Composer / Pianist Leon Kirchner
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Despite doing general research into the history of music all my life,
and adding specific study for each interview I conducted, it never ceased
to amaze me just how much I learned from every one of my guests. Their
personal ideas and provocative pronouncements added immensely to my own knowledge
and understanding, and I hope that presenting these conversations first on
the radio, and now on the internet, gives others those same benefits.
I never rate musical works or recordings against one another. However,
I will say that this interview contains one of the most cogent and enlightening
discussions about the twelve-tone system that I have ever encountered
— either personally or studiously.
Late in 1990, I made contact with Leon Kirchner, and he agreed to chat with
me on the phone. Here is what was said on that December afternoon .
. . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You’ve
been both composer and teacher for many, many years. With the teaching
load, do you get enough time to compose?
Leon Kirchner: Well,
I’m no longer teaching. I retired actually. This is my first
year off, and that’s a question I had to deal with for many years because
I took my teaching seriously, but that can’t be used an excuse. There
were a number of years during my 60s where I didn’t produce as much as I should
have, and that may have had something to do with the kind of music that was
being written, and the kind of response I had to that music. There
again that should have not kept me doing the things that I did.
It was sort of lonely for a while.
LK: There was the
tremendous involvement then, at first with the twelve-tone ideology, and
always my negative feelings about it. I was never involved in a negative
way with the twelve-tonism, or the twelve-tone technique used in the first
part of the century. That was music that had to be done, although I
always felt somewhat apprehensive about the vertical combinations, for instance,
the vertical harmonies in the use of twelve-tones that the people were then
doing. Schoenberg or Berg or Webern had enormous historical reservoirs,
and their music was wonderfully well based on the Viennese classical tradition
in history. There was an immense command of harmony and counterpoint
and structure, and of the understanding of what the formal idea of the sonata
was all about. So the twelve-tone technique was, in a way, a kind of
methodological pump-primer. Wonderful results could be obtained in
terms of sonority of sound, and the distributions that were never tried before
were very inventive. Even the Piano
Concerto, which is always thought to be a secondary piece of Schoenberg,
was a piece that came about during the time that I studied with Schoenberg.
There were about thirty or forty of us in a structural functions class, and
this fellow sitting next to me said, “I’m going to commission
this guy.” It turned
out that he indeed did. That was Henry Clay Shriver (1917-1994), who
was sort of my seat mate. We always sat next to each other, and he
did commission that Piano Concerto.
|The original commission for the Piano Concerto came from Oscar Levant.
Despite paying at least $200 for the work, Levant found out that Schoenberg
was demanding $1500. Levant stated he could not pay that fee, and although
the two continued to exchange telegrams, in October of 1942 Schoenberg rejected
Levant's final offer of $500. Levant ended all negotiations stating,
"I hereby withdraw utterly and irrevocably from any further negotiations...
[and] wish no longer to be involved in [the concerto's] future disposition."
Fortunately another American student stepped in to commission the concerto.
Henry Clay Shriver studied counterpoint with Schoenberg at UCLA in the late
1930s, and then studied with Gerald Strang, a former teaching assistant of
Schoenberg, in Long Beach in the 1940s. Shriver opted for a career
in the law instead of music, which might explain his access to funds for the
commission. Strang suggested the idea of the commission to Shriver,
who then wrote Schoenberg a check for $1000. He had already commissioned
a string quartet from Schoenberg, who never finished the work, and had also
kept in contact with the composer after his UCLA studies, being present at
Schoenberg's home with other colleagues and students for the radio broadcast
of the Chamber Symphony No 1 in December 1940. Gratefully, Schoenberg
completed the Concerto in December
1942 and dedicated it to his new patron, who held an original version of
the work until his death in 1994.
It was a work I tracked from the very beginning. I remember
hearing the first performance of it with Steuermann and Stokowski, and being
somewhat... I don’t know if disappointment’s the right word, but it was,
like many first performances, not the best. New works do not automatically
get a tremendous first performance. At any rate, I crossed its
path. I had analyzed it in a twelve-tone way for Schoenberg, and he
wondered why I had done that. He asked me why I hadn’t done it as I
would do a Brahms work, in the way that I had been taught by Schoenberg himself.
I was amazed that he was so uninterested in this very hard work that I had
done. It took a lot of time to twelve-tone it!
