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Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer, Teacher by Robert Riggs (review)
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This in-depth study of the broad range of talents, achievements, friendships, statements, and creative activities of Leon Kirchner (1919–2009) is a treasure. The book provides a profound understanding of Kirchner’s life, his compositions, his causes and controversies as an educator, and his crusade against the fashions and fads that threatened to divert mid-twentieth-century music into systems and dogmas that he felt would serve neither human needs nor the demands of art. Kirchner was passionate about and at ease with science and frequently spoke or wrote in scientific terms. However, his early experience of Arnold Schoenberg’s almost religious commitment to affective content—in spite of Schoenberg’s adoption of the twelve-tone method, which Kirchner never used—lasted as a prime influence, and this book allows us to trace this commitment to the humanistic component of composition throughout Kirchner’s career.

While author Robert Riggs (now a professor of music at the University of Mississippi) was working on his Harvard doctorate in musicology, he played the violin in the Harvard Chamber Orchestra, founded and conducted by Kirchner, and was a teaching assistant for two years in Kirchner’s ground-breaking course on the performance and analysis of chamber music. Riggs ultimately devoted eight years to this book’s realization, beginning his research in 2001. These would be Kirchner’s last years; the composer-performer-teacher opened his papers, memorabilia, and “everything he saved,” as well as his Cambridge home for weeks at a time to Riggs, who also recorded Kirchner’s anecdotal oral history. Although Riggs acknowledges that Kirchner’s recall was “neither sufficiently precise nor complete enough to serve as a basis for a scholarly biography,” the papers and memorabilia often served as reliable factual sources, while the interviews gave vivid glimpses of the psychological insights, wealth of friendships, and rich sense of humor that pervaded Kirchner’s life and personal interactions. Kirchner read and approved the entire text; consequently the result is very close to an autobiography.

Kirchner’s prodigious musical talents were evident in his youth in Los Angeles. At age sixteen, after years without access to a piano due to the family’s poverty, and only two years—beginning at age fourteen—of piano study, he gave a solo recital of demanding piano works by Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Glinka-Balakirev, Delibes-Dohnányi, and Liszt. He also began improvising and composing, and his piano teacher recommended that he study with the Viennese-born émigré composer Ernst Toch. In characteristic modesty, Toch recommended Arnold Schoenberg as the best teacher for the brilliant young applicant. In 1937, eighteen-year-old Kirchner began studies with Schoenberg at UCLA. Schoenberg, himself in doubt as to the future of his own compositions in Los Angeles, that year published his own “Affirmations,” which would be seminal for Kirchner:

All I want to do is to express my thoughts and get the most possible content in the least possible space…. If a composer doesn’t write from the heart, he simply can’t produce good music…. I write what I feel in my heart—and what finally comes [out] on the paper is what first coursed through every fibre of my body…. Expression is limited only by the composer’s creativeness and his personality.

While Kirchner’s quest to believe in and make compositional use of the heritage of musical tradition is reiterated throughout this book, the dynamism and brilliance of his music presented startling new experiences, discussed by music critics. In clarification, Riggs provides “Interludes” of musical analysis covering five representative compositions by Kirchner, placed at intervals between the chapters. These analyses, like the rest of the text, were approved by the composer, who was himself a rigorous critic.

What one takes away from the experience of reading this book depends on the particular interests of the reader. This reader rejoiced in Kirchner’s 1956 compositional “Credo” and its subsequent reiterations over his lifetime:

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...

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