In "Fiddler on the Roof," Tevye says, "How did all this tradition get started? I'll tell you . . . I don't know."
Don Leavitt knew.
As chief of the music division of the Library of Congress for almost 10 years before his death last Wednesday, he knew all the stories and all the people, and even when he told stories about people who were before his time you somehow felt he had been there. Historical events seemed contemporary, and long-dead figures came miraculously alive, animated by Don's love for the tradition of which they, and he, were a part.
A strange and rare fibrosis gradually robbed Don Leavitt of his lungs, though never of his heart, and the bleak vacuum finally triumphed. He was 56 years old. With his death, an era in the musical life of our city, and indeed of our country, has come to an end.
The Library of Congress' music division houses the largest musical collection in the world. It is also, without question, the nation's foremost center of musical scholarship and of creativity and performance in chamber music. During his "watch," as he called it, Don Leavitt simply took a great institution and made it greater.
He expanded the library's performance activities tremendously, practically doubling the number of public concerts and national radio broadcasts. At the same time, he was responsible for innumerable major musicological acquisitions, including priceless manuscripts and materials of Brahms, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Gershwin, Berg, Korngold and many others.
He reinforced the library's role as a champion of American music, new and old, by commissioning works from many fine American composers and by creating an annual festival of American music. He successfully brought together what he called the library's "two publics," scholars and concertgoers, with lecture/concerts, symposia and festivals that combined the sparks of new learning and discovery with performances of the highest possible standards.
At the time he became chief, Don had already worked in the music division nearly 20 years. For most of us in the world of music, Don Leavitt was the music division. This is not simply a figure of speech. In addition to his own considerable accomplishments as chief, he represented a direct, warmly personal link with the great men, women and landmark events of the library's past.
Nowadays, we tend to be cynical about emotional attachments to institutions, for all the familiar reasons, but somehow it has always made perfect sense to me to be in love with the music division of the Library of Congress. Coming to know the music division through Don Leavitt, it was never possible to see it merely as an institution, a set of walls, collections, a nice auditorium. Rather, it has always seemed the home of many marvels, the site of many miracles.
It is a group of lovely people, as well, people who give meaning and pleasure to a personal identification with the library. There, too, Don set the tone. He had a hardy voice and a hearty laugh, and I never heard him speak either to or about anybody in a demeaning manner. He was also as remarkably free of any kind of prejudice as any person I've ever met. His affection for the people around him, of whatever color or persuasion, was obvious, and it was returned. Such affection radiates through an institution and touches all who come near.
It is the little things one remembers, of course. I think, for example, of the way he used to say, "Oh, Mrs. Key . . ." when addressing Sandra Key, the financial officer of the music division. In those three little words he somehow managed to express all sorts of warmth, professional respect and admiration, even deference, along with a twinkle-in-the-eye acknowledgment of the familiarity and mutual understanding that come from years of working together.
His passion, of course, was music, and the range of his knowledge, experience and tastes never ceased to astonish. Once, I remember, in describing a new piece he had heard, he chuckled, as he often did, and said it "sounded like a cross between Gustav Mahler and George Antheil." First I laughed, naturally, because it sounded pretty funny, and then I realized that I was standing before a man who knew the music of Antheil as well as he knew that of Mahler. It might just as easily have been Purcell or Crumb, Bach or Gershwin, Henry Cowell or Jerome Kern. He saw his job as both preserving the old and encouraging the new, and he pursued those goals, in his mind logically inseparable, with equal fervor. A musician himself -- pianist, organist, choir director -- Don liked and respected musicians, and he was that rarest of creatures, the man for whom quality was always more important than reputation.
Perhaps it will be some small comfort to his wife Nadine and family to know that, as Don Leavitt cherished the memory of those before him, we will always cherish his. People will be smiling and chuckling and telling Don Leavitt stories for years to come.