Revelations by Leon Kirchner Revelations by Leon Kirchner
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Liner Notes

The music on this CD represents a rich sampling of Leon Kirchner’s oeuvre, ranging from the earliest surviving compositions from his years as a graduate student to his final work as an octogenarian. Kirchner was born in New York City and spent most of his youth in Los Angeles. After initial study at the University of California-Los Angeles under Arnold Schoenberg, he completed his undergraduate degree at the University of California-Berkeley. In 1941 he entered the graduate program at Berkeley, where Ernest Bloch became a mentor. The following year Kirchner was awarded the University’s Ladd Prix de Paris, a prestigious fellowship for study in Paris. But most of Europe was engulfed by World War II, and thus he decided that New York City would become his Paris. During the academic year (1942 – 43) that he spent there, Kirchner, an avid connoisseur of poetry and literature with discerning taste for both classics and the cutting-edge new, began three songs for soprano and piano on texts by Gerard Manly Hopkins, Sidney Alexander, and Walt Whitman, as well as a setting for chorus and piano of “Dawn” by Frederico Garcia Lorca. Kirchner then spent three years on active duty in the Army Signal Corps, during which time he completed the songs and worked on Dawn, which was not finished until he resumed graduate study at Berkeley after the war.

These early works already exhibit the germs of features that later became characteristic of Kirchner’s mature style: emphasis on the dramatic potential of texts; effective word painting; very prominent and at times virtuoso piano writing; fluid asymmetrical treatment of rhythm and meter; and counterpoint enlivened by an active web of rhythmic and harmonic events. In Hopkins’s “The Times Are Nightfall” the speaker’s existential crisis with the exterior world is resolved in the final lines by the realization that there is a world within where “your will is law in that small common weal.” Kirchner skillfully dramatizes this sudden and unexpected dénouement by understatement: reduction of the piano texture to slow block chords and use of a recitative-like, almost monotone, vocal line.

Throughout his career Kirchner enjoyed friendship not only with musicians but also with many distinguished artists, writers, and scientists. In 1942 he met Sidney Alexander, who was just beginning his career as a successful and prolific author of books on Renaissance art and history, as well as novels, plays, and poetry. For Letter Kirchner shortened the title of Alexander’s poem “A Letter to my Wife,” which was published in in 1938 in New Masses, a weekly left-wing Marxist magazine. The text deals with the challenge of love in times of war and social upheaval, thus making it an appropriate companion to “The Times are Nightfall.” Kirchner begins Letter with an opening gambit to which he frequently returned in later works: a dramatically rolled chord. It initiates one of the song’s principal motives—heard in the piano in the second measure—a step-wise descending line in parallel thirds with a dotted rhythm. The powerful col voce doubling of voice and piano for “Does he lie coiled in caves of your brain / War the sharer of your bed” is followed by an extended and energetic piano interlude that develops this motive. Just as in The Times are Nightfall, the prevailing unrest and dissonance in Letter is softened for the optimism of the final lines.

Whitman’s brief quatrain, “The Runner,” is from the 1867 edition of his collection, The Leaves of Grass. Taken literally, the poem is simply a concise description of a man running, a celebration of athleticism. However, some critics suggest that the poem warrants a metaphorical interpretation because of its context in The Leaves of Grass among other poems that deal overtly with the challenges of reconstruction after the Civil War. In this light, the runner embodies the energy, perseverance, and determination that Americans would have to muster if they were to be successful in rebuilding their society. Kirchner’s song captures both of these readings. The first three lines are set with jaunty, repetitive rhythms inspired by the regularity of running, while the sustained high notes in the last line hint at the implicit heroism of the metaphorical approach.

Lorca, the great Spanish poet, playwright, and novelist, spent a year (1930 – 31) at Columbia University where he produced a collection of poems inspired by his experiences in New York. Published in1940 under the title The Poet in New York, they reveal that Lorca, although sensitive to the city’s beauty, found urban life alienated, lonely, industrialized, and godless. Kirchner enjoyed living in New York and would return there several times for extended periods of residence in the future, but his decision to set “Dawn” suggests that he also related to Lorca’s sentiments. Kirchner brilliantly illustrates the poem: biting dissonances to underscore the powerful negative images; a quasi-tonal Baroque cadence for the a cappella presentation of “”Light is buried among the links of noise, dawn”; and an unexpected, jolting leap to the crashing chord on the final syllable of “shipwreck.”

