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The Birth of ICSOM: A Labor Revolution

1 Julie Ayer
icsom Editor's Abstract

As the controversy rages in the US regarding the Patriot Act and the extent to which the government can intervene in ordinary citizen’s lives in the name of “homeland security,” it is interesting to look back at the role symphony musicians played in safeguarding (or not) civil liberties in the midst of the McCarthy era HUAC (House UnAmerican Activities Committee)hearings.

Julie Ayer, violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra, has excerpted another chapter from her book, More Than Meets the Ear: How Symphony Musicians Made Labor History that details the birth of ICSOM and the role that symphony musicians, ICSOM and the AFM played during the Communist witchhunt of the 1950s.

Once again, I highly recommend Julie’s book in its entirety. Reading it will make you proud of the impact musicians have had on the labor movement and in improving conditions in their own working lives.

Ann Drinan

“It is unlike any other labor/union relationship that I know of; the musicians’ movement was a labor relations revolution among professionals.”

Labor lawyer I. Philip Sipser (1919–2001), known to ICSOM members as “the Heifetz of negotiators”

The Chicago musicians, organizing from within, had developed a fine-tuned network that became the basis for a national communications system that facilitated the exchange of much information of mutual importance to symphony orchestra musicians all over North America. The survey that the CSO players’ committee distributed to twenty-six orchestras in 1962 became the basis for their next big move. Once they had received all the surveys and compiled the results, the committee members convened a landmark meeting in Chicago on May 12 and 13, 1962, amid cries of “dual unionism” from the AFM. For the first time in their collective history, musicians from North America’s leading orchestras gathered to plan for their future. Twelve orchestras—Boston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York, Saint Louis, Toronto, and the Metropolitan Opera—sent thirty representatives. The delegates elected Joseph Golan and Wayne Barrington, both members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, chair and secretary, respectively. The musicians shared many goals. First, they wanted to address salaries, working conditions, and contract problems cited in both the Saint Louis and Chicago surveys. Additional aims included the launching of a national symphony newsletter, establishment of an industry-wide pension fund, institution of fair audition and probation practices, and the inclusion of attorneys in contract negotiations. The two days of meetings at Roosevelt University in Chicago were a tremendous success.

In early September 1962, the musicians who had attended the historic Chicago conference in May came together in Cleveland with a widening network of orchestra players for the formal ratification of the creation of ICSOM, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians.

The organization’s founding members were the principal orchestras of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Metropolitan Opera, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Saint Louis, and Toronto.

The Cleveland meeting set the mission statement of the new organization, which would provide the first effective forum for symphony musicians to talk and work together for the benefit of all. Boston Symphony Orchestra Assistant Concertmaster George Zazofsky, the first president-elect and a dedicated leader in the ICSOM effort, told the Boston Globe several years later, “It was a further objective to direct continuous cooperative efforts within the framework of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada, AFL-CIO.”

It was a time of great pride for the musicians involved. Zazofsky’s daughter, Erika, forty years later came to appreciate the full extent of what he and his colleagues accomplished. At the time, in the early 1960s, she remembers, she was unaware of its impact on the symphony orchestra profession and of her own role in it. Perched on her father’s bed with a Smith-Corona manual typewriter, Erika typed as her father dictated the letters he wrote to various musicians throughout the country. “He was not highly educated, so he asked me to help with the syntax and sentence structure after he formulated the ideas he was trying to convey. It was quite ordinary for me to help him in this way, and I thought nothing of it until years later, when I realized what I had passively participated in. My father and the others, who stuck their necks out, were the true radicals of their day. They did not realize it then, but when I look back at what they accomplished, and the status of orchestral musicians today, they were truly free thinkers.”

Once founded, ICSOM gained strength and reputation. All was not smooth sailing as the organization began navigating the difficult decade of the 1960s. Even among its membership, some of the musicians feared ICSOM’s potential to secede from the AFM. Some older players had other concerns. Many had been intimidated for so long by conductors, management, and the union that it was difficult for them to imagine that they might be able to control their musical and professional destinies. Most had endured the Depression, and many had fled Europe before, during, and after the Second World War. To them, ICSOM was a revolutionary idea, and no one knew where it would lead. They worried—not without good reason—about the possible consequences. Membership in ICSOM did not cost anyone a job, although committee activism that led to its formation was a very real risk. Nor did it break off from the union or hatch any Communist plots, as had been suspected; rather, it became a force for positive change.

