by Joanna Cazden
Born: September 23, 1914 – New York City, New York, USA
Died: August 18, 1980 – Bangor, Maine, USA
Norman Cazden was born to Yiddish-speaking immigrant parents Chaim Plotkin and Elizavetka Kazhdan, both from Borisov, White Russia (now Belarus), in the Bronx, New York, on September 23, 1914. His father had an upholstery shop, and was a progressive-minded community organizer who enjoyed singing in Yiddish, and wrote a book on Yiddish grammar. Norman described his father as “a true worker-intellectual.”
When Norman was only a few years old, the family took in a boarder, a musician who brought an upright piano into the household. Norman showed an early aptitude for the instrument, and it was arranged for him to study piano with Bernard Ravitch of Yonkers. He gave a debut recital in Town Hall, New York City, when he was 12 years old. He would later explain that his parents had asked Ravitch whether they should send their talented young son to a more intensive conservatory. This wise teacher said, “No, he needs to have normal human experiences. Otherwise, he’ll become an artist with nothing to say.”
While still in high school, Norman received scholarships to attend the Institute of Musical Art and the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied piano with Arthur Newstead and Ernest Hutcheson, and studied composition, musical theory and history with Leopold Mannes, Charles Seeger (folk icon Pete Seeger’s father) and Bernard Wagenaar. He earned a teacher’s diploma with honors in 1932 and a diploma in composition in 1939. His best friend at Julliard, fellow-composer Herbert Haufrecht, would remain a close collaborator for life.
Norman rounded out his education at the School of Social Sciences at the City College of New York, from which he was awarded a bachelor of science degree, cum laude, in 1943, still working steadily as a pianist, arranger, composer and accompanist. He was active in the intellectual and political life of the city: playing for Blitzstein shows, and helping to notate some of the early “People’s Songs” books, published for the era’s political-folksong movement. He also toured several eastern states as a concert pianist, directed radio programs on WYNC and WLIB (New York), and composed for such dance companies as the New Dance Group headed by Jane Dudley, the Humphrey-Weidman Company, and that of Jose Limon.
Around 1941, Haufrecht introduced him to Camp Woodland in the Catskills Mountains, where Herb was music director. Cazden succeeded him in that position in 1945 and continued in that post until 1960, when the camp closed. Along with Haufrecht and the Camp director, visionary educator Norman Studer, he collected hundreds of ballads and fiddle tunes from the region. This traditional music of the Catskill Mountains would became central to his creative and professional life.
“Camp Woodland was shaped … along the lines of John Dewey’s “Progressive Education” model of the time. Studer, however, had a particular interest in introducing city youth to the people of the mountains, and therein lay the special magic of Camp Woodland. The interaction occurred in various ways as local craftsman shared their skills with campers and staff visited local communities to glean history …. those campers and staff met a mountain culture that still had music as a vital component in everyday life….
“The process of collecting was ingenious. …[Norman and Herb] were able to utilize the writing ability of their campers to take down verse lines, while they notated the music. It was often possible in this manner to get a song down in one “take” and have Norman or Herb sing the result back to the source singer for correction.”
— Kaufman, Geoff.
Liner Notes: Folksongs of the Catskills: A Celebration of Camp Woodland. Cob’s Cobble Music 1005, CD.
Norman taught himself to play accordion in order to call square dances at camp, and to accompany the local fiddlers. His father’s example as a skilled workman, and with the progressive philosophy of the whole project, gave him an innate respect for his rural partners. He would rework the Catskills material throughout his life, publishing square dance tunes with instructions (“Dances from Woodland”), ballads (“The Abelard Folksong Book”), serious compositions (“Three Catskill Ballads for Orchestra,” and its partner for concert band), the silly and the bawdy (“A Book of Nonsense Songs”), and easy piano settings (“American Folksongs for Children”). One of his most accessible instrumental works, the sprightly overture “Stony Hollow,” is named for a small crossroads near the Camp. The comprehensive collection Folksongs of the Catskills (State University of New York Press), completed by Haufrecht in 1982, is considered a model of thoughtful scholarship. Further information about this project can be found in the Norman Studer Archives at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
In 1943 Cazden earned a scholarship for graduate work at Harvard University, and he left New York City for Cambridge. There he studied composition with Walter Piston and Aaron Copland; musicology with Archibald T. Davison, A. Tillman Merrit, G. Wallace Woodworth; and psychology of music with Carrol C. Pratt. He received his M.A. degree in 1944, and four years later a Ph.D. His dissertation Musical Consonance and Dissonance, more than 900 pages long, discussed whether musical preferences are innate and universal or culturally based.
Cazden aimed for an academic career, teaching at Julliard School of Music, Vassar College, Peabody Conservatory, University of Michigan and, starting in 1950, at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. His teaching assignments were broad, ranging from composition, piano, historical musicology, contemporary music, and the psychology of musical folklore. His older daughter Elizabeth was born in 1950, and a second daughter, Joanna, in 1952.
In 1953 the University of Illinois denied him tenure because of FBI investigations for the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he was fired from his job at the university. In 1954 he was subpoenad by HUAC, but declined to testify citing the Fifth Amendment. His refusal to answer questions about his political affiliations resulted in inconclusive evidence, but for years thereafter he was unable to secure a fulltime teaching position. He was interviewed for, and mentioned in, Victor Navasky’s book about the blacklist in academia, Naming Names.
Haufrecht would later write, in an obituary for SingOut! magazine: “For the ensuing years, [Cazden] steadfastly maintained a humanitarian and egalitarian philosophy of society and culture which is reflected in his compositions and in his prose writings. Without wavering in this outlook, he was blacklisted and suffered the persecutions of the McCarthy era: the loss of a teaching post and the curtailment of a promising academic career. Nevertheless, as he stated in a letter, ‘I have pursued a varied private practice in teaching, occasional editing and consulting. I have also devoted much time to composing, to grant-free research projects, and on writing music.’ ”
Cazden taught private lessons in piano and theory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, while his wife taught public school to help support the family. In 1962, the family relocated to Lexington, Massachusetts in order for Courtney to enter the Harvard School of Education; she would earn a doctorate in children’s language development, and teach at Harvard until her retirement. In 1969, with both daughters in college, Norman and Courtney parted ways. He was offered a position at the University of Maine, Orono, and he lived in Bangor as a Professor of Music until his death from cancer in 1980.
Cazden’s writings on more abstract musicology —including strong critiques of contemporary musical trends such as serialism and deliberate randomness—have also gained recognition. His theoretical works and personal papers are housed at the Ohio State University, Columbus, OH.
In the summer of 1980, The Domaine School for Conductors in Hancock, Maine (also known as the Pierre Monteux School), selected Cazden’s 1948 Symphony (op. 49) for its advanced students. The work was considered a challenge because of constant changes in meter, and had never been performed. Three weeks before he died, Norman Cazden was able, travelling by ambulance and lying on a stretcher, to hear the premiere performance of a work composed 32 years before.
At his request, his ashes were scattered in the Catskills.
Erdely, S. (Sep. 1981). Obituary in Ethnomusicology, Society for Ethnomusicology Journal, University of Illinois Press, pp. 493–95.
Haufrecht, H. (1980) Obituary in SingOut: The Folksong Magazine, Vol. 28#3, p. 81.
New York Times obituary, August 1980.