Leon Kirchner: String Quartet No.4

Program Note

Leon Kirchner (1919-2009)
String Quartet No.4 (2006)

A dominant figure in American music throughout most of the twentieth century, composer Leon Kirchner wrote a large quantity of music which, although stylistically tied to the work of Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, remains powerfully individual in expression, and free of the systematic use of 12-tone techniques. Born in Brooklyn, Kirchner received most of his musical education in southern California. Kirchner began piano lessons at the age of four, and his early compositions, written in his teens, gained the notice of composer Ernst Toch at Los Angeles City College (where Kirchner was studying at the time), who recommended that Kirchner study with Schoenberg at the University of California Los Angeles. After completing his BA, Kirchner began graduate work with Ernst Bloch at the University of California Berkeley, though a period of study in New York with Roger Sessions during 1942, and three years of military service would postpone the completion of his master's degree until 1949.

Kirchner was twice awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1948 and 1949. During the early ’50s, Kirchner served on the faculty of the University of Southern California Los Angeles, after which he accepted an appointment with Mills College in Oakland. He joined the Harvard University faculty in 1961, eventually succeeding Walter Piston as the Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music. In addition to his activities as a composer, Kirchner was active as a conductor and pianist at Harvard, as well as with numerous professional orchestras, until his retirement in 1989. He received two New York Music Critics Circle Awards, the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for his Third String Quartet, and, in 1994, the Kennedy Center Friedham Award. Since the ’60s, and through the ’90s, he was a member of both the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

—Blair Johnston

“During my student days, I had the privilege of studying theory with Arnold Schoenberg. He was one of the great masters of the structure and function of ‘the theoretical’ in the music of past centuries, in its ‘process’ in the works of Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Bach, Mozart, Mahler, Bruckner, and Debussy—and yet he was the master of twelve-tone music, particularly in its practice. ‘Twelve-tone what? System?’ He disliked this word intensely and substituted technique (twelve-tone technique). In class, I remember Schoenberg saying, despite his profound involvement in twelve tone, ‘One can still write a masterpiece in C major, given the talent for composition.’

In the Fourth Quartet I pursued the intricate and profound connection between past and present, and, utilizing what I have learned concerning the characteristic elements of contemporary music, I have experimented with the idea that Schoenberg tossed out: ‘One can write a masterpiece in C.’ Whether this is possible or not, it is certainly a worthy trial, a pursuit that Schoenberg, despite his reverence for the work and changes he made in his own music, using his own technique and vast reservoir of knowledge of the art of composition of music before he established his twelve-tone technique, revealed in pieces like the Chamber Symphony, Op.38. Whether or not this is successful in my piece is unknown to me at present. It was a seductive idea, one that I have been pursuing of late, to possibly reveal the necessary intimacies between the past and present which keep the art of music alive and well.”

—Leon Kirchner