The year 1963 saw the publication of the organization’s first newsletter. Its name, suggested by Chicago Symphony flutist Joan Bennett, was Senza Sordino, Italian for “without mute.” Chicago Symphony violist Robert Coleman, Senza’s first editor, wrote in January 1963: “It is with both trepidation and pride that we introduce this first issue of Senza Sordino. It has been put together against the pressure of both time and limited funds and no doubt bears the scars of its difficult (one is tempted to say ‘Caesarean’) birth. The point of view of this publication is to be that of orchestra musicians, as distinguished from orchestra managements and musicians’ unions. The rash of controversies and bitter contract disputes which has plagued musicians coast to coast makes this newsletter almost a necessity. It can be fairly said, we believe, that the same conditions and motives which have given rise to the mushrooming of orchestra committees also resulted in this newsletter.”

Indeed, the birth of ICSOM brought with it new and stronger committees in its member orchestras. These groups went from a passive role to taking historic action. Among the resolutions passed unanimously in that first gathering in Cleveland in September of 1962, although it was not adopted until 1969, was one asking that the AFM establish a symphony, opera, and ballet department for the purpose of assisting orchestras, locals, and the AFM in resolving problems particular to those organizations.

Another key imperative continued to be contract ratification, which only a few orchestras had achieved by this time. Symphony musicians wanted the same rights as their colleagues in the recording industry and trade union members in other kinds of work, including the right to ratify their own contracts at the local level. At the inaugural ICSOM meeting, it was resolved to take this request to the AFM. The courageous resolution bears restatement: “That the international executive board of the AFM promulgate as the official policy of the AFM the principle that the right of contract negotiation at the local level is a necessary foundation for responsible democratic trade unionism, and that the IEB [International Executive Board] exert every power it possesses to insure that this principle, long observed by almost all trade unions outside the AFM, henceforth be observed by all locals within the AFM.” One by one, musician locals, under pressure from ICSOM, granted symphony musicians the authority to ratify their own contracts. By 1965, all of the major orchestras in the United States and Canada—except Cleveland, where troubles would continue for years to come—had ratification clauses in their master agreements.

While the formation of ICSOM could hardly have come as a surprise to the AFM, the union reacted with fear and defensiveness. As George Seltzer wrote in his 1989 history of the AFM, Music Matters, “ICSOM was not welcomed by the AFM hierarchy. There were accusations of dual-unionism.” “Dual unionism” was a mislabeling that only fanned existing fires. In this context, dual unionism would imply that ICSOM sought to leave the AFM to form its own union. Fed up with the status quo and alienated from their locals, some ICSOM members at the time would have liked to secede from the AFM. But the vast majority saw ICSOM as a constructive part of the workings of the national federation and wanted to try to work within its structure. “The idea was to put something back into the AFM that simply wasn’t there,” recalled Wayne Barrington.

The AFM had reason to fear ICSOM. In 1958, Los Angeles studio musicians, dissatisfied with the AFM, had broken off and formed their own union, the Musicians Guild of America. Clearly, the AFM worried that ICSOM was headed in the same direction. An orchestral secession would have a great monetary effect on all AFM locals, because of the loss of revenue in the form of monthly work dues they received from each orchestra musician.

ICSOM Purpose Statement Formulated in 1962: The International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians is an association of professionals whose concerns and efforts are dedicated to the promotion of a better and more rewarding livelihood for the skilled performer and to the enrichment of the cultural life of our society. It is further an objective to direct continuous cooperative efforts within the framework of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada.

McCarthyism Hysteria

“I will not cooperate with this committee. My answer will be the same if you keep me here a month.”

Pianist and teacher Edith Rapport, invoking the First and Fifth Amendments repeatedly during House Un-American Activities Subcommittee hearings, Los Angeles, 1956

McCarthyism hysteria cast its long shadow over ICSOM. Chairman George Zazofsky and vice-chair Sam Denov drew the attention of Walter Trohan, a syndicated conservative columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Trohan speculated that “ICSOM members followed the pattern which has worked successfully in Communist-infiltrated or controlled groups, although none of the officers or committee members of the group have Red records.”