LK: In later years,
I’ve started doing Schoenberg as a performer, and I always had trouble listening
to that work. I finally heard performances that were given by Glenn
Gould and Alfred Brendel.
These were great artists, and yet I always found myself feeling rather not
satisfied with the work. It is a rather peculiar work, and again it
had brilliant revelations. There are at least some revelations in doing
other works of his, even pieces like the Serenade and the Suite for piano and three clarinets violin,
viola, cello. I had magnificent feelings about those, although a lot
of other people did not. I used to do them up at Marlboro, and in fact
there are a couple of records that still exist. The Serenade has just become a CD that Marlboro
put out [shown below]. Still
I was negative to the Piano Concerto.
I thought maybe the difficulty here was the fact that the twelve-tone involvement
overcame the creative spirit momentarily, and for some reason I wanted very
much to get to do that work myself. So I asked Peter Serkin.
He was doing it, and he hadn’t been satisfied with his performances either,
although he loved the work. So I said, “Why don’t
we look the thing over and really come to terms with the fact that this is
not a great intellectual feat, but really a series of wonderful waltzes and
should be played as such! We should look at it from a Brahmsian
point of view.” I studied it carefully, as did
he, and we gave a performance that really just gave us a lot of joy.
It was a terrific performance.
BD: So you finally
found a handle to get into it!
LK: I finally found
a handle. So it isn’t the twelve-tone at all. There was something
in it that had tremendous power despite all of that stuff. But when
people began to work with the things that came afterwards, they became less
and less involved with the past and more and more involved with the methodology
itself. The result was a lot of music that was just praised for its
twelve-tone-ness, and was really rather dull or boring in the sense of what
music really was about — the expression of the human
spirit — all these other values that were more powerful
and more important.
BD: So where should
the balance be between the inspiration and the technique in a piece of music?
LK: The methodology
is private, and every composer has had that from the beginnings of music.
There’s always some kind of technical involvement that composers have.
You can see that in lots of wonderful ways. Monteverdi’s brother had
to defend him because his brother had not followed the peculiar methodology
of his time, and he’d been challenged for that. So although Monteverdi
himself didn’t present his case, the brother did, and it was in terms of
a challenge. Who knows more about this than Monteverdi? Monteverdi
was really involved in expressing something really vital. That’s what
music is about — the means to express the human spirit
— and one should not become involved with the peculiar methodology.
Bach or Handel or Mozart or Beethoven all have their own crazy ways of doing
things, but it was always a private thing. With the beginning of the
involvement in technology and science in a phony way, the methodology became
more and more important. It isn’t so much about that. What attracted
people, say, to Carter
was all this talk about metrical modulation. I’m just using that as
an example, but there’s a lot more in Carter than the metrical modulation...
although that seems to be to be what always interests the public relations.
BD: Are there those
who have defended the methodology of Leon Kirchner?
I don’t know whether I had a methodology! Maybe that was my weakness!
Not by will but maybe by sheer lack of talent, I had to do the thing that
I had to do, and no matter what happened around me, that was the way I did
things — although I was always very much aware of the
interesting events that took place. That’s why I had students who began
to fool around with electronics. One had to be responsible and learn
at least, but I actually remember calling up a former student once, who was
sort of an electronic ‘Leonardo’, and I asked him whether I should come down
for a few days — which I did — to
New York University... the one in Greenwich Village. (I always get
the two universities mixed up — the one that’s uptown
and the other that’s downtown.) In any event, I worked there for about
four days on these electronic consoles, and then came back and did my Third String Quartet using that.
I did it first with tongue in cheek. I didn’t take it seriously, but
obstinately you get involved with something and it can be inspiring.
It is silly not to be aware of the technology because artists always have
been. In the Renaissance, the most extraordinary thing about architects
was that they were the people who were in total command of their technology.
BD: Did it then
surprise you that this Third String Quartet
was the work which won for you the Pulitzer Prize?
LK: Well, it was
very amusing! [Both laugh] It was very amusing that it did and
it was an inspiring moment, but the essential musical doctrine, or the essential
musical push, was still pretty much the same. There may have been the
addition of the patina, of the aging process of music-making that I was very
delighted to accept — such as the new discoveries of
the Polish movement, of the ideas of Lutosławski and Ligeti and Penderecki, and this
new kind of approach to music, which sort of exercised this twelve-tone stuff.
