Siegmund Levarie, 1914-2010
March 11, 2010
I wonder how often it is that a professor dies and students who were never close personal friends of his feel that they’ve lost someone especially important to them. That feeling has been mine, not only on hearing of Professor Levarie’s passing but in hearing for some time now that he was fading out of this world. He was, I gathered, one who was not dying from disease but simply of growing older and older. He has now passed away — to use what is usually a euphemism but seems right in this instance.
This was a man of almost unbelievable accomplishment and humanity, whom it is perfectly possible that most of my readers will never have heard of. Born Siegmund Löwenherz on the fateful day when Austria gave its ultimatum to Serbia and set off the Great War, he was awarded the Ph.D. degree at the University of Vienna in 1938 and, as son of the most prominent Jew in Austria (his father being official President of the Jewish community there), managed to get out of the country just in time to save his life. He wound up at the University of Chicago, where he not only helped get musicology as a discipline established in the United States but started the first of the collegium musicum experiments that now abound in this country. There are people who still rave about the performances that he conducted in Chicago in those days — like Susan Kagan, who years later did a doctorate under Levarie in New York.
He then went to teach at Brooklyn College and, in the late ’60s, was one of the founders of the unexampled brain-packed faculty of the new Ph.D. program in music of the City University of New York Graduate School, which is where I first encountered him — in a class on Greek acoustic theory called Experiments on the Monochord.
As he would not have said: “Oy.”
I could hardly believe the mind I was encountering. The man simply knew everything about music. That’s something I don’t say lightly. He just did.
I’ll now allow Vivian Ramalingam, who knew him far longer and better than I did, to take over here in the words of a private communication:
He was my first model for what a scholar-musician should be. At 17, I played trumpet under his baton in the Brooklyn Community Symphony, of which he took command after the departure of Milton Katims. As his student, I quickly found that he was a warm, imaginative, enthusiastic teacher, who fostered independent thought in his students. From the outset, he treated me as a potential colleague. Every visit to his office was a new adventure, for he would show me what he was reading, how he organized his file of facts and observations (a commonplace book in a file drawer), and other impedimenta of the scholarly life.
Siegmund’s breadth of interests was astonishing. He, Ernst Levy, and Hugo Kauder were deeply interested in mathematical and numerical symbolism in music. That current of thought forms the background of his colleague Ernest G. McClain’s path-breaking research on ancient mathematics and musical tuning. (Check out his web page!) Siegmund, E. Levy and Robert Sanders would meet in S.’s office daily with brown-bag lunches, to read aloud (in Italian) and discuss Dante’s Commedia. His daughter, Janet Levarie Smarr (a Boccaccio specialist), is presently Professor of Comp Lit at UCSD, and a fine cellist. Her father’s daughter…
Up to his last years, Siegmund went to the hospital frequently, to read to the elderly… The last letter Janet sent to me reported that her father had decided that it was time to drink the wine he had set aside for special occasions. I hope he got to finish it all.
Ave atque vale.
“From the outset, he treated me as a potential colleague.” Anyone who has ever been an avid student will appreciate the profound meaning of that tribute.
I will report only two of my own experiences with him. The first was inspiring, as consisting of a meaningful small kindness. He was an official “reader” of my Ph.D. dissertation in music. I was in my first year of teaching at the University of Pittsburgh and making periodic visits to New York on dissertation business. These could be nerve-rackingly inefficient, since, after all, I was dealing with other people with demanding schedules as well. Conferences with professors commonly began with an hour or two of sifting through what I had written, possible objections to arguments, etc., to be followed by some sort of summation. By contrast, almost the first words out of Levarie’s mouth as I sat down in his Brooklyn apartment were, “Of course I must say first that this dissertation will obviously be acceptable.” Imagine my relief; but imagine also how much more receptive I then was to the ideas he had to impart. The lesson I received then was one I’ve endeavored to imitate in pedagogical situations ever since.
The second encounter that I’ll mention was unintentionally less kind in its effect. My Ph.D. orals were held on a Saturday in Edward O.D. Downes’s apartment in the legendary Dakota, on Central Park West. As if it were not sobering enough to have such an event take place down the hall, as it were, from Rosemary’s Baby, I had a really formidable panel of examiners. Besides Downes, there were Barry S. Brook, George Perle, Sherman van Solkema, Wiley Hitchcock, and Siegmund Levarie. The intimidating situation can be easily exemplified if I tell you that my first question came from none other than arguably the world’s leading authority on his subject, George Perle, saying to me more or less these words:
You have been engaged to curate seven lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on “Music Since World War Two.” Who will be the speakers, and what will be their topics?
Well. I ask you.
And it didn’t get any easier as the hours went on.
It was thus with profound relief that I went back to my little apartment in Chelsea, sat down in my easy chair and turned on WQXR for some random good music to unwind to. But, in my exhaustion, I fell asleep and found myself in the throes of a hideous dream in which I was being quizzed on opera topics. When I woke up, I found that the radio was playing the Metropolitan Opera Quiz, then hosted by Downes, with two of his guests being two other members of my examination committee, Hitchcock and Levarie.
Again, as I don’t imagine the great Siegmund Levarie saying: “Oy.” But even then my own relief was dominated by my admiration for a man who had published as an expert on Greek mathematics, Machaut, Mozart, and many other things — but could also appear scintillatingly as a panelist on a popular opera quiz.
Professor Levarie was a strikingly handsome man, and I’m sorry that the only photo I find of him online is from his very last years. Nothing wrong with that, but you should have seen him when he was only seventy or eighty. If you didn’t know him, you can learn a lot about this fascinating figure’s biography, though not his musical and intellectual achievements, from a written interview posted by the Austrian government and an eight-part video interview with him on the invaluable YouTube.
UPDATE: Vivian Ramalingam has just sent me this delightful bit.
Speaking of his appearances on Opera Quiz, two quips stick in my mind. One came in a discussion of the traditional Cav-Pag pairing. Siegmund said that, as a child, he was taken to a performance in which Pagliacci was paired with a ballet, and that ever since, he felt that he was “one Cavalleria short.” On another appearance, he sang childhood words he and his friends had set to the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, the first line of which (sung in translation) was: “Noodles in the pot.”