After further graduate study at Berkeley (1946 – 48), Kirchner moved to New York City again, this time for two years supported by Guggenheim fellowships. During this period he composed his first large-scale works (Piano Sonata No. 1 and String Quartet No. 1), and, on the personal front, he met Gertrude Schoenberg (no relation to the composer) who became his wife in 1949. She was a trained singer and also played the piano. The Little Suite was composed for and dedicated to her. Whereas only professional performers with great technical prowess can successfully approach most of Kirchner’s music, the Little Suite is unique in that virtuosity is not essential. He clearly wanted it to be playable by his wife, who indeed could perform it. However, the five miniature movements—each fills approximately one page of piano score—offer a concise view into Kirchner’s powerful expressive world. Recurring motives cyclically integrate the movements, which, in the tradition of nineteenth-century character pieces, are marked “Prelude,” “Song,” “Toccata,” “Fantasy,” and “Epilogue.”

After teaching at the University of Southern California and Mills College, Kirchner was appointed to the faculty of Harvard University in 1961, where he taught until his retirement in 1989. When Kirchner arrived at Harvard, one of the most beloved members of the music faculty was G. Wallace Woodworth. Affectionately called “Woody,” he conducted the Radcliffe Choral Society and the Harvard Glee Club, and was an especially successful and popular teacher of the introductory music appreciation course for general students. On the occasion of his 65th birthday in 1968, Harvard’s Department of Music honored him with a Festschrift entitled Words and Music: The Composer’s View: A Medley of Problems and Solutions Compiled in Honor of G. Wallace Woodworth By Sundry Hands, edited by Laurence Berman. Kirchner’s contribution, Words from Wordsworth, is an a cappella setting of three brief lyrics extracted from longer poems (“The Tables Turned” and “Intimations of Immortality”) by William Wordsworth.

These lyrics compactly address one of the major tenets—but also contradictions—of Kirchner’s persona. In his roles as teacher and conductor, Kirchner’s eloquent command of description and metaphor was legendary, and he was a gifted writer. Moreover, he was a voracious reader, who kept up to date with, and enjoyed discussing, current issues in science and the arts. Nevertheless, he was often skeptical about the value of much academic writing, especially about music, preferring instead unmediated contact with the works themselves. He always valued subjective response and intuitive creation over positivistic analysis, quantification, and systemization. The dissonant, staccato setting of the first line captures his dissatisfaction and impatience with “Books.” It is immediately followed by the highly contrasting solo performance, in Sprechstimme, of line three: “How sweet his music! on my life.” Skillful use of imaginative textures throughout—homophonic versus imitative, and variety in the number and combinations of vocal parts—creates contrast and allows the text to be understood clearly. The three sections of the work, which correspond to the three poetic excerpts, are separated by very brief pauses. Kirchner unifies the sequence by repeating fragments from the first quatrain (“Dull endless strife! My life!”), along with musical references to them, at the opening of the third section.

In spite of his life-long reticence to offer analytical or hermeneutic comments about his music and its expressive content, Kirchner did write a program note describing the genesis of his song cycle, The Twilight Stood, which grew from his fascination with Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The note reveals that, in 1978, after finishing Lily—his opera based on Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King—he continued to harbor an operatic aesthetic:

A chance reading of “The Auctioneer of Parting” began the romance. There was immediate resonance. “His ‘Going, going, gone’/Shouts even from the Crucifix,” and the line “And brings his Hammer down” brought to mind and ear a series of vivid and exciting impulses. I think I read all 1,775 of Dickinson’s poems before five additional poems . . . fell into place . . . a small opera emerged, each poem a scene.

A single character views a panorama changing at a rate almost beyond control. In sight is the ending of endings, the “death of death.” The auctioneer, who at every level of life “only sells the Wilderness”, dominates the first scene. . . [The second scene] engenders a vast and barren landscape. Without life or green it shimmers there, nuclear, an imageless mirage. Our protagonist, utterly alone, “Caressed a Trigger absently / And wandered out of Life.”