I thought that was a very healthy mood. It focused on the sonorous
landscape of the orchestra, and demonstrated that it was an establishing
instrument, a very extraordinary instrument, compared even with electronics.
Electronics hadn’t done terribly much in terms of inventiveness. I don’t
think just because it has electronics it achieves a finer sensibility because
of the electronics themselves, but it’s because of the imaginative process
and the protagonist process that is involved.
BD: Looking at
your work more as a large body of pieces, would you have preferred that the
Pulitzer Prize had been awarded for a different chamber work or an orchestral
LK: Oh, I don’t
think it matters much. That is always a matter of luck anyway.
[Laughs] I’ve sat on enough Pulitzer committees to see how something
would go one way and something would go another way. It’s just a question
of a vote here or a vote there. I suppose with a lot of Pulitzer prizes
you’d find a number pieces that were really still viable and still productive
and still engaging, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure that it would be
more than works which had not received a Pulitzer. After all, did Stravinsky
receive a Pulitzer? Did Hindemith receive a Pulitzer? They’ve
produced a lot of fantastic music. There used to be a New York Critic’s
Circle Award, and there were many times that this could have been a work
of Bartók or a work of Hindemith or Stravinsky, and it wasn’t.
BD: What effect
did the winning of your award have?
LK: Not much!
Not much, one way or the other.
BD: It’s just a
nice line in your biography?
LK: It’s just a
nice line, yes. What really matters is how satisfied you are with your
work. And it’s nice to get these things. It’s nice to get MacArthur
awards, and it’s nice to get the cash, but that doesn’t really bring inner
BD: Then let me
ask that question. Are you basically pleased with the performances
you’ve heard of your works over the years?
LK: Yes, I’ve had
some really wonderful performances that I can remember, and there have also
been performances where I’ve wanted to say, “You’ll
see my lawyer in the morning!” [Both laugh]
But everybody has had those, and you just accept that. That’s the way
of art. There are times when things are revelatory and times when they
are not, and the music has to withstand that. I can think of pieces
of mine that were not well liked that became very well-liked, and I can think
of pieces of other composers that were outrageously criticized
— like The Rake’s Progress,
for instance. I remember reading the most damning criticism of it in
The New York Times. I can
also remember a work of Bartók — I think it
was the two-piano and percussion piece, and Bartók performed it himself
with his wife. That was really ripped to shreds, but these works overcame
that. I can think of a work of mine — my First String Quartet about which the
same critic stated at one point that it was a ‘cacophonic
monster’! Ten years later he called it a twentieth-century
masterpiece! That happens with a lot of music. If it attracts
the attention of the performer, that performer can be spiritually involved
with the work and obtain great pleasure from it — physical
pleasure, sensual pleasure, intellectual pleasure. That’s what does
it. That work continues to be alive.
* * *
Coming back to this idea that the critic was abhorred by the performance
and then later praised it, how can you expect the public to come and understand
a piece of music on its first or perhaps only hearing?
LK: You really
can’t, and that’s one of the things that is wrong. I don’t know how
important this is, but it took me a long time to really see the beautiful
quality of that Schoenberg Piano Concerto.
The thing that is so negative is that there are not very many second, third,
fourth, fifth, seventh, tenth, fifteenth performances of a work. It’s
usually lost somewhere, and you may say the music was better, but when a
Brahms work was done for the first time, it didn’t receive very good press.
A number of Brahms works, in fact, and Brahms himself talks about this.
I remember reading about an occasion when one of his symphonies was being
done. It might have been something less than ten years old, and the
audience responded very, very negatively to it. So the conductor, who
loved the work and understood it, turned around and, as punishment, did it
over right there and then! He told them he was going to do this work
again and again and again until they got the beauty of the work. Many,
many conductors did that in essence.
BD: So he had to
first believe in the work.
LK: Yes, of course
he did. He had to do that, and even that process is rare, that somebody
believes so powerfully in a piece that he will perform it again and again.
BD: Do you take
the audience into account when you are writing the piece?
