Composer  Kirke  Mechem

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Kirke Mechem (August 16, 1925 -  ) is a prolific composer with a catalogue of over 250 works. He enjoys an international presence, as ASCAP recently registered concert performances of his music in 42 countries. Born and raised in Kansas and educated at Stanford and Harvard Universities, Mechem conducted and taught at Stanford, and served as composer-in-residence for several years at the University of San Francisco. Mechem also lived in Europe, spending three years in Vienna where he came to the attention of Josef Krips, who later championed the composer's symphonies as conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. He was guest of honor at the 1990 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and was invited back for an all-Mechem symphonic concert by the USSR Radio-Television Orchestra in 1991.

He has been honored and recognized for his contributions from the United Nations; the National Endowment for the Arts; the National Gallery; the American Choral Directors Association; the Music Educators National Conference, and was presented with a lifetime achievement award from the National Opera Association. In 2012 the University of Kansas awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Arts.

Mechem's compositions cover almost every genre, but vocal music is the core of his work. His three-act opera, Tartuffe, has been performed nearly 400 times in six countries. His extensive choral works have garnered him the title of "Dean of American Choral Composers." The premiere of Mechem’s large-scale dramatic opera based on American abolitionist John Brown was commissioned to celebrate Lyric Opera Kansas City's 50th anniversary. Songs of the Slave — a suite for bass-baritone, soprano, chorus and orchestra from John Brown — has been performed over 90 times. His comic opera, The Rivals (an American update of Sheridan’s classic play of the same name), was premiered in 2011 by Skylight Opera in Milwaukee. Mechem has recently completed an opera based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.


His memoir, Believe Your Ears: Life of a Lyric Composer, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2015. It won ASCAP Foundation's 48th annual Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award for outstanding musical biography.

 —  (mostly) G. Schirmer, 2015     

Grove Dictionary of Music: “His musical style is characterized by melodiousness,
lyricism, tonal clarity, wit and humour, free from any specific compositional school.”

Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (Nicolas Slonimsky):
“His music gives unadulterated aural satisfaction to unprejudiced ears.”

--  Note that links in this box, and below, refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Rarely do I toot my own horn, so please indulge me for a few lines on this occasion.

In the course of doing interviews for nearly thirty years, most of my guests only knew me as a broadcast journalist from Chicago whom they were meeting for the first time.  Many had been encouraged to meet with me by their agents and/or colleagues, but others were simply contacted, and agreed after hearing my voice and understanding the purpose(s) of the conversation.

On just a few of occasions, my guest was aware of my work first-hand.  One, soprano Margaret Harshaw, lived in suburban Chicago, and listened to me on WNIB, Classical 97.  Noting that she
‘loathed’ (her word) doing interviews, she made it clear that it was only because she admired my work that she was granting my request.  Another, composer Robert Ward, had done one interview with me, and when we met again some years later, he let me know his pleasure at reading my interviews in The Opera Journal.

This page presents one other musician who was familiar with me, composer Kirke Mechem.  He was in Chicago in November of 1991, and until he mentioned it at the end of our conversation, I did not know that he had also been reading my contributions to The Opera Journal for many years, and was pleased that I had asked him to be my guest.

Being an accomplished vocal composer, that is where we began our chat . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

mechem Kirke Mechem:   Oh there are lots of joys, and the sorrows are only when the voice is not human.  [Laughs]  One of the things I wish that I had was a beautiful voice.  I love to sing, but I never really had a good voice.  I’ve sung a lot in choruses, and that’s what really turned me on to writing for the voice.  In college I’d been playing music by ear and writing wretched songs, and I finally began to study harmony just for the fun of it.  Although I was an English major at Stanford, singing in the chorus is the thing that really turned me on.  To suddenly hear the third of the chord coming from over here, and fifth coming from over there, and they’re all singing beautiful lines, it was suddenly like technicolor instead of the black and white keyboard.  I hadn’t yet learned to write music away from the piano.  I really got hooked on choral music then, and so my first serious music was choral music, and even though I moved on to chamber music and symphonies and opera and piano music, I always come back to choral music.  It’s a beautiful medium.

BD:   You say you don’t have a beautiful voice.  Do you not feel that your pen is your beautiful voice?

KM:   No, I don’t!  I sing almost everything I write.  I certainly sing it internally and quite often I’ll sing it externally, but it’s a God-given gift of a voice like that.