In Trohan’s view, ICSOM was attempting to “take over” America’s orchestras, and its leaders had “Russian sounding names.” One wonders how Trohan would have felt about the 2005 appointment of Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.

Erika Zazofsky recalled her father’s fears of McCarthyism even into the early 1960s. She remembers that he worried about phone tapping and was reluctant to sign his name to traceable documents, even checks. She believes her parents felt threatened and that they were confident their suspicions were not simply paranoia. “Also, during that time, because my family’s background was Russian and they spoke Russian and French, and because Dad was so active as chairman of the orchestra, we had many Russian soloists—esteemed violinists David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan—to our house after their performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. My mother was famous for her borscht and other Russian dishes, and they’d sit around after concerts and eat and drink vodka. I have several photos that my father took of those times, and he would point out to me faces that I couldn’t recognize. He’d say, ‘This is their interpreter, but everybody knows he’s KGB.’ Even having these people around the house was cause for concern to a youngster, but somehow their musicianship transcended the fear of ‘connection with a commie’ in the post-McCarthy climate.”

At the end of the Second World War, the United States’ alliance with the Soviet Union started to erode and the “Red Scare” began. U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin captured national attention in February 1950 by alleging that the State Department was riddled with card-carrying members of the Communist Party. His activities gave rise to the term “McCarthyism,” referring to the use of sensational and highly publicized personal attacks, usually based on unsubstantiated charges and innuendos, as a means of discrediting people thought to be subversive. Chaired by Senator McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began its campaign to purge the country of any suspected “Communist influences.” It investigated Communist infiltration among labor unions, screenwriters, directors, and actors, finding Hollywood a particularly attractive target because of its high profile in American culture. The most notable member was forty-four-year-old Richard M. Nixon.

HUAC had begun its hearings of the Screen Writers Guild in 1947, eventually succeeding in blacklisting successful screenwriters and disrupting—in many cases ruining—the professional and personal lives of hundreds more in the film industry. The so-called friendly witnesses included Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper, Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer and Robert Montgomery. The most famous testimony involved the so-called Hollywood Ten, highly respected in their fields and including seven screenwriters, two directors, and a producer. All had agreed among themselves to exercise the Fifth Amendment, which was their right, in order to protest what they felt was an encroachment on their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression. They had prepared statements in their own defense but were not allowed to read them, and the televised hearings deteriorated into shouting matches, punctuated by the pounding gavel of committee chairman and House Republican J. Parnell Thomas. The courts and the committee did not agree, and all ten were held in contempt. Most served up to one year in jail.

Many Americans were deeply troubled by HUAC’s actions. Television and radio coverage riveted the nation’s attention during the 1954 Army–McCarthy hearings, where the committee’s ruthless, unsubstantiated allegations were chillingly on display. Although McCarthy was discredited and censured by the Senate in December of that year after he failed to prove claims of Communist penetration of the U.S. Army, HUAC continued its relentless investigations into labor unions.

In April 1956, a HUAC subcommittee held a week of hearings in Los Angeles for the purpose of investigating Los Angeles Musicians Union Local 47 for infiltration by the Communist Party. During one week, some thirty-five to forty members of Local 47 were summoned for questioning. The tactics used were the same as were used against the Screen Writers Guild. HUAC wanted names. At least sixty alleged Communist Party members were added to the committee’s list by “friendly” witnesses, including members of the symphony orchestras of Indianapolis, Saint Louis, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. Symphony work was still a part-time career in the 1950s, and some musicians traveled to Los Angeles for studio work during the summer. “Unfriendly” witnesses, who were already under suspicion, had three options: (1) They could claim they were not and never had been members of the Communist Party; (2) they could admit or claim membership and then be forced to name other members; or (3) they could refuse to answer any questions and take the Fifth Amendment, just as the screenwriters had done in 1947.

The committee discovered several friendly witnesses. Three hundred people in the Los Angeles hearing room heard thirty-seven-year-old trumpet player and studio musician William Waddilove name twenty musicians as Communists or Communist sympathizers. Don Christlieb, a film studio bassoonist, named twenty more of his colleagues in the same fashion. He stated: “In 1941 many people were window-shopping for some kind of Socialist ideology. . . . I walked in and made a purchase. I bought merchandise which was unreturnable and too hot to handle. I hope I can return a small piece of it today.” At the end of Christlieb’s testimony, a committee member “asked that he be given a warm vote of thanks by the committee” (Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2019).