LK: You are the
audience when you’re writing the piece. In that way you take it into
account. That’s the way I think, anyway. That’s such a complicated
thing. Its very context that forces their involvement, and you take
that into the equation as you think about the instruments that you are writing
for. You remember the times you’ve heard these instruments, and the
works that you have heard these instruments in as well as the instruments
that you yourself have played. All that experience is involved in the
way you write. It’s not that you write in terms of the way something
has been used in the past, but again your awareness of the past, your awareness
of the tradition, your awareness of the beauty of sound or the wonderful
virtuosity of this, that and the other is all in you — just
as that is in you, as you sit as a member of an audience listening to something
else. You don’t think in terms that I’m going to write for this...
well, some people I suppose do! [Laughs] You can see it a lot
of times, when a composer discovers a successful work, that the patterns
are repeated time after time after time after time. The style never
changes. That sells, and that becomes more important than the process
of creation. I suppose that does play a part, but that’s not really
the point, and one does not really think about that. You just do what
you do. You are, after all, a human being, so you respond and feel
like others respond and feel, and what comes out in terms of an artistic
production is simply that this sharpens those feelings that an audience already
has. The sensitivities are broadened, or there’s perhaps a great alertness
to things that are already sensed in the audience itself. I don’t make
a separation like that.
BD: When you are
actually putting the notes down on paper, are you always in control of that
pencil, or are there times when you feel that the pencil is controlling your
LK: Oh, there are many, many times when you’re never
in control of that pencil. [Laughs] But what happens there is
described most characteristically, or more clearly, by writers when they
tell you they have invented a character, and then suddenly the character
invents the situation. They are not in control of that character in
relation to all the other characters, and also in relation to the experience
in which the character has done all kinds of things as you yourself as a
writer have not planned. In the same way, ideas, motifs, little variables
here and there, subconsciously and unconsciously, in whatever way, do things
that you really have not planned, that you have not overseen. It makes
you realize that there are other situations there that you have not controlled
in your imagination. You would like to have complete control and say
you understood this work from beginning to end. In fact, I can tell
you an amusing story about that. Hindemith, in his Norton Lectures, stated that a composer
who did not see the entire landscape of a work in a single lightning
stroke — which is what you’re implying here — should
not be composers. In other words, they don’t control all the forces,
therefore they don’t have the ability, they don’t have the powerful imagination
to conceive of a structural idea from the first to the last moment.
There was a time when I was on a traveling fellowship, and I was supposed
to go to Paris but the War already was on. This was 1942, and one of
my teachers, a musicology teacher named Manfred Bukofzer (1910-1955), who
was a brilliant musicologist actually, wanted me very much to study with
Hindemith. So he gave me a letter to him, and asked me to contact him,
which I did. But at that time, I was on the verge of being drafted
anyway, and I had joined the Signal Corps in New York so that I could continue
my schooling. I went to school eight hours every day, and thereby managed
to remain in New York for at least a period of nine months. I had a
two-year fellowship, but it lasted about eight or nine months where I could
study with someone — possibly with Hindemith, possibly
with Roger Sessions, or somebody in the East, but I did go up to visit with
Hindemith. He looked at my works, and very quickly he said, “We’re
not interested in talent here! We’re interested in work, and you need
it. You will take this course and you will take that course, and you
will live here with me. You may not commute from New York. You
have to come up here to live in New Haven.” I
couldn’t. I didn’t even want to explain to him that I was in the Signal
Corps, and that was something impossible. He had had, from his point
of view, bad experiences of others that were commuting from New York.
He had had another composer... I always used to think it was probably Lukas Foss or somebody like
that! Anyway, he just didn’t like that idea. He wanted to have
full control. He was almost dictatorial in that way. So I was
very disappointed in it because I knew I couldn’t do that, and I told him
I was really sorry, that I wanted so much to study with him, but it wasn’t
possible. So I packed up and went to the door, and as I was going
I said, “Mr. Hindemith, may I ask you a personal question?”
(This directly refers to your question.) He said, “It
depends. What question do you want to ask me?”
I said, “You wrote in your Norton Lectures at Harvard that a composer
who could not see the entire landscape of work in a single lightning stroke
should not really be a composer, because he didn’t have whatever it took
to be that composer.” He said yes, he had said
something like that. “What of it?”
I said, “The question that I wanted to ask you is,
would you accept a composer who could see the entire vista in two lightning
strokes!” At first he seemed to be angry, and
then there was a sort of twinkle in his eye, and he said, “Oh,
I suppose so!” Then I got finally to the door,
and I turned around as I was about to leave I said, “Mr.
