Thoughts on Leon Kirchner (1919-2009)
Leon Kirchner was a force of nature, as pianist, conductor, composer, and musical analyst. In 1966, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his Third String Quartet with Electronic Sound, which he had learned about mostly from Morton Subotnick, and never taught any of his students. I sought him out that year for a personal interview, before deciding on whether to attend Harvard College and study composition with him. It took months of phone calls and numerous messages, but I finally did reach him, and set up an appointment, at his home in Cambridge. What I thought would take about an hour ended up lasting over two and a half hours, as he insisted on impressing on me, in detail, the importance of acquiring and studying every note and every word of the Schnabel edition of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas (which of course I then did). At the end of those two and a half hours, he informed me that he had spent that amount of time with me not because of the recommendation I had brought with me from my composition teacher Elie Siegmeister, but because of the regards I had for him from cellist Benar Heifetz (who had played his music at Marlboro), the husband of my piano teacher Olga Heifetz. Indeed, I was to learn, Kirchner generally got along with and had a much higher regard (and use?) for performers than composers.
(c) 2009 by Leonard J. Lehrman
New Music Connoisseur, Nov. 2009; web only
John Adams, a first-rate clarinetist and conductor who decided to become a composer and studied with Kirchner at Harvard the same years I did, has described him as "devastatingly candid" whose negative assessment "could require weeks for one to recover enough self-esteem to continue." That was to some extent the effect Kirchner had on me, especially regarding a piece I wrote in his class, inspired by The Living Theatre - and R.D. Laing - called "The Bird of Paradise." Although it called for a part to be recorded on tape, inspired partly by Kirchner's Third Quartet, I was not encouraged to find a way to realize that part; Robert Moog told me (in 1970) that there was no way to do it technologically. Today there probably is, perhaps using portions of a recording of a 1970 reading I was allowed to conduct with James Yannatos's Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra; but Kirchner's remarks in class, that he liked the first 12 bars of the piece but after that thought I should start over, made me so depressed that the piece has lain dormant ever since. He was also very ambivalent on the question of whether to join a protest against the Vietnam War which would forbid the broadcast of any of his music by American Forces Network. Not so the other composition teacher at Harvard, Earl Kim, who was the first to move for complete amnesty for the war protesters who had occupied University Hall, and later took off a whole year to work for Musicians for Peace and against nuclear war. After two years of study with Kim and one with Kirchner, I went back to Kim.
But Kim's output as a composer was much more limited than Kirchner's. Only a handful of Kim's pieces were available for broadcast on the Harvard radio, whereas Kirchner's took several hours, in an "orgy" I produced for and on Kirchner's 50th birthday, Jan. 24, 1969, after which Kirchner took me to lunch.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. My freshman year, before getting involved in the radio, I wrote 9 articles, competing to become an editor of the Harvard Crimson. The last two were finally published, on Mar. 4 & 11, 1968: I've posted them on my website at
In the first article, I reviewed the Harvard Band. In the final article, I took on the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, in a concert conducted by Kirchner, with his fellow faculty member Luise Vosgerchian (with whom I had also hoped to study) as soloist in his Second Piano Concerto. It was to be a great event, a confluence of the two most dynamic figures on the music department's faculty. Unfortunately, Vosgerchian missed some rehearsals due to illness, and when I played through the score Kirchner loaned me, and listened to the recording he had made with Mitropoulos of his First Piano Concerto, I sensed that something was wrong with the performance: He had written a piece inspired by the spirit of Berg and Schoenberg, while she was playing it as if it had been written by Bartók or Stravinsky. It tore me apart, but I felt I had to say it, somehow. When I tried speaking to Vosgerchian about it, she retorted, annoyed: "But I was only playing what the composer wrote and wanted!" Kirchner himself was more reticent. But the following January, he subtly agreed that I had been right. ("Right too soon" was how he once lovingly characterized a Mozart piece he conducted - a recording of which was played at his Miller Theatre memorial - hoping someone would attribute that quality to him too.)
The Kirchner 50th Birthday orgy broadcast an archival recording of a much more sensitive performance of the Second Concerto, by Leon Fleisher, Milton Katims, and the Seattle Symphony. When it looked as though we might not get clearance to broadcast that, I mentioned to Kirchner that we might broadcast the HRO performance. "No," he said wryly: "You took care of that." And 30 years later, at his 80th birthday celebration, which I reviewed for Aufbau - please see
- he remembered me, with the words: "You once wrote a very important article about my work...."
I wish I could have loved the music he wrote after I started studying with him as much as the music he had written earlier. I came down to New York to hear the premiere of his 1970 Music for Orchestra and review it for WHRB - having given up on the Crimson as too dangerous in terms of department politics - and hated it. (I understand he revised it in 1988.) It seemed so pretentious and empty. I called the station and said I would not be sending a review after all.
His opera Lily was even worse, notwithstanding a few lovely passages, especially for soprano Susan Belling (née Belink, daughter of Cantor Norman Belink, who had trained me for my bar mitzvah and then organized the first Creative Jewish Music Group on Long Island with me). Jack Beeson recently told me a story, not in his recently-published book, of how he attended rehearsals and the premiere of Lily at N.Y. City Opera, and watched as Kirchner worked himself into exhaustion, refusing to delegate authority to anyone, spent the dress rehearsal in the hospital, and then muttered after conducting the premiere: "I will never again allow a company to wreck my operas [sic]!" - thus blaming everyone else for his own shortcomings and mistakes.
So, it is with mixed feelings that I now share my thoughts with you about one of the most important teachers I ever had, from whom I learned a great deal about music, in terms of both what to do and what not to do.
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