“You’ll like it here. There’s no Colored and very few Jews.”
This was said to me on one of my first visits off campus at Mansfield State Teachers College, now Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1954 by a principal local merchant, a prominent citizen. It was his sincere endorsement of one of the benefits of his town, and from the pride in his voice I sensed that he was expressing the common view of his neighbors.
Comprising perhaps 2,500 souls, and not much larger today, Mansfield is situated in upper central Pennsylvania, about twenty miles south of the New York border, near Corning and Elmira. The business district was two blocks long, with a diner, restaurant, movie theater, and a small hotel. There were the usual small-town stores, and a small market two blocks from the downtown. As Mansfield was a dry town, there was no bar. Students traveled six miles out of town or to New York State, which had drinking at age eighteen at this time. There was no industry apparent other than the Teachers College.
Pennsylvania has fourteen State Colleges. Until around the late ‘60’s the colleges specialized in the various educational fields; the college in my hometown, Lock Haven, was centered on Physical Education. Mansfield was one of three schools emphasizing Music Education, and some considered it the best, although the smallest of the three. Our graduating Class of 1958 was 138, of which 19 were Music Ed majors. It was thought, although not known for sure, that the school was originally a Baptist or some other denominational institution before it became a state school. This was not hard to believe, since by today’s norms it would certainly seem monastic. All but married students were required to live in the dorm all four years. The girls dorm was locked at nine PM, the boys at ten, except on weekends. Since this was the period following the war in Korea there were quite a few students attending on the GI Bill, so there was much chafing at the dry climate and the early dorm closings.
Surroundings and atmosphere aside, the school had much to be recommended. The music faculty was well-regarded and the music ensembles, excepting the orchestra, were among the finest in the state; because most school districts in the state were rural and small, string programs were rare, existing only in the large cities, and students from them usually attended the other two music schools: West Chester, near Philadelphia, and Indiana, near Pittsburgh. The marching band, however, had national recognition, and individual musicians consistently were at the top seats in the All-State bands and choruses. We sang in special concerts under Hugh Ross, doing the lovely Hindemith settings of Rilke, and some Chinese poems set by Peter Mennin, and under Ivor Jones, of the Bethlehem Bach Choir. Our graduates were in demand. Concerts were available in Corning and Elmira, from Segovia to Ellington. All in all, good times, good times.
However, although there were liberal elements among the faculty - one prof regularly entertained students at his home, where he and his wife dared to [gasp] offer Almaden to students, and several went frequently to New York City, (for God knows what purposes) - the general tone was more conservative. A much beloved choral director was dismissed, just before a major festival he had organized, because he made a pass at a male student. Jazz was considered beneath the dignity of the school; an attempt to revive what had been a well-known school big band was met with the prohibition against even holding a rehearsal on school grounds; the chair of the Music Department, Miss B., played the pipe organ, which she considered the standard against which all other avenues of musical expression, even the orchestra, were to be found wanting.
Imagine, then, the arrival, into this cosmopolitan whirlpool, of Harold Brown!
He materialized, unheralded, at the start of my senior year in September, 1957, trudging across campus with his hands jammed into his long brown overcoat, an expression on his face of a man just learning that his mother-in-law was to move in with him, but still holding out hope that his house would burn down before she gave up her apartment. Coming from small rural areas, we students didn’t quite know what to make of him. He was exotic in his own special way; I had never before heard a person refer to an adult little finger as a pinkie, for example. We knew nothing about him, and he was not generous with information. We learned that he was from New York City and that he played viola, but that was about the extent of our knowledge. Where he lived, or had a family , and what he did on weekends were mysteries.
Harold conducted the orchestra and taught strings, conducting, and orchestration. I played trumpet in the orchestra, and took conducting and orchestration from him, and still have orchestration assignments with his comments. Of course, his conducting of the orchestra was marvelous, even given the scarcity of orchestral resources he had to work with, and some of us sensed that he was out of the ordinary, and represented some connection to a musical scene far removed from our experience. And one can imagine what could be learned in his conducting class.
But never, in my hearing, did Harold acknowledge that he was closely acquainted with many of the leading figures in American music, or even that he was a composer, let alone one with published and recorded works, and I never heard anything of this from faculty or other students. Thus, it was quite a revelation to learn this many years later. In fact, it was not until late in the school year, in spring of 1958, that Harold even mentioned the Renaissance Chorus. The term was ending and the major course work had been completed. We were in conducting class and had about twenty minutes with nothing pressing to do when Harold casually dropped a Chorus recording on the turntable, and said that this was a chorus that he worked with in New York. To this point we did not know he did choral or any other actual conducting. We just assumed that, like our other teachers, he taught, but did not do.
Well. it was quite an experience to hear for the first time the sound of untempered intervals. Unforgettable, as it turned out. Now, some in the class were taken aback, commenting that it sounded out of tune, an opinion I also heard many years later from a musician friend upon hearing the Sistine Chapel Choir. But to my ears the sound, while new and foreign to me, seemed to possess a rightness that could not be denied. To be fair to musician friends, another, on hearing the music for the first time on a rooftop in the East Village, said it sounded like “music of the future.” At any rate, it was this very brief encounter with the Renaissance Chorus that led me, in 1966, to respond to an ad in the Village Voice seeking singers for the Renaissance Chorus of New York, through which I was reacquainted with Harold Brown, and met Sig Rosen, John Hetland, Bill Kotzwinkle, Steve Bonime, and some guy calling himself Joel Meltz...
I don’t know how long Harold stayed at Mansfield after I left in 1958, but it is safe to assume that any students experiencing him would have some lasting memories. For orchestra members in 1958 there has to be an unforgettable one that I know I will always treasure:
The Mansfield College-Community Orchestra, directed by Harold Brown, gave concerts and rehearsed in Straughn Hall, the college auditorium, which also housed the college pipe organ. The aforementioned pipe organ aficionado and Department Chair, Miss B., had determined to torture the community and student body with an organ recital the evening of a regularly scheduled afternoon orchestra rehearsal. The orchestra had a concert approaching and rehearsal time was at a premium, and, given our abilities, crucial. However, Miss B. felt she needed to be up in the balcony during our rehearsal doing whatever it was she did with an organ to get it ready for her recital that evening. So, as Harold tried to pull music from the orchestra, there would be frequent beeps and squawks and snorts and burps as Miss B. adjusted her stops and pulls and pedals.
Now, it should be noted that Miss B. and Harold were not entirely simpatico. They were, more accurately, at loggerheads almost his entire time there that year. Harold gamely struggled through the interruptions for about a half-hour or so, until Miss B. dumped on her diapason, emitting an explosive lowest C half note. Without missing a beat Harold turned and addressed the balcony, “Please close the door when you are using the bathroom.”