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Leon Kirchner

By Samuel Adler

During the middle of the ’70s, when I was still teaching at Eastman, I conducted a series of noon concerts with the Rochester Philharmonic called “Mostly Mozart and Moderns.” During these concerts we would perform a Mozart symphony and a contemporary American work. For my first concert, which was broadcast on NPR, I chose Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and the Toccata for orchestra by Leon Kirchner.

A few days after the broadcast, I received a very warm and enthusiastic letter from Leon, thanking me for the inclusion of his work, and also telling me how much he enjoyed the performance of his work, as well as my interpretation of the Mozart symphony, which I realized much later was the real compliment, because Leon felt that he was the greatest interpreter of Mozart. This was my first contact with Leon, and we established a true friendship at that time. Consequently, a couple of years later, I invited him to do some master classes at Eastman, and as he usually did, he asked to perform with students and faculty during his visit. He came and performed several of his chamber works at the piano, and his chamber music with students and with members of the faculty. After his departure, one of the students made a very poignant comment. She said how extraordinarily wonderful it was, and how very different it was to play a work of a composer with the creator at the piano. She added, “Performers find themselves mostly outside the score looking in, but performing with Leon, I learned that his method was to look at a score from inside the music outward.” This young woman felt that her attitude toward all of music changed because of her experience with such a performing composer at the piano.

Leon was a musician’s musician. He loved performers, and he loved to perform and conduct. This interaction was of the utmost importance to him all his life. My fondest memories of him were the many times we discussed the works of Mozart, Haydn, and Schubert (he didn’t want to discuss too many contemporary works, but Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert couldn’t hurt us at all), the fantastic experience he had conducting their works, and the insight he demonstrated by his performances.

Born in California and educated there at Los Angeles College and Berkeley, while a student, he once encountered the composer Ernst Toch. And this was a common element between us also, since my father was a Toch student. Toch urged him to contact Arnold Schoenberg and try to study with him. Leon followed Toch’s advice and right away became fascinated with Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. This system of working stayed with him from then on, even though he never slavishly followed its rules. After finishing his graduate studies at Berkeley with Roger Sessions, Leon won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and decided to go to New York and try his luck.

He wrote furiously in those days, and was given the opportunity to present several concerts of his works here in New York. Even as a young composer, his music was unmistakably a unique voice in the world of musical composition. After his first few concerts in New York, Aaron Copland reviewed these concerts in an article in the journal Notes. And he wrote (and I quote):

“The impression carried away from a Kirchner performance is one of having made contact not merely with a composer but with a highly sentient human being, of a man who creates his music out of an awareness of the special climate of today’s unsettled world. Kirchner’s best pages prove that he reacts strongly to that world. They are charged with an emotional impact and explosive power that is almost frightening in its intensity.”

Leon went on to win many of the most prestigious awards: the New York Critics’ Circle Award for his first two string quartets, the Naumberg Award for his first piano concerto, and then, of course, the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for his third string quartet, in which he used electronic tape with live instruments.

The one medium which eluded him, and with which he struggled for many years, was opera. That, combined with a growing commitment to conducting, especially after he succeeded Walter Piston at Harvard University, probably accounted for his slowed output for some years. The opera attempt was finally realized when he finished his sole opera, called Lily, based on the first half of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King.

However, during the final twenty years of his life, Leon again produced many works of great importance, including a recent overwhelming success here in New York of his music for cello and orchestra, written for Yo-Yo Ma, who was actually one of his students at Harvard. No greater compliment could be paid to Leon than that of his distinguished colleague at Harvard, Robert Levin, who wrote about him, quote:

“Leon’s monument is just as much for those who were fortunate enough to experience him as a teacher, as for those who have been transformed by the urgency and intensity of his music.”

All of us in the world of music and beyond, as well as of course his family, will miss Leon greatly, for if as Ezra Pound said, “The artist is the antenna of his time,” Leon’s music certainly expresses all the various tenets of our time so very profoundly. He is one of the composers who, because of the great music integrity in every one of his works, will inspire so many of us for as long as music is performed.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters