The Many Lives of
Hillsdale NY 2001)
Our Reviewer at Work In 1928, Max Schachtman and a number of other comrades were expelled from the US Communist Party for heresy: they had been guilty of reading articles by Leon Trotsky, and of raising questions about the increasingly arbitrary rule of General Secretary Stalin.The group came to be called "Trotskyists" but some --- Schachtman especially --- went much further than Trotsky in applying Marxist analysis to the USSR itself, and in asserting that socialism was incompatible with police state practices. Schachtman became an influential figure in democratic socialist circles in the USA. He was also famous for demolishing CP spokesmen in debates, an exercise that became easier, through the 30s and 40s, as the Communist line became more and more palpably absurd, as well as self-contradictory.
Schachtman's associates and disciples included such writers as Dwight MacDonald, Irving Howe, James T. Farrell, Harvey Swados, and Michael Harrington. They also included a young New York activist, who was a self-taught musician, named Noah Greenberg.Noah proselytized for Schachtman's socialist organization while working as a machinist and, during the war, as a merchant seaman. He continued to work in the merchant marine after the war, reaching the exalted rank of third refrigerator engineer on a banana boat, and took part in National Maritime Union politics.But all the while, his private passion was music. When not shipping out, he did odd musical jobs as a copyist, as an occasional piano teacher, and, most importantly, as a choral conductor. At various times Noah conducted choral groups of Locals 22, 91, and 135 of the ILGWU, thus combining unionism with music. He also conducted amateur groups, and, in the late 40s-early 50s he developed an intense interest in early music. Somehow, out of this melange of semi-
professional work, Noah organized a little group to sing and play Renaissance music. After casting around a bit for a name, they hit on one with a nice ring to it: "The New York Pro Musica".
The NYPM was blessed with terrific musicians and in Noah it had a combination conductor, musicologist, manager, and promoter of great musicianship and superhuman energy. Their local concerts (originally at the 92nd St. YMHA) went from strength to strength; their production of the medieval Play of Daniel at the Cloisters became a New York institution; and within a few years their concert tours and recordings catalyzed a phenomenal revival of early music. By the mid-sixties there seemed to be, as one of the NYPM members put it, little Pro Musicas on every campus in the US. The group toured in Europe as well, where their influence added to an early music revival that was already under way.
James Gollin tells this exhilarating story well enough, although the book could have used better editing. It is good at recreating the excitement of the NYPM's early days, and at explaining the sheer effort that went into making it a success. The group's musical quality was necessary but not sufficient for that success, which depended critically on Noah's formidable abilities to organize, promote, network, schmooz, and raise money. In the end, he paid for his frantic schedule with a fatal heart attack at age forty-six. Nothing costs nothing.
The conjunction of Left politics, the shop floor, banana boats, and the Early Music revival tickles one's sensibility; they have, I think, deeper connections than the author himself realizes. Schachtman's group, which by the 50s had become the Independent Socialist League, was both independent-minded and intellectually rigorous, rather in the spirit of Karl Marx himself in the previous century. When class analysis made plain that a new exploiting class was expropriating the fruits of labour in the USSR, well ... this had to be faced. Unlike the morass of propaganda and sentimentalism in which the conventional, pro-Stalinist Left wallowed, the Schachtmanites believed in telling it like it is. Likewise, authenticity was Greenberg's lodestone in performing old music: he aimed to play it like it was.
By the way, a Marxist analysis of the Soviet Union is still invaluable for explaining what happened there, and in the societies which have replaced it. As for the Greenbergism --- well, this year just try to count the number of concerts that were performed, CDs that were released, or amateur groups that met to play music from Medieval to Renaissance to early Baroque. And while you are at it, pass me down my krummhorn.
I have loved the sound of those Renaissance wind instruments (or "buzzies" in early music jargon) since I first heard them in NYPM recordings. A few years ago, I finally took up one of them myself --- actually a rauschpfeife, which is a straight krummhorn. To hear me play it is to know why the instrument went extinct.
Our Reviewer at Play
The story carries a bittersweet implication about what Left politics in the US came to in the end. Maybe Mike Harrington's book The Other America had a small effect on the domestic programs espoused by the Democratic Party in the early 60s. Otherwise, the Schachtmanites all together had about as much influence on the politics of this planet as they did on the orbit of Ganymede. I remember who Max Schachtman was, and now you do, but that is about it.
In the introduction to "Pied Piper," Gollin quotes Jesse Simon, a veteran of the old days as follows:
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.--- Dr. Phage