creating community through celebration

In Memorium, Jack Langstaff, contd.

In 1971, he founded the Christmas Revels in Cambridge, which will entertain more than 19,000 people this month with its trademark blend of traditional music, dance, ritual, and theater. Annual Christmas Revels productions in eight other cities will be seen by more than 60,000 people this month. A Revels production is also held here in the spring.

Mr. Langstaff was not just drawn to the merriment of midwinter, but to how much the season incorporates the passions that guided his life and career.

“There's a need for art that connects us to each other,” he told the Globe in 2000. “You go far enough back in any culture, and you find these rituals, these ways of bringing people together. I think that connectedness is so important to us. It always has been, you know; the rituals tell us that.”

Mr. Langstaff was born on Christmas Eve in 1920 in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.; and it is helpful in understanding his holiday obsession to know that was no accident. His parents, who hosted huge music parties that time of year, yearned for a Christmas baby, he said. On Dec. 24, Mr. Langstaff's mother ran up and down stairs and moved furniture around trying to induce labor.

Among his most cherished childhood memories were sitting by his mother at the piano, watching the faces of partiers as they sang together. He never lost that desire to see music shared.

After studying voice at Grace Church Choir School, the Curtis Institute of Music, and the Juilliard School, he began his career as a concert baritone. In the 1940s and '50s, he gained international renown, and made more than 30 recordings. In England after he served in the US Army duringWorld War II, he made several EMI recordings with George Martin, who later achieved fame as the Beatles' producer.

“When I first started working at EMI,” Martin said yesterday from his home in England, “he was already a fine, fine singer. He was extremely well-respected by his peers, but never really had pretensions to be a great classical singer. His main forte was in getting people involved with music. He was wonderful at that, and he was frightfully good with young people; just sort of a bundle-of-fun with music, which is what music should be.”

As Mr. Langstaff's own family grew, he became increasingly interested in teaching children the joys of music. He hosted a popular BBC TV show for children, “Making Music, and Children Explore Books” on NBC.

In 1955, he became head of music education at the Potomac School in Virginia, serving for 13 years before filling the same role at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge for six years. He wrote 25 books, most either for children or guides for teaching music, including the Caldecott Award-winning “Frog Went a-Courting.”

“Whenever I am asked to go to schools,” Mr. Langstaff told the Globe, “I always tell them, 'I'm not coming here to sing for you; I'm coming to make music with you.'”

In 1957, he produced “A Christmas Masque of Traditional Revels” at New York's Town Hall. In 1966, NBC asked him to produce a similar “Christmas Masque” as a Hallmark Hall of Fame special. Among its cast was the soon-to-be-famous Dustin Hoffman, playing the dragon slain by St. George.

In 1971, his daughter Carol coaxed him into reviving his Revels idea at Sanders Theater. Together, they smartly turned its re-creation of ancient music and ceremony into the modern holiday tradition of the Christmas Revels.

“He had a gift for bringing out the best in other people, because he always looked for that,” Carol said yesterday from her home in Sharon, Vt. “He believed in encouraging people, looking for what was best in them. I don't think he had to learn that; it was always in him. I just think life was very, very exciting to him. He was always a student, always learning, all his life.”

As Revels became more popular, Mr. Langstaff presided over its expansion into a national empire. After retiring as artistic director in 1995, Mr. Langstaff continued to help Revels Inc. branch out into marketing recordings, books, and educational kits aimed at helping teachers and parents share music with children.

“Jack was amazing to work with,” said Revels executive director Gayle Rich. “He was never a person who appeared to have a strong ego, or a sense of 'Do-it-my-way-or-else.' And yet you knew he had a clear idea of how he wanted things to be. I learned so much watching how he worked with people, how he encouraged them, and created community. He knew how to let people blossom.”

Martin laughed softly, a little sadly, confessing that he somehow never imagined Mr. Langstaff would die. Something about his spirit remained so boyish, so eager for more.

“I think he'll be well remembered for giving a lot of joy to a lot of people,” he said, “and for encouraging young people to get involved with music. And his work with Revels will unquestionably be his monument. I mean, he's already there, isn't he? He was a legend in his own time.”

Besides his daughter Carol, Mr. Langstaff leaves his wife, Nancy Trowbridge Langstaff of Cambridge; two other daughters, Deborah of Basel, Switzerland, and Caitlin of New York City; two sons, John of Winston-Salem, N.C., and Gary of Beverly; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.