanbase during his lifetime.  In the mid-'50's, Brown formed a volunteer chorus to perform Renaissance choral music, including his own editions of works by composers such as Ockeghem and Martini.  The chorus outlasted its founder, and in 2009 they hosted a memorial concert for his centenary that featured his chamber, solo and choral works as well as a couple of his Renaissance editions.  In 2011 they secured funding to begin a CD recording project, and in 2012 Albany Records released Harold Brown: Music for Strings, which features the Christopher Robin String Quartet (there just called String Quartet (1930)), the String Quintet and the String Quartet no. 1 (1932/48).  Despite some of the most boring art design I've ever seen on a CD the music is wonderful, and I recommend checking it out, even if just for the Quintet, the star of the show.  Albany has their own YouTube channel, and in the interest of capitalism they only release one track from each of their CD's to the web; unfortunately they put up the most octatonic music he ever wrote, which isn't the best representation of his compositional voice but is still pretty good.

Knowing full well that exposing Brown's music is more important than withholding non-commercial recordings until they get revamped for sale, the Renaissance chorus has included performances of many of his works on their website, from his orchestral pieces to those Four Little Preludes I keep mentioning.  They also included a scan of the score for the Choral Setting no. 1, a surprise considering that Boosey & Hawkes bought its publisher, Arrow Music Press, and B & H holds on to their property with an iron grip (especially now considering they were purchased by Hal Leonard, transforming them from publishing giant to conglomerate subsidiary).  It's an inspiring effort, and one that you may have a chance to join if they ever decide to work on another CD.  It'd certainly be nice to see recordings of Choral Setting no. 1Four Little Preludes and the Two Experiments for flute, clarinet and bassoon of a higher caliber and less room noise than the ones included there.  So go: explore, enjoy, repeat.  I Am A Nerd (and So Can You!).



  1. Thank you for this! I hope it's OK with you that I posted a link to it at -John Hetland (

  2. Hi. I bumped into his name in the book Pianist by J. Gollin (2010), Indiana. There are some reminiscences and quotes of Harold who was influential at least a bit on the start of carrer of Eugene Istomin. He actually scheduled in December 1944 his friends Four Preludes for Piano. Harold Brown was a very intriguing person as far as I got it, and it seem that in the conditions he was working, he achieved much.

    Mitja U.