Albert Glasser, film composer, and his wife, Katherine Glasser, named more than two dozen Hollywood personalities, including musicians, who they said attended Communist meetings in their home during a six-month period in 1943. Glasser described how he and his wife had joined a Communist front group in 1943, quitting a few months later: “They told us we were smart kids and that we should help organize the musicians congress that was to be held later that year on the UCLA campus.” He testified that he and his wife were skeptical about joining the party and signed their membership cards with their left hands to disguise their handwriting. “I’m darn glad this committee has called me in so I can clear my name and reputation,” he said. Glasser thought American liberals were “needlessly frightened” of the Un-American Activities Committee” (Citizen-News, April 19, 2019).

Not everyone called by the committee was sympathetic or helpful to its cause. Open defiance and hostility were expressed by some, reminiscent of the Screen Writers Guild hearings. Edith Rapport, a pianist and teacher at the Los Angeles Conservatory, invoked the First and Fifth Amendments repeatedly. Five others invoked the Fifth Amendment as well. Cheers ensued after Thomas Walfrid Nelson said to the subcommittee, “I hope my appearance here will hasten the day when this committee will no longer be able to exist” (Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2019). Three “unfriendly” studio musicians who refused to testify were fired by Universal Studios and faced possible contempt-of-Congress charges based on their “irregular testimony,” according to Republican Representative Gordon Scherer of Ohio (Mirror-News, April 20, 2019).

In 1956, the AFM and President Petrillo issued the following statement to the national membership in response to many inquiries it received concerning the HUAC hearings: “Although the West Coast hearings were completed the latter part of April, the HUAC Sub-Committee has not yet published its report. [HUAC follow-up requested from AFM; it was not available.] It appears that a certain ‘hard core’ of Hollywood and Los Angeles musicians failed in an effort ‘to organize a worldwide protest to President Eisenhower’ to stop the hearings.” The British Musicians union informed the AFM that it had been contacted to assist in the protest, but that it was adopting a “hands-off policy.” AFM president Petrillo responded: “If they are not Communists, they have nothing to worry about. If they are proved Communists they have good reason to worry because in addition to the position in which they have placed themselves with their own government, they will lose their membership in the AFM” (AFM review of the hearings as presented through the press, April 1956). Attached to Petrillo’s statement was a collection of press reports of the Los Angeles hearings during the week of April 16–23, 1956.

“This seems to us about the most shameful in the growing list of indignities occasioned by the McCarren Act and the paranoid policies of the State Department. It is bad enough that six men [apologies to Ms. Ruth Budd] have been done a grave personal injustice; it is worse that no practical remedy is available. . . . Incidents such as that of the Toronto six make it increasingly embarrassing for Americans to speak sneeringly of other countries’ ‘iron curtains.’ ” (Nation, June 14, 2019; see also Lewis, Fiddling with Life)

In an era of increasingly pervasive paranoia during the 1950s, McCarthyism knew no borders. A small group of symphony musicians in Canada had experienced its consequences firsthand in 1952. In the spring of that year, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) was preparing for a concert in Detroit, when the U.S. Immigration Service notified TSO management of a problem. Six of the Canadian musicians in the orchestra were rejected for the standard visa applications, and it was ruled that “their presence would be detrimental to the best interests of the country” (Lewis, p. 16). The McCarren-Walter Act of 1952 enabled border officials to limit alien entry to the United States on the basis of an applicant’s political belief or suspected political belief, without supporting evidence.

At a board meeting following the visa rejections, the orchestra manager, Jack Elton, announced that six suspect musicians would be dismissed and new members would be hired. “For artistic reasons there could be no substitutes for such an important concert, leading, as it might, to other American engagements” (Lewis, p. 16). The Toronto Symphony Orchestra master agreement under which the musicians lived was no different from that of their American colleagues at the time. Musicians were hired on a yearly basis, and although there did not seem to be any musical reasons for their dismissals, the Toronto Musicians’ Association (Toronto Local 149) portrayed this as “a straight contractual matter. The Federation has always been keen on keeping contracts, but there is nothing wrong in the orchestra’s not rehiring musicians” (Lewis, p. 17). Toronto Union president Walter J. Murdoch was friendly with AFM International president James Petrillo and took seriously the union’s bylaw that urged the union to “purge its membership of all subversive elements” (Lewis, p. 24).

