Kirchner Letters Paint Composer As Fierce, Inspiring Intellectual

Steve Tenenbom, Todd Phillips, Leon Kirchner, Timothy Eddy, and Daniel Phillips with Steven Epstein at a recording session for Leon Kirchner/The Complete String Quartets/The Orion String Quartet in 2007. (© Photo by Lisa Kirchner)

Leon Kirchner and His Verdant World, edited by Lisa Kirchner. New York: Verdant World Productions, 2022. 375 pages.

PERSPECTIVE — Leon Kirchner was a man of many talents: conductor, pianist, distinguished teacher, but especially a composer who made important contributions to 20th-century music. He was also an articulate writer who inspired his renowned colleagues, pupils, friends, and family to produce intriguing letters, articles, and comments to and about him. Now 69 of these documents have been collected in a fascinating new book, Leon Kirchner and His Verdant World.

Edited by the late composer’s daughter, Lisa Kirchner, an accomplished actress, singer, and songwriter in her own right, the book is her loving tribute to her father and includes both Kirchner’s own writings as well as familiar and new essays and reminiscences reflecting upon his music, his character, and most definitely his personality.

Whether you are discovering Kirchner (1919-2009) and his music for the first time or are among his lifelong aficionados, this book is an invaluable cornucopia of information and proves to be delightful reading. The volume also contains a treasure trove of rare photographs, many not seen before, covering Kirchner’s entire life and illustrating his musical encounters with everyone from Ernest Bloch, Arnold Schoenberg, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland to Frank Sinatra!

What makes this book special is that it provides a window into the often complex and nuanced personality of a composer behind the notes on paper. While it offers an abundance of musical analysis for those who seek it (by scholars including Allen Shawn, Alexander L. Ringer, and Kirchner’s biographer, Robert Riggs), there are also anecdotes, interviews, letters, and art, introducing the reader to Kirchner the man, the teacher, the friend, and the parent.

Initially, Kirchner was a piano prodigy studying with such prominent pianists as Richard Buhlig and John Crown. Composer Ernst Toch encouraged him to explore his talents in composition. Kirchner’s musical outlook could be intensely emotional. Photographer Gordon Parks told Kirchner that his music was so hot he wanted smoke appearing in a photograph he took of the young composer that appeared in Life magazine.

While a pre-med student at Los Angeles City College, Kirchner was so affected by a piano performance that he literally jumped through a window to meet the pianist, Leonard Stein, then the assistant to the venerable composer and pedagogue Arnold Schoenberg. After Kirchner studied with Schoenberg, thoughts of becoming a doctor were left behind. Decades later, on the occasion of Kirchner’s 80th birthday, Stein would praise his “unsurpassed integrity, honesty, and vitality,” and declare that the spirit of Schoenberg lived on in Kirchner’s music and teaching.

Kirchner went on to also study with Ernest Bloch and with one of Bloch’s most renowned pupils, the man who became his mentor, Roger Sessions. The Kirchner-Sessions correspondence, published here for the first time, provides a unique insight into not only the private lifetime friendship of teacher and pupil but also the musical outlook of two major American composers throughout their careers.

Leon Kirchner, 2006. (© Photo by Lisa Kirchner)

We meet Kirchner the teacher, going from Mills College, hired on the recommendation of his friend Igor Stravinsky, to Harvard, where he and his wife Gertrude hosted an annual New Year’s Eve party that was clearly the place to be to welcome the New Year. With a remarkable assortment of musical and non-musical guests, including literary and scientific figures, the party provided a rarefied atmosphere indeed. Where else could Kirchner’s friend Saul Bellow, whose novel Henderson the Rain King was the basis for Kirchner’s opera Lily, offer a compelling excuse for missing an important Kirchner premiere? He explained apologetically that he had been in Europe accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature. We meet Kirchner’s talented family, his accomplished wife, his son Paul, a mathematician and artist, and daughter Lisa, asking her father to write a jazz song for her, later inserted into both the opera Lily and a concert work based upon it.

