John Langstaff, 84; author, singer founded Christmas Revels
By Scott Alarik, Globe Correspondent | December 14, 2005
It seems strangely like John Langstaff to leave us
at Christmastime. Though he achieved fame as a concert baritone,
influential music educator, author, and cultural activist, his life
and art always seemed to revolve around the holiday season.
Mr. Langstaff died of a stroke yesterday in Switzerland.
He lived in Cambridge and also had a home in Vermont. He was 84.
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 during World 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
''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.
A memorial is being planned for late February.
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
December 16, 2005 latimes.com
John Langstaff, 84; Founded Modern-Day Christmas Revels Staged in Many Cities
By Valerie J. Nelson, Times Staff Writer
John Langstaff, who founded a modern-day theatrical celebration of the winter
solstice called the Christmas Revels that draws from folk traditions in many
cultures and is performed annually in cities across the country, has died. He was 84.
Langstaff, who lived in Cambridge, Mass., died Tuesday after suffering a
stroke while visiting his daughter in Basel, Switzerland, said another
daughter, Carol Langstaff.
The first Christmas Revels, which he staged in New York in 1957, drew from pre-
Christian celebrations of the solstice, incorporating death and rebirth themes
and a carnival-like atmosphere. The first show flopped with the public, but
another several weeks later in Washington, D.C., sold out.
The present-day Revels, which are being presented in nine cities this month,
can be traced to 1971, when Carol persuaded her father to help her revive the
tradition in Cambridge, Mass.
"There's a need for art that connects us to each other," Langstaff told the
Boston Globe in 2000. "You go far enough back in any culture and you find these
rituals, these ways of bringing people together."
As the years went by, Revels were as likely to feature Old English rituals and
a medieval mummers play — a folk drama based on the legend of St. George — as
they were the cultures of Slavic Eastern Europe, Russia or France.
"He was sort of a cross between a very gifted artist and a missionary for theatrical
celebration, which he has spread across this country," said Susan Cooper, a longtime
friend who met Langstaff backstage at a 1974 show and wrote for the Revels.
Nine cities — with New York, Washington, D.C., Houston and Oakland among them —
are presenting shows in December. The Oakland productions, held last weekend and
today through Sunday, are the city's 20th.
"For hundreds of years, the older material has had a palpable power. People respond
to it, and Jack knew that," said David Parr, artistic director of the California Revels
It was no accident that John Meredith Langstaff was born on Christmas Eve in 1920
in Brooklyn. His lawyer father and pianist mother, who gave elaborate caroling
parties, were determined to have a Christmas baby. She moved furniture and ran
up and down stairs to induce labor.
As a boy soprano, Langstaff attended an Episcopal church choir school and became
steeped in processions, rituals and the use of brass instruments to accompany
singers — elements that would became central to Revels.
After maturing into a rich baritone, Langstaff studied at Juilliard in New York
City and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia but left school in 1941
to join the Army during World War II.
In the barracks, he organized an informal choir and taught the soldiers a song
he had learned as a young chorister, the "Alleluia Round" by 17th century composer
"It's a difficult round, but once they mastered it they loved it," Langstaff told
the Boston Globe in 1995. "And we'd always sing it when we were sitting around the
post exchange drinking beer."
On Okinawa, near the end of the war, a Japanese sniper shot Langstaff in the chest
and his lungs collapsed. His recuperation took 18 months.
After the war, he performed with orchestras in the United States and overseas and
made several recordings with George Martin, who later gained fame as the Beatles' producer.
In 1966, Langstaff put together a television version of the Revels for NBC's
"Hallmark Hall of Fame." Among the cast members was a young Dustin Hoffman,
portraying the dragon slain by St. George.
Langstaff also wrote 25 books, many of them for children, including "Frog Went a-Courtin'"
(1955), which won the Caldecott Medal for its illustrations by Feodor Rojankovsky.
For almost 20 years, Langstaff taught music education to children in Virginia and
In 1995, he officially retired but remained involved with the Revels company, based
in Watertown, Mass. With an annual budget of $1.3 million, it presents the Cambridge
Christmas Revels, puts on shows, and licenses the name and scripts to other companies.
In the right setting much of the history of daily life, Langstaff once said, can be
learned and experienced through music.
"This music only lives when people are singing it," Parr has told his Oakland chorus.
"We are singing it now. People 300 years ago in Cornwall were singing it. We're all a
part of that endless chain. That's one of the big realizations Jack had."
Besides his daughter Carol, Langstaff is survived by his second wife, Nancy Trowbridge
Langstaff, two other daughters, two sons, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Jack Langstaff Dies; Created 'Christmas Revels'
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005; B06
John "Jack" Langstaff, 84, whose exuberant celebrations of the winter solstice became a
tradition for millions in search of ritual, died Dec. 13 in Basel, Switzerland, while
visiting a daughter. He had suffered a stroke two days earlier.
Mr. Langstaff, a concert baritone, children's author and music educator at Potomac School
in McLean, started in 1957 what was to become "The Christmas Revels," a potpourri of
medieval music, dance, poetry and drama that elicits audience participation. That first
performance, in New York City, was a critical success but a commercial failure.
A few weeks later, he reprised it in George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium and
sold out the 1,500-seat house. He staged it twice for NBC's televised Hallmark Hall of
Fame in the mid-1960s under the name "A Christmas Masque."
"The nonprofessionals are very important to the 'Revels.' When we started we used to go
out and find people on the streets at dawn," Mr. Langstaff said in a 1983 interview in
The Washington Post. "And we used to find some marvelous people that way. That's how we
got Dustin Hoffman into it in 1958. He hadn't made 'The Graduate' at that time, and played
the Dragon in the mummers' play 'St. George and the Dragon,' although it's probably not
on his résumé."
Mr. Langstaff formally incorporated the "Revels" in 1971 and expanded it to include spring
and mid-summer "Revels," and the organization estimates that a million people have been in
audiences since then. The organization has also published several songbooks, teachers
manuals, a choral series and audio recordings. "The Christmas Revels" is being staged this
season in nine cities, including Washington.
The event incorporates amateur singers, dancers and actors with carefully planned audience
participation. One reviewer described it as "a pan-cultural pageant that encompasses
medieval and Renaissance music, modern carols and mummers' plays, processionals and
elaborate costumes, fertility dances and other reflections of both pagan and Christian
traditions (a collage of the wild and the holy)."
In describing the "Revels" in 1983, Mr. Langstaff said: "We are talking about a season, not
about Christianity. In earlier days, people lived by the seasons, but in the cities
sometimes that's hard for us. There are special dances, special songs celebrating the change
of seasons, and it's great to go back and find them and see if we can draw them back into
our lives. I feel that people are getting interested in that again."
Mr. Langstaff was born on Christmas Eve in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., where his parents and
friends would hold impromptu performances of Gilbert and Sullivan and sing Bach chorales,
madrigals and Christmas carols together.
"I came from a large family where there was always a lot of music," he said. "We used to
have carol parties. We candlelit the house, the neighbors would come. . . . Everybody
knew that the Sunday before Christmas was the time to gather in the Langstaffs'
At age 8, he entered the Grace Church Choir School in New York City, where he was a boy
soprano soloist until his voice changed. He later studied at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute
of Music and at the Juilliard School in New York.
Mr. Langstaff then embarked on a concert career in the United States and abroad. He made
traditional music recordings for EMI and HMV music publishers in England.
He taught music education at Potomac School for 13 years, from 1955 to 1968, and at Shady
Hill School in Cambridge, Mass., for six years, while continuing to record in Europe
with Beatles producer George Martin. For five years, he hosted the popular "Making Music"
program on BBC-TV in London and was the moderator of an NBC-TV Saturday morning children's
program, "Children Explore Books." He lived in Cambridge, Mass.
Mr. Langstaff also was an author whose 25 books include the traditional children's tale
"Frog Went a-Courtin'," winner of the 1956 Caldecott Medal. He also produced a six-set
video series designed to show parents, teachers and others who work with children how to
involve them in making and appreciating music.
Mr. Langstaff started Revels Records in 1978 and produced 18 recordings of traditional
children's music, folk and gospel recordings, and a library of seasonal recordings
celebrating the winter solstice, spring and summer, the harvest and the sea. He retired
from the Watertown, Mass.-based group in 1995.
Survivors include his wife, Nancy Woodbridge Langstaff of Cambridge; five children, Carol
Langstaff of Sharon, Vt., Deborah Langstaff of Basel, Caitlin Langstaff of New York City,
John Langstaff of Winston-Salem, N.C., and Gary Langstaff of Beverly, Mass.; a brother,
E. Kennedy Langstaff of Adamstown, Md.; nine grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
© 2005 The Washington Post Company