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.

BD:    Really?  Why?

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!

BD:    Sure!

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 spiritand 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?

LK:    [Laughs]  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 dayswhich I didto New York University... the one in Greenwich Village.  I always get the two universities mixed upthe 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 work?

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 happiness.


See my Interviews with Earle Brown, John Cage, Geroge Crumb, and Jacob Druckman.

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 criticizedlike 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 BartókI 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 minemy 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 itphysical pleasure, sensual pleasure, intellectual pleasure.  That’s what does it.  That work continues to be alive.

kirchner *     *     *     *     *

BD:    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 hand?

kirchner 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 hereshould 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 someonepossibly 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 backas 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 really about.

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?


See my Interviews with Leon Fleisher, and Ned Rorem.

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 work!

BD:    You’ve been performer as both pianist and conductor.  Are you the ideal interpreter of your own works?

LK:    [Hesitates]  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 twice through?

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 movementso 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 statement, sure.

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 completely successful!

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 of time?

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 withis 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.

BD:    Is composition something that can be taught, or must it just be the imagination of the student?

kirchner LK:    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 harmonya 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 environment.  [Laughs]

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 presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - 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, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.