Clair Leonard taught music at Vassar for thirteen years, and his love for the college was obvious to anybody who knew him. Composing songs for college faculty performances or teaching music interpretation to the students, Leonard was always engaged in the Vassar community. A stanza from a song he wrote with his frequent partner, Christine Ramsey ’29, reflects his love for the college:
We think it’s great to correlate at Vassah
We think it’s great to correlate our course,
Not another institution can surpass her
We always try to unify her force
Born in Newton, Massachusetts, on January 31, 1901, the son of Edwin and Lillian Siggins Leonard, he received his B.A. in music from Harvard in 1923 and his M.A the following year. At Harvard, Leonard was mentored by music professor Dr. Archibald T. Davison, who secured for him a tutoring position there after his graduation. Leonard held this position until 1929, when he went to Paris on a Paine Traveling Fellowship to study music at l’Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris under the tutelage of the French composer Nadia Boulanger. In 1932, he returned to the United States and served as the acting head of the department of music at the University of Vermont. Leonard came to Vassar as an assistant professor in 1933. The Miscellany News welcomed him into the Vassar family. “Here at Vassar, ” the newspaper reported in October 1934, “Mr. Leonard teaches the interpretation branch of music, which is being emphasized more this year than in the past. Mr. Leonard was particularly impressed by Skinner Hall, with its complete library and equipment. It makes possible a close correlation of theory and applied music which he considers most valuable.”
Leonard made a notable first impression at Vassar, performing a warmly received sonata in the faculty concert later that month. “The high spot of the faculty concert was Mr. Clair Leonard’s violin and piano sonata,” the Miscellany News wrote two weeks after announcing Leonard’s appointment to the faculty. “The audience, curious as to the ability of another composer in the music department, heard with delight a composition of rich musical materials and skillful design.” This concert was the first of many performances at Vassar of Clair Leonard’s music. In May 1935, he provided the music
My Country Left or Right was published by the Vassar Experimental Theatre.
for the Vassar Experimental Theater’s production of My Country, Right or Left, a satiric allegory written by four students— Muriel Fox ‘35, Suzette Telenga ‘36, Marie Reed ‘35 and Jane Whitbread ‘36. The Miscellany News praised his music—for piano, trombone and percussion—as “wittily appropriate, not for art’s sake, but to the enhancement of the whole.” Working on the show, Leonard formed a friendship with its director, Hallie Flanagan Davis, the founder, in 1927, of the Vassar Experimental Theater. The two collaborated again, immediately following a production of My Country, Right or Left, on Come Out Into the Sun, an adaptation of The Dance of Death, a play in verse by W.H. Auden staged in London in 1934.
This production was part of the Vassar Experimental Theater’s first summer theatre program, which brought together directors of local community theaters, Broadway actors, aspiring playwrights and Vassar students under the tutelage of Flanagan. The six-week program offered classes in acting and directing, and Come Out Into the Sun was one of three productions that the 42 participants undertook. Leonard gave Come Out Into the Sun, performed as the capstone of the summer program in August 1935, a spare musical treatment, composing a score that called for drums and a piano. Mary Morley Crapo ‘34, a student of the program and a writer for The Miscellany News, reported in October that “the press was hard upon Come Out Into the Sun, saying it was merely a question of whether you had a drink before or after; and twice was too much for any poor joke.”
Disappointed with the show’s reception, Flanagan and Leonard decided to rework Come Out Into the Sun. The new show was planned for performance at the Adelphi Theater in New York City by the Federal Theatre Project, the federal program designed to help theatre people get back to work. Named the national director of this project in August 1935, Flanagan decided one of the first shows under her leadership would be Come Out Into the Sun. Over Vassar’s winter break Leonard abandoned his original drums and piano composition and re-orchestrated his score for twenty instruments. Retitled The Dance of Death after the original London production, the show premiered on May 19, 1936, to great acclaim. The New York Times lauded the show, calling it a combination of music, dance and acting in “theatrical wedlock.” Leonard’s recap of the production was more modest: “The audience laughed…sometimes in the right places. They seemed to like it very much.”
