Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Leon Kirchner

Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer, and Teacher

Robert Riggs
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 347
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Leon Kirchner
    Book Description:

    In this first biography of American composer, pianist, conductor, and teacher Leon Kirchner (1919-2009), Robert Riggs paints a vivid picture of an extraordinary, multifaceted musician. Refugees from Hitler's Third Reich (Schoenberg, Bloch, and Stravinsky) dominated Kirchner's early development, and he in turn became a transformative mentor for later generations at the University of Southern California, Mills College, and Harvard University. Kirchner's performance persona is brought to life by highlighting his appearances with top orchestras and at major festivals, especially his long tenure at the Marlboro Music Festival, where he worked with Rudolf Serkin and Pablo Casals. Current champions of his music (Yo-Yo Ma, Leon Fleisher, and James Levine) are also key protagonists. Kirchner's entire oeuvre is discussed within the chronological narrative, and six representative works are examined in detail. In addition to Riggs's extensive interviews with the composer, the biography is documented with Kirchner's colorful correspondence from a roster of luminaries: Saul Bellow, Leonard Bernstein, Edward Cone, Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, Isaac Stern, Roger Sessions, and many others. Excerpts from Kirchner's own elegantly written essays and speeches complete the portrait and reveal his highly personal, romantic view of music as powerful art capable of endowing humanity with an "aesthetic sensibility and protective wisdom, without which we cannot survive." Robert Riggs is Professor of Music at the University of Mississippi.

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-765-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Chapter One A Kirchner Portrait
    (pp. 1-7)

    Harvard Square—a loosely defined ten- to twelve-block area in the heart of Cambridge, Massachusetts, articulated by a maze of streets and characterized by the interpenetration of university and commercial interests—is full of life, crowded, stimulating, and noisy. Cars, taxis, buses, and a subway station service a constant and remarkably diverse flow of humanity. Students and professors represent only a small fraction of this international, polyglot urban population. Musicians, jugglers, glass harmonica players, and political activists vie for prime sidewalk locations, while youth in punk attire add color. And yet, immediately adjacent to the square, there are a few...

  6. Chapter Two Childhood and Student Years
    (pp. 8-36)

    At the turn of the twentieth century about five million Jews lived in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, an area—first established under Tsarina Catherine the Great in 1791 and maintained until 1917—in which they were compelled by law to reside. Representing approximately 60 percent of Europe’s, and 40 percent of the worldwide, total Jewish population, this was by far the largest concentration of Jews in the world. The Pale (meaning “Borders”) of Settlement consisted of some fifteen provinces in Western Russia (including the Ukraine, Lithuania, Belorussia, and Crimea), most of which were lands that had been annexed from Poland...

  7. Chapter Three Guggenheim Fellow in New York City
    (pp. 37-57)

    While driving alone across the country in his 1941 Chevy, Kirchner contemplated the journeys undertaken by the central character, Eugene Gant, in Thomas Wolfe’sOf Time and the River.¹ Early in the novel, Eugene, a thinly disguised autobiographical portrait of Wolfe as a young man, travels by train from his home in the South to the “tower-masted island of Manhattan,” and although the distance is only seven hundred miles, “so relative are the qualities of space and time, and so complex and multiple their shifting images, that in the brief passage of this journey one may live a life, share...

  8. Chapter Four University of Southern California
    (pp. 58-79)

    Having spent most of his youth in Los Angeles, Kirchner could return to his hometown with a sense of accomplishment. He had not resided there since leaving nine years earlier, and he had good reason to be satisfied with his many achievements in the interim. Above all, he had become a professor at the University of Southern California (USC), one of the state’s leading institutions. Surveying his activities during the four years that he would spend there, it is apparent that he met the challenges of this new environment with great energy and enthusiasm. There is the astounding speed with...

  9. Chapter Five Mills College
    (pp. 80-113)

    After spending most of his student years at Berkeley, Kirchner had come to view the San Francisco area as a second home. The Mills College position in Oakland, therefore, brought with it the attractive opportunity of living again in the Bay Area. Moreover, Mills, a selective liberal arts college for women, was known for its cutting-edge programs in the arts. Lou Harrison, John Cage, and Henry Cowell taught there in the 1930s, and Darius Milhaud began his thirty-year tenure on the faculty in 1940. Although undergraduate programs at Mills were restricted to women, the graduate programs (including master’s degrees in...

  10. Chapter Six Harvard Years I—Teaching, Performing, and Writing
    (pp. 114-157)

    Harvard’s offer of a position to Kirchner and his acceptance of it were somewhat unlikely—and potentially problematic. It was clearly possible that the match would be less than ideal in that Kirchner’s primary passions, composition and performance, were not accorded full stature either by the Department of Music or within the broad culture of the university. In 1961 Harvard offered the AB degree (with music concentration) and, at the graduate level, only the AM and PhD in musicology. Moreover, although Harvard had a long tradition of cultivating the historical and theoretical study of the arts, it had never been...

  11. Chapter Seven Harvard Years II—Composing
    (pp. 158-206)

    When Kirchner began his professorship at Harvard in the fall of 1961, he had two projects under commission: an opera and a piano concerto. After years of searching for a stimulating and suitable libretto, in 1960, while still at Mills College, Kirchner had read Saul Bellow’s latest novel,Henderson the Rain King(1959), and had settled on it as the literary source for his opera. Bellow was enthusiastic about writing the libretto, but he informed Kirchner that, before working on it, he would first have to finish his current novel in progress,Herzog.¹ Therefore, at Harvard, Kirchner initially focused his...

  12. Chapter Eight “Retirement”
    (pp. 207-245)

    When Kirchner retired from Harvard University in 1989 at age seventy, he had no intention of reducing his professional activity. He planned to continue composing and performing, and he was optimistic that he would be even more productive. For four years he continued to conduct summer concerts with the Harvard Chamber Orchestra, and, freed from teaching duties, he was now able to accept more invitations for guest appearances and short residencies. In spite of the health crises that both he and Gertrude suffered in the coming decade, Kirchner also completed four major works during this period:Music for Orchestra II;...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 246-250)

    During the first years after Kirchner moved to New York City, he and Sally spent a week or two each summer on Cape Cod, where they rented a house in Truro. Unfortunately, by 2008, because of the challenging walking conditions on the Cape, Kirchner’s increasingly limited mobility precluded their taking this welcome seaside vacation away from the hot New York City summer. That year, however, a different opportunity arose. Pianist Seymour Lipkin invited them to visit the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival in Blue Hill, Maine. This prestigious summer festival, of which Lipkin is the artistic director, features concerts given...

  14. Appendix A Chronology
    (pp. 251-254)
  15. Appendix B Catalogue of Works
    (pp. 255-259)
  16. Appendix C Discography
    (pp. 260-264)
  17. Appendix D Repertoire Performed at Harvard
    (pp. 265-271)
  18. Appendix E Autobiographical Essay
    (pp. 272-276)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 277-306)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 307-310)
  21. Index
    (pp. 311-332)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 333-333)