Academic journal article Notes

Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer, and Teacher

Academic journal article Notes

Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer, and Teacher

Article excerpt

Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer, and Teacher. By Robert Riggs. (East - man Studies in Music.) Rochester: Uni versity of Rochester Press, 2010. [xi, 330 p. ISBN 9781580463430. $80.] Music examples, illustrations, chronology, catalog of works, discography, repertoire list, autobiographical essay, bibliography, index.

Robert Riggs's new biography of Leon Kirchner is very much a labor of love. As he recounts in his preface, he came to know Kirchner well over what proved to be the last decade of the composer's life, first by spending hours with him at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and later by assisting with his move to New York City. Throughout the book, there is a spirit of respect and admiration for its subject, his multifarious interests, his teaching career, and-above all-his music. Thankfully, this reverence does not devolve into sycophancy: though at times one might wish for tighter narrative structure and livelier prose, this book provides a welcome snapshot of musical modernism in twentiethcentury America and brings to life the remarkably influential yet little known composer Leon Kirchner.

Riggs's book can be divided into three parts: the first, comprising chapters 1 through 3, focuses on Kirchner's personal and professional development. The second, chapters 4 and 5, covers his first important academic appointments in California, as well as his burgeoning career as a conductor and pianist. The final section, chapters 6 through 8 plus an epilogue, discusses Kirchner's near-thirty-year tenure on the faculty at Harvard, his involvement with the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, and his varied activities as a conductor and performer (mainly in and around Boston) over three decades. Throughout each section runs Kirchner's "artistic credo":

It is my feeling that many of us, dominated by the fear of self-expression, seek the superficial security of current style and fad-worship and make a fetish of complexity, or with puerile grace denude simplicity; Idea, the precious ore of art, is lost in the jungle of graphs, prepared tapes, feedbacks, and cold stylistic minutiae.

An artist must create a personal cosmos, a verdant world in continuity with tradition . . . bringing new subtilization, vision and beauty to the elements of experience. It is in this way that Idea, powered by conviction and necessity, will create its own style and the singular, momentous structure capable of realizing its intent. (p. 7)

As a composer, Kirchner belonged to the modernist tradition that flourished in the years following World War II. Though he never embraced the twelve-tone method, he spent two years at UCLA studying with Schoenberg, whose teaching methods he would emulate. Indeed, Riggs's discussions of Schoenberg and Kirchner's recollections of his former teacher are among the most interesting passages of the book (pp. 13- 15, 19, 35). In addition to Schoenberg, Kirchner's most important composition teachers were Ernst Toch, Ernest Bloch, and Roger Sessions. Upon moving to New York in 1948, Kirchner joined the ranks of a memorable group of composers who would define American music in the second half of the twentieth century, including Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Lukas Foss, and Earl Kim. The critical reception of his music was remarkably positive, and Riggs cites numerous reviews from the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and other print publications to demonstrate this fact. Kirchner's one critical flop, the opera Lily (which was adapted from Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King), is given a thorough discussion in chapter 7. Riggs provides specific information on several of Kirchner's compositions by separating out six important works for in-depth analysis; I will address these "interludes" shortly.

One of Riggs's stated goals in this book is to demonstrate Kirchner's work as a performer; he was a formidable pianist and a conductor of note, and Riggs gives a thorough treatment of this aspect of Kirchner's career. …

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