Suddenly a time warp—and once again he stands before us, breathes the fragrant night air and blessedly hears and sees . . . [nature overwhelmed] with abundance, verdure and infinite beauty. It is in this poem that “The Twilight stood.” Preceding the sixth poem is “Partake as Doth the Bee,” more an epilogue to the third poem than a scene in itself.

The final scene, “There came a Wind like a Bugle,” is one of impending doom, a shadow perhaps, hopefully without origin. Is it a surrealist dream? . . Magically the twilight stands and awaits our ultimate and life sustaining answer.

In order to merge the six poetic “scenes” into a continuous and unified “drama,” Kirchner created a continuous backdrop with a virtuosic, almost orchestrally conceived piano part. Rather than ending each song with a cadence, he fuses them, linking adjacent songs either with a common sustained chord or by indicating attacca. The songs also share a common harmonic vocabulary that features Kirchner’s favorite sonorities derived from the octatonic scale: seventh chords (diminished and half-diminished), ninth chords, and bichords, which combine two triads or seventh chords simultaneously. A bichord that contains two interlocking diminished sevenths functions as the song cycle’s “tonic” chord by virtue of its multiple prominent occurrences.

In addition to sharing a common harmonic vocabulary, there also are motivic references between the songs. The initial six note motive in the right hand of the piano in The Auctioneer recurs, sometimes in radically developed guises, several times during the cycle. It is imbedded in and shared between the piano and voice in the final measures of this song. And the piano interlude near the beginning of There Came a Wind recalls and transforms this motive by reordering and repeating its first four notes.

Kirchner approached the texts with an imaginative ear for word painting. The text of the second song, He Scanned It, which narrates the thoughts and actions of someone contemplating committing suicide, contains a number of appropriately evocative phrases: “caught helpless,” “going blind,” “caressed a trigger absently,” and “wandered out of life.” In order to evoke these related states and actions, Kirchner devised a motive in the accompaniment that captures their essence. This deceptively simple idea consists of two parts moving chromatically, duplets against triplets, and ending in a tight tone cluster. Repetitive, slow, monotonous, soft, and gentle, but full of tension and suspense because of the dissonance, it serves as a vivid metaphor for the mental state of the song’s persona: helpless, blind, and wandering.

In The Crickets Sang, the singing of the insects and other night sounds are imaginatively conjured with delicate chords formed by the staggered entry of the voices in a dotted rhythmic pattern. At the end of Partake as Doth the Bee the flight of a bee is graphically suggested by a free, ad libitum melisma for the singer. And Kirchner captures the line, “There came a Wind like a Bugle,” with a “brass” fanfare of ascending fourths and with multiple repetitions of a resonant ninth chord in the second measure.

In There Came a Wind, which deals with danger and doom, the defiant last lines (“How much can come / And much can go / And yet abide the World!”) are depicted and enhanced by the grand flourish of the final “cadence.” A dramatic four octave ascending scale makes a climactic arrival in the final measure on the same bichord used in measure three of The Auctioneer. This further confirms the overall “tonic” function of this sonority and brings the cycle to a unified close. Moreover, the high energy and excitement of this conclusion suggest Kirchner’s optimism that the power of art, especially music, will ultimately trump the threat of despair and offer a positive “life sustaining answer.”

Roger Sessions became Kirchner’s principal mentor at Berkeley after the war, and during Kirchner’s “Guggenheim “years in New York (1948 – 50) he and Sessions maintained frequent correspondence. It documents the evolution of their student/teacher relationship into a warm friendship between colleagues, which would endure throughout their careers. Thus, Kirchner was one of seventeen composers who contributed to the “Moments Musicaux for Roger Sessions (in celebration of his plus 80 years)” published in Perspectives of New Music in 1978. A Moment for Roger, a miniature encapsulation of Kirchner’s compositional style, begins and ends with identical rolled chords that contain all the pitches of the octatonic scale. And between these chords there are rhapsodic musings on harmonies derived from them.