Steven Staryk (who would eventually become Chicago Symphony concertmaster in 1963) was one of the six fired Canadian musicians. In Thane Lewis’s Fiddling with Life: The Unusual Journey of Steven Staryk, Staryk describes how the lack of union support meant that the six were on their own and could not afford to push their case too hard for fear of being blacklisted in the United States as well. Ruth Budd, bass, was another one of the “Symphony Six.” Budd recalled nothing in her background that would alert the McCarthy crowd, but their brainwashing worked. “I was tainted to the point that I overheard colleagues in the dressing room saying, ‘Oh, she must be a communist, she reads a lot’ ” (International Musician, August 2003).

The musicians’ appeal to the International Executive Board of the AFM was rejected, and they received no support from the Toronto Symphony’s conductor, Sir Ernest MacMillan. (Musicians in a European orchestra faced a similar situation, with a different response from their management and conductor. In preparation for an American tour in the 1950s, some of the musicians of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam were denied visas. The tour was canceled.)

Realizing there was no support forthcoming from his union, Staryk tried to enlist help by contacting as many people as possible, writing petitions, attending meetings, and trying to bring the public’s attention to the situation. But there was little response, even from the Royal Conservatory of Music, with which all of the six musicians had been connected. Ultimately, the American consulate in Toronto handed down its decision: Staryk was “barred for life” from entry into the United States (Lewis, p. 22). The hearings that led to this decision were a miniversion of the HUAC hearings, in which names, information, or anything else the twenty-year-old might have to offer were demanded. “I was the youngest of the six and I think he was hoping to get the list of all those ‘reds under the beds’ out of me. He couldn’t understand that I had never been a member of any organization except the AFM and the public library, the two institutions I belonged to that required me to carry a card!” It was not until Staryk accepted the position of concertmaster with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1963 that he entered the United States on a temporary visa, having been denied entry twelve years before by both the United States and Canada. He was unsure even then of the political climate and had to wait two years to be cleared by the orchestra before his long ordeal finally ended.

Postscript to the Era

On May 5, 2019, the U.S. Senate opened long-sealed transcripts of the closed-door hearings conducted by Senator McCarthy in 1953–54. FBI file 100-HQ-370562 describes the subject as “self-employed as a composer of music” and as reportedly linked to Communist front groups. Within six months Aaron Copland was classified as a Communist. Using informants, the government spent the next two decades monitoring his whereabouts, analyzing his comments, and taking note of his friends and associates. The file discloses that the FBI wanted to prosecute Copland for perjury and fraud for denying he was a Communist, and Director J. Edgar Hoover enlisted the CIA’s help in monitoring the composer’s travels. Suspicions about his politics caused his music to be removed from President Eisenhower’s inaugural concert in 1953. He was called to testify on May 26, 2019, before a secret Senate investigations subcommittee. Others asked to testify at the secret hearings were writer Dashiell Hammett, poet Langston Hughes, and U.S. Army Colonel Chester T. Brown. During the two-hour hearing, Copland repeatedly denied affiliating knowingly with Communists. He said he signed many petitions in support of liberal causes, but that his involvement was superficial. “I spend my days writing symphonies, concertos, ballets and I am not a political thinker,” Copland said at the hearing. In his memoirs he wrote: “I became a victim of a political situation. I tried to carry on as usual. But I lost a great deal of time and energy (not to mention lawyers’ fees) preparing myself against fictitious charges.” A December 1955 FBI memo stated there was “insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution” (New York Times, May 6, 2019; Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2019).

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  1. Comment by ruth budd
    May 2, 2019 at 9:20 PM

    Well, Julie, I certainly enjoyed reading these excerpts from your book Good work! As I am now in my 91st year, I have been retired from the TSO for many years. You may or may not know, that OCSM was hatched at my dining room table in the early seventies and that I was invited to speak at the annual conference two summers ago. There are still some people, there whom I have known for a long time — for some unknown reason several Bass players are very active as table officers!.
    I am still very active musically though I have downsized to a mandola which i play in quite a good orchestra and run several programs including a choir in the seniors’ residence where I live. Thanks for writing the book.
    Ruth Budd