Arts

Lubov Breit Keefer – Baltimore’s Grande Dame of the Symphony

Lubov Breit Keefer, not dated, MS 2859, MdHS.

Lubov Breit Keefer, not dated, MS 2859, MdHS.

Lubov Breit Keefer – musician, scholar, teacher, arts activist – was born in 1896 in the industrial city of Nikolaev in southern Ukraine. In the 1910s, her father Alfred Breit came to the United States to teach mathematics at Johns Hopkins University, leaving Lubov, her mother and two brothers, Leo and Gregory, in Russia. Following the death of his wife and the outbreak of World War I, Alfred brought his children to live in Baltimore. Leo went on to become a doctor and the Gregory became a renowned physicist at Yale, who was involved in the U.S. development of the atomic bomb.

Lubov attended school in Russia and studied piano at the tsarist Petrograd Conservatory when composer and conductor, Alexander Glazunov, was director. Before leaving Russia, she attended performances by Sergey Prokofiev and Alexander Scriabin. Keefer was one of the last people in the United States to have witnessed a performance by Scriabin, who died in April 1915.(1)

In the United States, Keefer was present at the first performance of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on February 11, 1916. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in German at the Johns Hopkins University, writing her dissertation on the origins of German Romanticism in that language. She also read fluently in French, Italian, Polish, Norwegian, Danish and Spanish. In addition, she received a diploma in music from the Peabody Conservatory.(2)

Lubov taught Russian, music appreciation, and music history at Hopkins, and for 52 years, piano at the Peabody Preparatory, retiring in 1967. She said, “I didn’t develop any virtuosos, but a great many of my students became ardent fundraisers for the Peabody.”  She worked hard for low pay and managed to leave $100,00 to be divided between Peabody and JHU. She also taught the first foreign language class to be offered at a Baltimore public school at Edmondson High School.(3)

Keefer enjoyed a rich and varied social life, renowned for her love of parties and good conversation. With her only marriage ended in divorce in 1935, she could devote her life to music, teaching and an extensive social life.(4) Her home on Tudor Arms Avenue was the scene of many parties where she entertained famous musicians. She dressed exotically, wearing flamboyant hats, and often in beautiful evening gowns of her own creation. This was not limited to parties or musical functions, appearing at her oral examinations for her doctorate at Johns Hopkins at nine in the morning in full evening dress. It was not unusual for her to share her love of Russian culture by speaking in languages other than English because “I find eet convenient.” She particularly fond of horseback riding in Druid Hill Park.

As a patriotic citizen, she served as an air raid warden during World War II. One freezing night, the air raid sirens interrupted a Peabody concert. Lubov, dressed in her evening gown and party shoes, immediately ran outside into the cold night to fulfill her warden duties.(5) She also put her music career on hold temporarily to help the war effort working as a welder at a Westinghouse plant in Massachusetts.(6)

Peabody Institute Preparatory School, interior of conservatory auditorium, April 1925, Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, MC6192-1, MdHS.

Peabody Institute Preparatory School, interior of conservatory auditorium, April 1925, Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, MC6192-1, MdHS.

Keefer earned many accolades throughout her career. She was named Woman of the Year by the Business and Professional Women’s Club of Baltimore (which later became the Baltimore Symphony Associates).(7) As chair of the Associates Adult Education Committee, she founded the Baltimore Symphony Associates concert series at the Enoch Pratt Library. Although the concerts were free to the public, the musicians were paid at her request. The BSA established the Lubov Breit Keefer Award for Young Soloists scholarship in her honor and radio station WFBR dedicated its “Concert of the Classics” to her.(8)

A prolific writer, Dr. Keefer authored several books and numerous articles. Among her books were Gogol and Music and Music Angels, about 1000 years of patronage of music by women. Her Baltimore’s Music—The Haven of the American  Composer, published in 1962 was the first published history of music in Maryland – for decades the definitive work on the city’s musical history. Some of her articles, published in the “Peabody Bulletin, were “Mussorgsky Letters” and “The Enigma of Bach.” Her writings about travels to Russia, Greece, and Paris were spicy and humorous.

Keefer also hosted “Symphony Forum,” a weekly radio show broadcast during the Baltimore Symphony season. In the audio clip below, taken from an oral history conducted in 1973, you can get a sense of the 77 year old Keefer’s vitality and forceful personality. Here she provides her views on the importance of the Baltimore Symphony:

 

Keefer died in her Tudor Arms apartment on December 17, 1983. Robert Pierce, director of the Peabody, said “She was a female Mencken with a Russian accent. She had the same love of Baltimore and its achievements.  Everything she did was tinged with flair and a sense of humor.  She set a standard of involvement and maintained it for so many years. She had a sharp, inquisitive mind, unbounded curiosity, which she always projected. You could never get her to talk about herself, but she could always get others to talk about themselves. She always brought out the best in everyone. Her love of life, culture and gaiety were infectious.”(9) (Michael Mark)

Michael Mark is retired Professor Emeritus of Music at Towson University and a volunteer in the Special Collections Department of the Maryland Historical Society.

The Maryland Historical Society holds a number of materials related to Lubov Breit Keefer, including her published books, correspondence, photographs, manuscript notes, and three oral histories conducted with her in the 1970s.

In Memoriam: Lubov Breit Keefer, Baltimore Symphony Program, January 13, 1983, MS 2859, Lubov Breit Keefer Collection, MdHS (reference photo)

In Memoriam: Lubov Breit Keefer, Baltimore Symphony Program, January 13, 1983, MS 2859, Lubov Breit Keefer Collection, MdHS (reference photo)

Sources and further reading:

(1)(2) The Baltimore Sun, 12/16/1956

(3) The Evening Sun of Baltimore, 12/20/1962

(4) The Messenger, 1/12/1983

(5) The Baltimore Sun, 12/23/1982

(6) The Baltimore Sun, 12/19/1982.

(7) The Messenger, 6/28/1982

(8) The Baltimore Sun, 12/23/1982; Woman of the Year Award, 10/31/1969

(9) The Baltimore News American, December 1982.

The Baltimore Sun, December 23, 1982.

The Baltimore Sun, December 12, 1962.

Peabody News, December 1982.

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