Leo Kraft (1922-2014): Spiky, Tart, and Fierce but also Sweet and Gentle

That’s how I will always remember Leo Kraft: in the thick of it. He was always engaged. He didn’t just show up to life, he participated fully. And his music was never “easy”; he cared too much about music and the art of listening for it to be “easy.”

Written By

Edward Smaldone

[Ed. Note: The following essay was adapted from Smaldone’s remarks at the funeral of Leo Kraft.-FJO]

Edward Smaldone and Leo Kraft

Edward Smaldone with Leo Kraft (right) in 2012, on the day Kraft was inducted at the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.

We are all deeply saddened by the passing of one of the “founding fathers” of Music at Queens College.   The Aaron Copland School of Music is a close-knit community of faculty, students, and staff. I knew Leo for 40 years.  He heard my audition on my very first visit to the Aaron Copland School of Music, and somehow saw fit to accept me as a Music Major.  I knew Leo as a teacher, and later as a colleague on the Music faculty.

But today is truly an occasion to rejoice because Leo Kraft was such a significant part of the fabric of the musical life of the college and the city. He loved music. He loved people.  He loved his sons and their families. He loved his wife Amy and in the last 10 years of his life he found a new partner in music and life in Drora Pershing. He loved the music students at Queens College for nearly 70 years, and he loved the life he got to live.

As we are in the age of Facebook, it has been heartwarming for me to see the many pictures of Prof. Kraft at concerts, surrounded by students and colleagues.  These are floating on the internet, as we speak.   That’s how I will always remember Leo: in the thick of it.  He was always engaged.  He didn’t just show up to life, he participated fully. If you think of any picture of him, you can see his smile.  It seems to me it was always a smile that said, “Things are OK.  Things are good.  Life is good.”—though some might say it was the smile of the cat that ate the canary. This was true even in the last few years when he could have easily given in to the various infirmities that come with reaching 90 years of age.  Regardless of the physical challenges he encountered, he never lost that smile.

Leo was a student at the college in the 1940s, joined the faculty immediately, rose to the rank of full professor and served as chair of the music department.  During his time as a teacher he contributed mightily to the musical education of countless students at Queens and also all over the world.  The books he wrote were standard texts in classrooms everywhere.  The New Approach to Sightsinging immediately became and remains to this day one of the leading books of its kind in the world.  Leo wrote that sight-singing book with two other dear departed colleagues, Sol Berkowitz and Gabriel Fontrier.  All three were students of Karol Rathaus and they were a force to be reckoned with in the school.  It is sad to see the last of these Three Musketeers pass from our presence.

In 2012, Leo was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, a fitting recognition of his lifetime contribution to music.   The ceremony was at the Paramount Music Hall in Huntington.  The Hall of Fame includes classical musicians such as Morton Gould and Stanley Drucker, as well as many musicians from the world of popular music including Billy Joel, Marvin Hamlisch, and Neil Diamond. It is quite fitting that he will be remembered there.  I was with him on the night of his induction.  A particularly memorable moment was our arrival at the theater: Our instructions had us park our car a few blocks away.  Then we climbed into a vintage 1964 yellow Mustang convertible so that we could “arrive” at the theater where there was a waiting red carpet and photographers.  Not the typical “ride” for a modern composer.  You should have seen that Leo Kraft smile on that occasion.

After his retirement in 1989, Leo remained a fixture in the building:  attending concerts of his own music, those of his colleagues, and countless student recitals. He loved the spirit that music and music making brought to his life.  Leo attended nearly all of those concerts in recent years with Drora by his side, and the two of them exuded a palpable, positive presence, supporting and encouraging the constant musical storm provided by our students.   It meant so much to the students to see these mentors in the audience.  Leo understood this and loved to listen.  It never seemed a chore to him.

I personally had the opportunity to attend many, many concerts with him.  Many times we would drive in to the city together, or meet at concerts.  “Hi, Leo. Are you going to hear so and so at Kaufman? Will you be going to the League/ISCM program? The LICA concert? New Music Series at Miller? Talujon at St. Peters? There’s a recital at Christ and St. Stephen’s…NYU, Riverside Church…the Tenri Institute…The Jewish Museum…Church of the Heavenly Rest…Zankel Hall…The 92nd St. Y. Once in a while, we even went to lesser-known halls like Avery Fisher or the Metropolitan Opera. (And he always knew a good place to eat within a few blocks of any of these places.)  Like many composers, he went to concerts to meet other composers and performers, to hear what others were doing and bring that intelligence back to his own studio.  He had a razor-sharp analytical mind that could also include razor-sharp critique, but he was never bitter.  (He had a favorite saying when he encountered a less than brilliant soprano: “She has a small but unpleasant voice.”)

Leo reveled in his retirement, rising (as he put it) from the rank of “full professor” to the rank of “full composer.” He worked tirelessly on new compositions, and on his existing catalogue.  (He was particularly proud of a recent commission of his last completed piece, To Whom It May Concern, performed in February 2014 at Kaufman Hall by his dear friends in the Da Capo Chamber Ensemble.)  The beautiful music he leaves behind is an enduring place in which his spirit will continue to thrive.  His music had personality, like the man.  And, like the man, it was spiky. It could be tart; it could be sweet.  It could be fierce; it could be gentle.  It was always intelligent; it always had a point of view.  It didn’t waffle or hedge.  It was smart, confident, generous, outgoing, and it always demanded careful attention.  It wasn’t “easy.” He cared too much about music and the art of listening for it to be “easy.” But it was articulate and direct, never intentionally obtuse.

These qualities will live on in my own cherished memories of my dear friend, Queens College Professor Emeritus Leo Kraft. The man and his music were one and the same, in many ways. We have lost one of the longest-standing links to the origins of The Aaron Copland School of Music and one of the last living legacies of our tradition.  We’ve lost a wonderful composer and a true champion of new music.   But Leo was a staunch supporter of future generations of composers through the Leo Kraft Scholarship Endowment, which he established with a major gift just last year. His music and his generosity will continue.

I am personally very grateful to have had him as a friend, mentor, and colleague.  He will be missed, but he will be remembered.
The Aaron Copland School of Music will accept donations in honor of the memory of Prof. Kraft to the Leo Kraft Scholarship Endowment, Aaron Copland School of Music, 65-30 Kissena Blvd. Queens, NY 11367