Leonard found more success, of sorts, at Vassar in the spring of 1936, composing the music for the annual Founder’s Day faculty show. “The music throughout the evening by Clair Leonard,” The Miscellany News declare, “should be given high praise. The music was remarkable, quite beyond the general atmosphere of a Founder’s Day skit, and showed the skill of Mr. Leonard as well as did his music for The Dance of Death.” Leonard worked on the following year’s faculty show, Tonight We Correlate, composing six songs with fellow music professor Quincy Porter and, of course, Christine Ramsey.
Clair Leonard at the piano
The songs for the program proved so successful that the Vassar Cooperative Bookstore issued phonograph records of the songs following the performance of the show. Although Professor Leonard collaborated in a consistent string of faculty shows thereafter, students never had to wait until the end of the year to hear his music. Concerts and events throughout the year— from puppet shows to charity events to performances from the glee club—featured his musical contributions.
During World War II, Leonard performed at benefits for war refugees, sometimes with words and vocals again supplied by Ramsey. The two worked together on another Vassar Experimental Theater production, Sight Unseen, in 1941. Flanagan again directed, and Leonard composed and played the music with lyrics being provided by Ramsey—after June 1939 Mrs. Henry Lyman. Professor of Music Homer Pearson, writing for the Miscellany News, commented on the enduring quality of their partnership: “the combination of Mrs. Lyman’s lyrics and Mr. Leonard’s music has long been an album of high spirits in these parts, and it was all of that once again.”
Leonard collaborated with members of the faculty, but he also forged strong connections with students as well. Due to his ubiquity at Vassar events, he was well-known among students, and he spoke freely—and sometimes wrote reviews of music—in the Miscellany News. In the summer of 1947, he taught music appreciation to interested students at his home and offered private lessons in harmony and tonal counterpoint.
Perhaps Leonard knew this would be his last chance to spend time with Vassar students, as he had accepted an associate professorship at nearby Bard College that was to start in October. Leonard started as the glee club director at Bard, a role he had temporarily occupied at Vassar. Promoted to a full professorship in 1953, he chaired the music department in 1957. He also served as the college’s organist and led the musical service every Sunday in the chapel.
On February 7, 1963, Clair Leonard died of a heart attack at Vassar Hospital. He was 62 years old. His funeral services were held in Bard’s chapel, and a number of Vassar faculty and alumni attended the service, including President Sarah Gibson Blanding. A concert in Leonard’s memory was held the following month at Bard.
A remembrance, written by a Bard student following Leonard’s death, showed that he had made as profound an impact in his 16 years at Bard as he had in his 13 years at Vassar. “[Leonard] was sweet and gentle, forgiving (frighteningly so), and gracious,” wrote David R. Moulton in the Bard Observer. “His force as a teacher lay within the fact that his students would do their utmost to satisfy his standards and expectations; to disappoint Clair was a painful thing. He was one man that deserved in his goodness to be lived up to.”
“The Dance of Death,” New York Times, May 20, 1936.
“Vassar Faculty Increased by 21 Members,” Miscellany News, vol. XIX, no. 1, October 3, 1934.
“Music and Musicians,” vol. XIX, no. 5, Miscellany News, October 17, 1934.
“Musical Play Presented as Last D.P. Production,” Miscellany News, vol. XIX, no. 47, May 8, 1935.
“Founder’s Day Reveals New Talents of Faculty,” Miscellany News, vol. XX, no. 45, April 29, 1936.
“Music by Leonard in ‘Dance of Death,’” Miscellany News, vol. XX, no. 52, May 23, 1936.
“To Record Faculty ‘Blues’ if Requests are Sufficient,” Miscellany News, vol. XXI, no. 47, May 12 1937
“Girl Scouts, Electrons, Rhumba Syncopate in DP’s Successful Musical Revue,” Miscellany News, vol. XXV, no. 46, April 23 1941.
Moulton, David R. “For Mr. Leonard,” The Bard Observer, vol. 5, no. 7, March 4, 1963.
Biographical File, Clair Leonard. Vassar College Special Collections (VCSC).