Hindemith, can I ask you one more question?” and he
said, “Well, go ahead.”
I said, “Would you accept a composer who could see
the entire vista in three lightning strokes?”
He broke down and began to laugh because he realized just as well as I did
or just as well as anybody else what I was getting at. What I’m trying
to describe to you or explain to you is that one doesn’t always control,
in the ordinary sense, every single move that one makes in the process of
getting into the space of a composition. Many things take place, and
sometimes unconsciously one does things because one has a wonderful repertory
of equipment that we aren’t really aware of from day to day that makes choices
for us by receiving the signals and using them better than our conscious
brain power can do. That doesn’t mean the piece is uncontrolled, or
that it is just a series of propositions, or anything of the kind, but that
this is a very, very complex thing, and that the pencil, as you stated, sometimes
seems to do things that you’re not really quite aware of. Many times
you’re not aware of it for years and years and years, and then you look back
— as I’ve had the opportunity to do, or as anybody who has written
a number of works and had to play these works (since I was always a performer)
— you suddenly say, “Oh my God, how did
I ever do this? Hey, this is brilliant! Oh, I see the relationship
now between this and that!” It was something
that I hadn’t seen at the time of composition, and that is the process of
performances as well. That’s the power of art. It’s a constant
kaleidoscoping of ideas that has as its background the change in time and
the change in others’ compositions that are being done.
That sometimes why, when you hear Webern or Schoenberg or Lutosławski or
Stravinsky, and then go back to doing some Mozart piece or some Haydn piece,
there’s a freshness in the way you approach it because of all this other
stuff banging at you. That’s the wonderful power of art, and it makes
possible new interpretations, and that’s one of the things that is so immensely
limiting in electronic music — it always remains the
same. Once you do it, that’s it, and that’s not really what art is
BD: So you do not
want to limit what is in your music. When you’re writing a piece, do
you write in, or do you expect quite a bit of interpretation on the part
of other performers?
LK: Well, yes!
You have your own way of doing it, especially if you are a performer, and
it can be pretty catastrophic too — as in the case
of Rachmaninoff and Reiner. Reiner was doing one of the piano
concertos, and Rachmaninoff was the pianist. As you know, he was one
of the great performers of the century, and there was a time when Reiner,
who was also a very great performer, had his idea about a phrase. He
presumed that his idea was more significant or more powerful and more representative
of the way the line should be moving at that time, so he prevailed upon Rachmaninoff
to change the way he was doing this. Rachmaninoff didn’t say anything.
He simply put his score together at the piano, walked out, and never returned!
[Both laugh] That question is answerable, but it’s answerable with
all these qualifications. Yes, I’m sure Rachmaninoff would have appreciated
performances that were really revelatory and faulty in his compositions that
he didn’t see. After all, he was one of the world’s greatest performers.
How dare Reiner tell him, when he was sitting there, how to play his own
BD: You’ve been
performer as both pianist and conductor. Are you the ideal interpreter
of your own works?
Well... sometimes. I remember at the time when I played with Mitropoulos
my First Piano Concerto that it
was his vision in a way that made the performance so absolutely wonderful.
He studied the work. When we were together before going to the rehearsals,
he had me play it for him over and over and over again — not
because he didn’t know the work, or because he was trying to learn it from
me. In fact, I was overwhelmed when he came to the rehearsal without
a score, and I came to the rehearsal with a score! He had memorized
the whole work! After finding out what it was that I was trying to
express, he was interested in the psyche of the work, or the gestalt of the
work, or in the Rorschach of the work [referring
to the psychological ink-blot test]. I don’t know if words are
applicable here, but the secret is how the performer does his piece.
The performer may not do his piece really very well, or even technically
realize it, but there’s something in the trust. Stravinsky many times
did not do his work as well as some conductors did, but always in his performance
there is a quality that is so marvelously Stravinskian, which is absolutely
mandatory to feel and to understand how to do a really magnificent of a Stravinsky
work. Now he may not have realized it thoroughly, but there it was,
and that’s what Mitropoulos was looking for in me, or in anybody else.
At any rate, he was able to realize this work in a way that I was not able
to at that time. So in answer to your question, there was a wonderful
performance of a piece of mine, which I was only partially in control of.
