Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Remembering Howard Mayer Brown

by Ellen T. Harris
NOTE: February 20, 2014, is the twenty-first anniversary of the death of the distinguished American musicologist Howard Mayer Brown (1930–93). Ellen Harris presented these remarks at the University of Chicago on April 10, 1993. She refers to Brown's long-time companion Roger Weiss, who pre-deceased him, and to her husband John Harris.
How does one take the measure of a man like Howard Mayer Brown? I first met him twenty-six years ago, when I arrived at the University of Chicago as a graduate student, and when he was in his thirties. He appeared to me great then; and with the years his stature only grew. For his sixtieth birthday, the Music Department arranged to have a star named in Howard's honor, and to present him with an official certificate identifying the Howard Mayer Brown constellation in recognition of his stellar intellectual abilities and accomplishments.
Howard Mayer Brown
Jacqueline Morreau / Newberry Library
Howard once said to me that the scholarly world included two types of people: those who do, and those who sit on the sidelines and carp. Howard was one of the doers. And his abundant activity and productivity not only led to great renown, but it also contributed to his continuing youthfulness through the passing decades. Adding to this youthful quality was Howard's irrepressible curiosity—curiosity about music and ideas, of course, but also about things like good food. It was at his house when I was a graduate student that I first tasted anything so exotic as vitello tonnato, or what my Italian cookbook prosaically translates as “cold braised veal with tuna sauce.” In the kitchen he let on to me that he had never tried to cook it before, and was experimenting on our graduate notation class.

Later, at a different stage in each of our lives, he and Roger, and John and I, went out to dinner with what some might have called shocking frequency, trying out what seemed like every new hot restaurant in the vicinity. Roger called it “the eating club,” and we relished each new adventure, sometimes traveling far out of the city.

Of course we didn't just eat; we also talked well into the night about many of the things about which Howard was also passionate and curious. About people: he was a wonderful gossip. About books: and not just serious tomes, but also the delightful Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames (Grossman / Viking, 1967), where the Mother Goose rhymes masquerade as ancient French poetry. And E. F. Benson's six-volume compensium Make Way for Lucia (Cromwell, 1977), which we devoured almost as ravenously as the food. And also about music.

Although he was best known as a Renaissance scholar, Howard's interest in music stretched across all periods. He subscribed to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and to the Lyric Opera, and went to every performance when he was in town. He was also passionate on the subject of contemporary music, saying of the Music Department at Chicago that if we the musicologists didn't support the composition of new music, we were denying the future of our own field of research. He joked that he had taught more of the graduate history sequence than anyone else: medieval monophony, medieval polyphony, Renaissance, seventeenth century, and eighteenth century. And he was intrigued with the notion of teaching the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well, and talked with me about how he would have done it. Would that he had had the chance.

Just as Howard was never constrained by artificial intellectual boundaries, he was never bound by superficial societal rules. In his clothing he mastered the “permanent rumpled look,” and when he first became chairman of the Chicago department in the 1970s Kathy Holmes, our administrative assistant, frequently found it necessary to make repairs to his trenchcoat, or tack up an errant jacket lining with the departmental stapler before Howard went off to important meetings. Although in later life he acquired greater sartorial splendor, especially in his magnificent bow ties, he never gave in completely to society's expectations. On one magnificent occasion, John and I had planned to take Howard to Glyndebourne to see Haydn's La fedeltà premiata on the day he was due to arrive in London after a transatlantic flight. The accepted dress at Glyndebourne is formal, which would have posed no problem, except that the airline had lost his baggage. And Howard would have rented a tux, except, as he plaintively explained, the airline kept saying that his bag was on the way! So he met us on the way to the opera wearing a very baggy mustard-colored corduroy suit, and off we went. Howard never tired of telling how the outraged British matrons gave him scathing looks, and we spent extra time walking around the grounds simply to judge expressions as we passed. The entire evening made him quite jolly.

For me, this evening became a metaphor for Howard's philosophy of life. He chose to live as he wished, not as others might have decreed. And although he never forced his lifestyle on others, he was often mischievously delighted with their expressions of disapproval. He smoked, and while he would go out of his way not to impose his smoking on those who didn't like it, he also went out of his way to pursue a taste he enjoyed. And who can not picture him deep in thought, or with a quizzical and amused expression that included one very raised eyebrow, with cigarette in hand and the rising column of smoke breaking into what my MIT colleagues have now informed me is chaos. Howard would not have been himself if he had responded to societal pressure to quit smoking, eat less, exercise more, and we loved him for that.

Howard was one of my dissertation readers. Over the years, after I became a faculty member of the University of Chicago, he and I often were paired as dissertation readers together. At first, of course, he was always the primary advisor, but after a little while we seemed to alternate that honor. Howard joked that he and I were the mother and father of many Chicago students, but that it wasn't always clear which of us was the mother and which was the father! I actually think the answer varied from student to student, but that's another story. However, given that joke, and given the nature of gender ambiguity so rampant in Baroque opera, I think Howard will forgive me that I have returned over and over again to the operatic story of Orfeo in the weeks following his death. Like Euridice, he was snatched from us just as he had returned to life, so to speak, after the loss of Roger, and the difficult burdens of the departmental chairmanship.

Not for him a passage on the river Styx, but a Venetian canal with the sounds of Carnival fading in the background. And just like Gluck's Orfeo, we stand bewildered, saying over and over, “What will I do without Euridice? Where will I go without my love? What will I do? Where will I go?” Like Monteverdi's Orfeo, however, we can take some solace by turning to the star in the sky that is his. But Howard, we will miss you.
Howard Mayer Brown” in Wikipedia

Howard Mayer Brown Fellowship and list of previous winners, American Musicological Society

Ellen T. Harris is president-elect of the American Musicological Society and Class of 1949 Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, emerita. A summary of her considerable achievements as a scholar of Baroque opera appears on p. 3 of the current Newsletter of the society.

No comments:

Post a Comment