In one of his letters to Kirchner, Sessions discussed the recent novel by his friend Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend (1947). In doing so, Sessions planted an important seed that would bear fruit for many years to come. During his long teaching career, Kirchner regularly assigned his students to read Doctor Faustus, because the issues raised by Mann—the relationship between art and society; the roles of talent, craft, and genius in artistic creation; and especially the challenges of reconciling the imperatives of tradition and originality—served as potent catalysts for lively classroom discussion. In the final years of his life, Kirchner became increasingly preoccupied with one of the central challenges faced by Mann’s fictional composer, Adrian Leverkühn: what stance should the contemporary composer assume vis-à-vis the techniques and principles of earlier musical styles?

Beginning in 1986 Kirchner usually created multiple versions, each for a different medium, of his compositions. As a result of this practice, Kirchner’s last work exists in three forms: the Piano Sonata No. 3 (The Forbidden), 2006; the String Quartet No. 4 (The Forbidden), 2006; and The Forbidden, 2008 (for orchestra). The striking programmatic title, The Forbidden, refers to the seminal scene in Doctor Faustus in which Leverkühn strikes the Faustian bargain with the personified devil—his soul (his sanity in this case) in return for twenty-four years as a musical genius. The devil maintains that composition has become desperately difficult because the contemporary composer has “no right of command whatsoever over all former combinations of tones. The diminished seventh, an impossibility; certain chromatic passing notes, an impossibility. Every better composer bears within him a canon of what is forbidden, of what forbids itself, which by now embraces the very means of tonality, and thus all traditional music” (Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn As Told by a Friend, trans. John E. Woods [New York: Knopf, 1997], 254 – 55). Contrary to the devil, Kirchner was convinced that “the forbidden” elements of earlier styles have maintained their viability and thus can still serve—if employed in original ways—to create genuinely modern works with potent expressive content. In his program note for The Forbidden, Kirchner suggests that he made extensive use of the “forbidden” elements—seventh chords, sequences, tonal cadences, motivic development, etc., all derided by Mann’s devil as clichéd, bankrupt, and defunct because of their earlier prevalence—in order to prove this point.

The tremendous energy of this compact, single movement sonata is strategically punctuated by islands of serenity and beauty. Dominated by a vigorous sense of abandon and freedom, the discourse is unified by the developing variation of basic motives presented at the opening. Boldly constructed with an arsenal of traditional compositional techniques and materials, The Forbidden possesses contemporary communicative power and a singular formal structure, thereby accomplishing Kirchner’s purpose: revealing “intimacies between the past and present which keep the art of music alive and well.”


With the exception of the Piano Sonata No. 3 (The Forbidden) and the Little Suite, this is the first recording issued of these works. The recording of The Twilight Stood is from a live performance in 1982, but all of the other works were recorded in 2012 specifically for this album by artists who enjoyed close associations with Kirchner.

Soprano Diana Hoagland worked with Kirchner at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont in 1972 and 1973. She performed the roles of both Lily and Mtalba in the 1973 premiere of the chamber version of his opera, Lily, with Kirchner conducting, at Alice Tully Hall in New York. Further performances of Lily followed at Marlboro, Harvard University, and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. Her 1974 recording of this work was reissued in 2011 on Leon Kirchner: Orchestral Works, Albany Records Troy 1275.

The Twilight Stood, which was commissioned by the Spoleto Festival, was premiered in Charleston, South Carolina in June 1982 with Kirchner as pianist and soprano Beverly Hoch. They gave further performances of it to great critical acclaim in Spoleto, Italy, and at Harvard University (heard on this CD), the Marlboro Music Festival, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and on tour with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

The Piano Sonata No.3 (The Forbidden) was commissioned by, and dedicated to, Joel Fan, who, as an undergraduate at Harvard, studied piano and chamber music under Kirchner. Fan gave the premiere at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts in November 2006. As a champion of The Forbidden, he regularly includes it on his piano recitals, and his previous recording of it from 2007 is on Leon Kirchner: Works for Solo Piano, Albany Records Troy 906.

Notes by Robert Riggs