Leon Kirchner at 100

Leon Kirchner at 100
Leon Kirchner © Lisa Kirchner
Every better composer bears within him a canon of what is forbidden, of what forbids itself…
Leon Kirchner
World Premiere Recordings

January 24 2019 would have marked the 100th birthday of Leon Kirchner, a distinct figure in American music whose legacy as a composer, educator, conductor, and pianist is towering. To mark the occasion of Kirchner's centennial, Boston Modern Orchestra Project has released Leon Kirchner: Music for Orchestra on its GRAMMY-nominated BMOP/Sound label. We hope you enjoy this revelatory album, with several world premiere recordings from Kirchner's incisive and substantive catalog, and its corresponding scores below.

Listen on Spotify:
BMOP's Leon Kirchner: Music for Orchestra

BMOP's Album Booklet, with an essay by Kirchner student and champion Joel Fan
Sinfonia in Two Parts
Toccata, for strings, solo winds, and percussion
Music for Orchestra
Orchestra Piece (Music for Orchestra II)
The Forbidden

Student and Teachers

Having studied with Arnold Schoenberg and taught John Adams, Kirchner and his music provide a key link between the roots of modernism and how its ethos manifested in the music of the late 20th century. For all of his music's angular complexity, Kirchner witnessed firsthand Schoenberg's famous proclamation, "One can still write a masterpiece in C major, given the talent for composition." Six decades later, Kirchner composed The Forbidden, a response to the Austrian master's oft-quoted dictum, and that conjures the approachability and directness of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 2 and Suite in G for string orchestra. John Adams' own fascination with Schoenberg immortalized with his 1985 masterwork Harmonielehre, but it is Adams' first orchestral work, Common Tones in Simple Time, which bears a dedication to Leon Kirchner.

Listen on Spotify:
Chamber Symphony No. 2
Suite in G for string orchestra
Common Tones in Simple Time

Adams' remembrance of Kirchner on NewMusicBox


A formidable pianist, Kirchner often performed his Piano Concerto No. 1 at such venues as Carnegie Hall and the Aspen Music Festival in the '50s and '60s. His Piano Concerto No. 2 was commissioned by legendary pianist Leon Fleisher, a longtime friend and collaborator of Kirchner's. The contemporaneous Concerto for Violin, Cello, 10 Winds, and Percussion premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1961 — on the same program as Elliott Carter's own, epochal Double Concerto.

Listen on Spotify:
Piano Concerto No. 1
Concerto for Violin, Cello, 10 Winds, and Percussion
Double Concerto

Kirchner's lone opera, Lily, is based on a 1959 novel by Saul Bellow, and was withdrawn shortly after its premiere at New York City Opera in 1977. A posthumous reconstruction by G. Schirmer Editor David Fetherolf condenses the opera into Lily, a 22-minute concert piece for soprano, pre-recorded voices, and sinfonietta, which demonstrates Kirchner's mastery of mood.

Listen on Spotify:
Lily for soprano and chamber ensemble

In 1992, Kirchner was commissioned to write a piece for superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In a program note for the resulting Music for Cello and Orchestra, Kirchner muses and ruminates in a way that only he could:

I find it difficult to write about my own music or to equate life's experience with "creation," but truly one cannot separate flow of reality from the creative world of illusion.
Working late one evening, I must have unconsciously reviewed the course that music has taken in the last several decades — from post-12 tone "serialism" to uncertainty principles, from comedy to minimalism, and on to the New Romanticism, from formidable titles to invisible content — all the while hearing the gradual disintegration of feeling and gestalt so important to Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky and all the others. (Gestalt, or "Form Building" as Schoenberg called it, being the most vital characteristic aspect of musical art in the "Viennese Classic" and before, long before — that which gave music the possibility of endless interpretation and revelation in performance.)
And so I mused during the time I worked on my Music for Cello and Orchestra. It happened that toward the ending of this work a Bach-like chorale "appeared," a haunting and retrospective moment (in my mind) that moved in a dream-like way through Wagnerian and Mahlerian space, a kind of recapitulation, not only of thematic and structural seeds the work engendered, but of that crucial time in our history in which some subterranean source had been blocked, leading us more and more rapidly shifting "styles" and the "overwhelming influence of chic" to the exclusion of feeling and gestalt. And so my music seemed to recapitulate the past momentarily in a personal effort to empower an alternative future — my fantasy, of course.
However, if words could explain or justify music then I shouldn't have to write it. Art is difficult. Someone once asked Oscar Wilde what he had written that morning, and Wilde replied, "A comma." The person went on to ask what he had written that afternoon, and Wilde responded, "I erased the comma."

Listen on Spotify:
Music for Cello and Orchestra

For more information about Leon Kirchner, please contact Andrew Stein-Zeller, andrew.stein-zeller@schirmer.com.

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