I’ve also had experiences where people have played a piece of mine in a way
that was very imaginative and that I found appealing, although most of the
time I would trust my own command of a performance. I would think that
that was more appropriate than somebody else’s ideas most of the time, but
sometimes you run into people that are pretty extraordinary in this way.
BD: So then you
have to let them go with their ideas?
LK: Yes, and you
let them go.
BD: The Mitropoulos
performance was made into a recording?
LK: Yes, but that
recording was not the result of several performances. It was not the
performance that I am talking about, actually.
BD: I assume the
recording was made in studio sessions later?
LK: Yes, the studio
session [singular!] took place after
a performance. There were four performances, and I remember that the
second and the third performances particularly were just absolutely stunning.
I remember the way he looked at me on the stage. He just knew that
this was going be something. What happened with the record was that
we had to make this the following morning after the first performance.
It was a very, very cold morning, and this was a sort of private session.
It was a Naumburg award, and they had allowed forty minutes for the recording.
On the same occasion, Isaac
Stern was doing a Prokofiev concerto with him. [This would later be issued on a Columbia LP
along with the other violin concerto conducted by Leonard Bernstein.]
They recorded it at about the same time, and I remember they took many hours
and had many takes to do this because it was a Columbia recording, whereas
the recording that was allotted for the Naumburg was simply forty minutes.
BD: So that’s just
LK: Well, the work
itself is about thirty minutes, or twenty-eight minutes, so it was actually
really a run-through from beginning to end with a stop. But what happened
was that the second bassoon player came late. He just hadn’t gotten
on the right train, or something like that, and so we were held up for about
ten minutes. So we only had thirty minutes. [Both laugh]
My fingers were cold, and I hadn’t had time to practice or get things ready
that morning. It was during the winter and was cold, so Mitropoulos
told me we would not do the cadenzas. There were two of them
— one in the last movement and one in the first movement
— so we could do those after the orchestra leaves. We would
just run through the work from beginning to end, and the recording is that
run-through, without any splices whatsoever when the work was really not
yet prepared. Despite that fact, it still makes a real statement, but
it was not the performance that I’m talking about. That happened on
the second performance. Throughout the rehearsals, one can see this
thing building up, but that doesn’t mean the performance is going to be able
to do the same thing. All sorts of things happen in a performance,
and unfortunately that record was not the result of this incredible occasion.
The performance was one of the great performances of my life.
BD: But at least
the record is a credible statement.
LK: It’s a credible
BD: Now you’ve
got a new CD out, which has some fairly recent works.
LK: They are very
good performances. They are excellent, the ones with the BSO players.
The Music for Twelve is excellent,
and the Trio is a very fine performance,
which I coached. That was a very fine performance, and the Concerto for Violin and Cello, Ten Winds and
Percussion is okay. That could have been better but it’s very
good. I’m very pleased. I think that’s a very good record.
My performances were done last. That’s why I’m having surgery now
— that was the last time I played those works. I was also
doing a concert at the Y, and I had this hand problem for a long time.
It was getting worse and worse, and I wasn’t able to do all the pieces on
this program. I was not able to do the last piece of the Five Pieces for Piano because I just
couldn’t move my hand at that time. Luckily when I first came into
the studio I ran through the works, so they had a whole tape of all Five Pieces, and it was from that that
they took the last piece. I actually couldn’t do it, so I decided to
finally have this surgery, which is sort of scary. I was just thinking
about that when you were calling because I’m doing it on Tuesday.
BD: I hope it’s
LK: Yes, I hope
so too. There are very good chances that it will be.
* * *
BD: Let us come
back to your teaching. You worked with composition students for many
years. How did the teaching of composition change over that long period
LK: It changed
in a superficial sense when people were writing and moving into this methodological
stuff like twelve-tone music or electronic music. On one hand knowing
about these things is good to make helpful judgments in composition.
But there again, all composition — no matter what mechanical
means it’s involved with or what pathological means it’s involved with
— is still composition. It’s still work that has to stand
up. One’s critical faculties are centered in whether the piece works
or whether it doesn’t. There are many complex reasons why a piece will
or will not work, and many simple reasons why a piece will or will not work.
One can hear these things if one has a good ear and one has experience, so
one has the sense of getting into the imagination of the student.
Is composition something that can be taught, or must it just be the imagination
of the student?
