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Pied Piper

The Many Lives of Noah Greenberg

James Gollin

427 pp.

27 illustrations

ISBN: 978-1576470411

Hardback $49.95

Out-of-Print. This book is no longer available from Pendragon Press.


Noah Greenberg's life story reads like a gritty Jack London or Theodore Dreiser romance set against the backdrop of New York's political and cultural scene. Born and raised in the Bronx the child of immigrant parents Greenberg had no education beyond high school and absolutely no formal musical training. Yet in the 1950s he rose to musical celebrity as co-founder and director of the legendary New York Pro Musica and became the driving force behind the American early-music revival.

Growing up in the Depression Greenberg devoted himself to radical socialism and labor activism. In World War II he worked in the California shipyards and spent six years in the Merchant Marine. Music always mattered but the turning point in his life was the 1950 Prades Festival from which he came away convinced that he must make his career in music.

He put together an ensemble of engaging young singers and instrumentalists featuring the astonishing countertenor voice of Russell Oberlin. By the mid-fifties lively expressive interpretations of medieval Renaissance and Baroque works had won Greenberg and the Pro Musica national acclaim. In 1958 their presentation of the medieval liturgical drama The Play of Daniel made them internationally famous. At the height of his and Pro Musica's success Noah Greenberg died suddenly in New York at the age of 47. In Pied Piper James Gollin tells the story of Greenberg's tragically short life placed in the rich context of America's rise to postwar cultural prominence.

James Gollin author of four books and many articles for New York Magazine Fortune The Nation and The New York Times has created entertainments featuring a fictional early music group The Antiqua Players.Winner of the Deems Taylor Award for 2002 given by ASCAP.


James Gollin:


March 6, 2020

It is amazing that one of the most dynamic personalities to promote what has come to be called early music was not professionally trained as a musician. However, Noah Greenbergs creative approach to a musical repertoire that was languishing in textbooks and scholarly tomes was an inspiration to a whole generation of"musicians and a revelation to music lovers. This biography embraces the many contradictions and accomplishments of Noah Greenberg, described by James Gollin as " Noah the Greenwich Village bohemian", "Noah the dweller on comfortable West End Avenue", " Noah the merchant mariner ", " Noah the Trotskyist ", and "Noah the musi cian -entrepreneur -promoter, the cofounder of and driving force behind the brilliant New York Pro Musica". Though his principal aim was "to write the truth, not hagiography", Gollin has gone beyond that and also portrayed the power of music in the life of one boy from the Bronx. Since my introduction to the New York Pro Musica came only late in Greenberg's career as director, I never saw him in concert. I was able to collect all their earlier recordings, and over the years I heard the stories about this man and his passion for early music from people who had known him. Everything in Gollin 's book rings true-both his achievements in producing inspired performance s of music that had been thought dry and uninspired and his sometimes acerbic way of achieving those results . Gollin weaves a very interesting tale, based on personal interviews and documents preserved at the New York Public Library. During his life , Greenberg moved between workers's committee meetings and cocktail parties including people such as Lincoln Kirstein and WH Auden , and Gollin offers illuminating vignettes of these very different levels of American society. I would agree with Gollin that "polite bloodlessness was the hallmark and curse of the first of the 20th Century ensembles that essayed early Renaissance motets, late Re naissance madrigals, or baroque instrumental and choral works'". It would seem that Greenberg sought to bring to early music the same passion he pursued in his life. Gollin offers at least one quote that best summarizes for me the New York Pro Mus ica: "Under Noah, [Ro nald] Wilford said with evident gusto, '[Early music] wasn 't dry. It was wet. Wet and juicy'." As documented in the biography and disco graphy, Greenberg always pushed the ensemble to expand its repertoire and its size. The recordings spread the reputation of the New York Pro Musica far beyond its concert audiences and represent his greatest legacy. As John Barker wrote of the original release of the Play of Daniel in 1958, "it is a stimulating, novel, and most valuable addition to the recorded medieval literature, and worth owning whether or not one was fortunate enough to attend any of the performances at The Cloisters" (Dec 1958, p 264). I would add that this was true of every Greenburg recording. Of the three CD re-releases listed, only the English Carols (origin ally recorded in 1953) is currently available in the United States (Tradition 1056). The compilation of the two medieval dra ma s, the Play of Daniel and the Play of Herod (MCA 10102 ), is not available. The third, a compilation of dances by Susato and Venetian instrumental music (from 1962) with Praetorius dances (from 1965) is available only in Canada. I can only hope that Gollin's vivid, multifaceted portrait of Noah Greenberg and his place in revitalizing the performance of early music will lead listeners to return to his recorded legacy. BREWER

American Record Guide

March 6, 2020

Pied Piper: The Many Lives of Noah Greenberg. By James Gollin. Lives in Music, 4.) Hillsdale, N .Y.: Pendragon Press, 2001. [x, 427 p. ISBN 1-57647-041-5. $46.) 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 Hall, if I recall correctly). I had not been to their concert, butto another one in town. By then even for an early music fanatic, the Pro Musica was not a "must-hear." A quartercentury 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 Kingdo m, 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 re mote 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 rather 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 modem 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 sec onda ry. 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 impor tant 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. TOM MOORE College of New jersey


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