Kirchner taught with distinction at Harvard for 28 years, but we shouldn’t forget that composers and performers weren’t always welcome in Cambridge. At Harvard, students were expected to analyze music, but actually playing it didn’t dominate faculty goals. Kirchner changed all that with “Music 180,” a legendary performance and analysis course he created, inspiring students like cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who recalls Kirchner’s intense gaze while exhorting him to deliver a performance that would be “positively galactic.” He also founded the Harvard Chamber Orchestra. At Marlboro, the chamber music festival for virtuosos, he was able to conduct and inspire generations of musicians who have made their mark around the world.

We also encounter a composer who thought, wrote, and spoke seriously about art, a hazardous row to hoe for anyone immersed in creativity. Kirchner had strong musical and personal values. He stuck to them through thick and thin. Kirchner could have followed the example of his friends, New York composers Alex North and Leonard Rosenman, and settled in Hollywood to write film scores. Certainly, he had the opportunity. But Kirchner regarded writing music to underscore a play or film by someone else as not truly expressive of a composer’s real personality. Considering Kirchner’s desire to control his own artistic destiny, he clearly made the right choice to decline offers to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. One can imagine the explosion from Kirchner if a Hollywood director struck a note on the piano and told him to feature it in his score, something that actually happened to Ernst Toch.

Sculptor Dimitri Hadzi, left, with composers Kirchner and Arthur Berger in 1997. (© Photo by Lisa Kirchner)

Kirchner had a talent for friendship, numbering among his prominent and sometimes improbable friends musicians of all kinds, scientists, physicians, economists, and even Hollywood stars. (He once gave up a date with Marilyn Monroe to attend a Stravinsky concert.) Director and comedy writer Carl Reiner, Kirchner’s Army buddy, recalled their days in the service. Under orders from his commanding officer (and future game show host) Captain Allen Ludden, a reluctant Kirchner wrote the music for a production of Dracula. But Kirchner being Kirchner, he managed to shock his copyists with musical time signatures in five instead of three or four and to scare the wits out of his audience with a piercing F above high C to make this a performance of Dracula no one could forget.

He also formed an unlikely friendship with world-renowned cellist Pablo Casals when the two bonded at Marlboro. Violinist Jaime Laredo recalls that Rudolf Serkin would intentionally steer Casals, famously conservative in his disapproval of the dissonances in modern music, away from concerts at which such works were likely to be performed. But Casals was impressed with Kirchner’s broad range of intellectual interests and his personality; out of curiosity, he attended a concert featuring a Kirchner premiere and told the surprised composer he was impressed with his music as well.

Lisa Kirchner with her father following conferral upon the composer of a Harvard Honorary Doctorate in 2001. (Verdant World Productions)

Kirchner not only won countless honors, including the Naumburg Award for his First Piano Concerto and the Pulitzer Prize for his Third String Quartet, but the respect of composers and colleagues throughout his lifetime. As for his extensive catalog of symphonic, chamber, and piano works, David Amram declares that “Leon set a standard for us all.” Samuel Adler says, “He is one of the composers who because of the great musical integrity in every one of his works will inspire so many of us for as long as music is performed.” Kirchner himself explained, “Music is a science, but a science that must make people laugh and dance and sing.” He viewed with skepticism what he called the “superficiality of current style and fad worship” and composers lost in “the jungle of graphs, prepared tapes, feedbacks, and cold stylistic minutiae.” He summed up his view by declaring, “An artist must create a personal cosmos, a verdant world in continuity with tradition, further fulfilling man’s ‘awareness,’ his ‘degree of consciousness,’ and bringing new subtilization, vision, and beauty to the elements of experience.”

If you never had the pleasure of meeting Leon Kirchner, after reading The Verdant World of Leon Kirchner, you’ll feel as if you truly did meet him after all. It’s an extraordinary book in a unique format that provides insight into the musical outlook and private personality of a major figure in contemporary American music.

Mark Evans is a composer, conductor, and pianist with a multifaceted background in words and music. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate School. He hosts the popular “Mark! My Words” television program and is founder of Cultural Conservation, a foundation dedicated to the principle that society should preserve its cultural resources with the same care a nation devotes to natural resources. His most recent books include Mark! My Words: How to Discover the Joy of Music, the Delight of Language, and the Pride of Achievement in the Age of Trash Talk and Cultural Chaos; Our Musical Heritage: From Yankee Doodle to Carnegie Hall, Broadway, and the Hollywood Sound Stage; and Playboy at the Piano: Profiles and Reflections from a Life in Music, Books, and Broadcasting.