One can teach a student what technique is, and how one can obtain a sort
of quasi-verifiable outcome. I hate to use the word ‘verifiable’, but
one can make a lot of determination based on the technical structure of a
work. That doesn’t mean that even if it has a fine outline from beginning
to end, it will be good. Take a sonata, for instance. The sonata
structure, which still is being used to an extent, is like a life-form.
It has a primary idea, and the means to achieve that idea by the use of certain
kinds of harmony — a stable harmony, an exposition
of harmony (exposition meaning the exposition of a work as oppose to the development
or the recapitulation). In that exposition, certain kinds of harmonies
are used as opposed to a more roving harmony, or faster-moving harmony, say
in the development section. I’m speaking of an idealized form, or thinking
in terms of Beethoven sonatas, or Haydn or Schubert or any of the Viennese
classic forms. Then there’s the idea of a recapitulatory harmony
— what happens when a piece comes to an end. There is also
the treatment of motivic forms, of themes where there’s a certain way of
expressing an opening thematic material called a primary, or a series of
themes in a primary group. There’s also the way that primary group
transits to a secondary group, to an opposition either in harmony or in motivic
material. There are ways to understand that and to learn that by studying
hundreds of sonatas of Beethoven and Haydn and Schubert, or even looking
at the works of Schoenberg, Stravinsky or Bartók. They’re all
masters at that command. They’re tremendous masters of that kind of
command. That is what you can teach students.
BD: Should your
students also look at the works of Leon Kirchner?
LK: Well, sure,
they would ordinarily do that without even telling you. Just as they’d
be looking at works of Schoenberg, they’d be looking at Bartók and
Stravinsky, just seeing how these related to that kind of teaching.
But that you can teach. You can’t teach talent. That’s something
that’s God-given, and sometimes it’s really strange. You have a student
who has wonderful computer for a mind, and who understands harmony and counterpoint
and form and structure, and all that sort of thing. So you think that
this person is really going to be absolutely tremendous. Sometimes
he is, and he always makes a statement of one kind or another as a musician,
if not as a composer in the future. But sometimes that doesn’t add
up. The work that comes out of that person is not particularly significant
or interesting or compelling or seductive or seminal. Then you’ll find
another student who you would say to yourself is all right, but he’s not
going to really amount to much. Then he’s absolutely tremendous!
[Both laugh] There’s some way which human beings have of utilizing all
of their gifts which is very, very compelling. The cognitive process
is so remarkable, and it’s hard to make judgment. And of course there are
other people you just know should not be in music.
BD: Despite all
of this, are you basically optimistic about the future of musical composition?
LK: The future?
I don’t know.
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] Ohhhhh... gaze into your crystal ball!
LK: Oh, I don’t
know. There’s something in our human structure, something in our genes
that is very, very rebellious, and that ultimately is able to ride through
all the trash that exists. At a certain point, we all say, “Enough
of this! I want to hear something different.”
There must be something different, and then you hear this work or see this
painting. It’s the moving force. But I must say that public relations
and television, and this idea that things have to be successful and have
to have a strong rating does incredible damage to the sensibility of the
viewer or the listener.
BD: What should
constitute success in music?
LK: I guess, staying
power. That is constantly sought out. It’s sought after,
but performers in music are the people who make the judgment. They’re
willed to do certain things, and it’s the audience response as well.
But I suppose that we’re made in such a marvelous way that we are compelled
to seek out those works which reflect enough of our better selves
— not morally or anything like that, but
our better selves in a lost context way. That we find in our works
of art. So I’m being basically optimistic in a terribly pessimistic
BD: I’m glad the
world at large has, to a certain degree, decided that it wants to seek out
the works of Leon Kirchner.
LK: Oh, that’s
a very nice thing for you to say. You’re very kind! I’m not sure
if that actually is the case, but I’ll accept it momentarily!
BD: I appreciate
your spending the time with me this afternoon. It’s been very nice talking
with you. I wanted to make contact with you for a long time, and I’m
glad that it’s finally worked out.
LK: Well, I’m glad
you did. Thank you!
© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on December 16, 1990.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1994 and 1999; on WNUR in 2009 and 2014;
and on Contemporary Classical Intrerenet Radio in 2009. This transcription
was made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time. My
thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.
His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other
interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call
your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather,
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