BD:   Since you’re dealing with the voice, you have the added problem or joy of the text.  How do you go about selecting the texts that you’ll set?

KM:   As I said, I was an English major.  I was always destined to become a writer, although my mother was a very good pianist who had studied in Germany.  My father was a writer, a poet as well as having written published novels and plays, so I had a feeling for that.  I wrote from the time when I was very little.  For several years I put out a newspaper for our neighborhood from the time I was nine years old.  Then in high school I actually won a journalism scholarship to Northwestern, which I turned down because by that time I had worked for a daily paper, and decided I really didn’t want to go into journalism.  But I’ve always been tuned to the literary side of it.  I wrote poetry in my younger days.  It was not very good poetry at all, but I had a feeling for poetry, and loved it, so the part of it that came naturally was wanting to make music out of poems that I loved.  Somebody pointed out to me once in a paper they wrote that my texts that I selected tended to be unphilosophical.  They tended not to be of a quality that used abstruse language at all.  That they tended to rely, like the Old Testament does, on straight-forward language, and it’s true.  I can understand why because if you compare, say, the Revised Versions of the Bible with the King James Version, it’s the difference between great poetry in the King James Bible and just work-a-day kinds of translations in the others.  They may be more accurate and may serve their purpose in that sense, but as poetry accuracy
at least accuracy of nounsis not what you’re looking for.  Who would not want to set to music the word ‘edifice’ instead of ‘house’?  Part of it is because signing is unlike any other musical instrument.  It’s something that comes from within you.  Your voice is something you’re born with.  It’s tied in with all your earliest experiences.  To sing something should be natural in some way.  It should really come from the center of your being, and you can’t do that if you’re singing from layers of education or artificiality that have been put on.  That that’s why so much of the great choral music is based upon the Bible.

BD:   It’s deceptively simple?

KM:   It’s deceptively simple but it also goes to the heart of the matter.  In the case of the Bible, just the language itself and the texts themselves have been a part of most people in our civilization.  It’s been a part of their experience all their lives.  There’s something that seems universal about it.  Actually, most of my texts have been secular not sacred, but those also are poets who are more lyric, poets who use words in a direct way.  I set a group by Sara Teasdale, who is certainly a very straightforward lyric poet.

BD:   Are you looking for texts that are innately musical?

KM:   Yes, but not in a way you might think.  It’s hard to describe.  What is musical to me is perhaps not musical to someone else, and vice-versa.  It has to speak to me in a way that I could sing, and that other people would want to sing, as opposed to read aloud or read silently... although reading aloud is already getting closer.

BD:   Do you ever find that you have a text that you can’t set because there’s no way to add music to a perfect piece?

KM:   I’ve heard composers use that phrase
that’s there’s no point adding music to something that is already musical.  I don’t quite understand that, because if the language is very musical in itself, to me it pushes my musical button that I want add melody to it.  Even though you say it’s musical, it has the sound.  It has a wonderful sound to it, but it doesn’t yet have melody, it doesn’t have harmony, it doesn’t have counterpoint, and it’s not sung.

BD:   When you put the melody and the harmony to it, are you putting your melody to it, or are you putting the melody to it?

KM:   I’m putting my melody to it.  I’m not so presumptuous to think that anything I said couldn’t be said just as well by someone else, but it wouldn’t be mine.

BD:   Obviously you think it
s the best for you?

KM:   It’s the best for me, of course!  Otherwise I would keep writing away at it until I was satisfied it was the best I could do. 

BD:   Have you set your own texts?

KM:   Yes, but not often.  However, my librettos for Tartuffe and for John Brown are my own, and very often I have even taken poems of other authors and arranged them in ways that really made dramatic pieces out of them.  I’ve even done that with the Bible.  I made a thirty-three-minute cantata out various passages of Old Testament.  That’s the way Brahms did with the German Requiem¸ only I was even more eclectic in a way in choosing the texts
taking verses from Ecclesiastes as the basis between recitatives, and then passages from other books of the Old Testament to illustrate what the preacher was sayingand choosing them very freely, maybe just a couple of lines here and a couple of lines there.

mechem BD:   But you had to make sure it hangs together.

KM:   Yes, then making it hang together!

BD:   When you’ve got the text on the page, and you’ve put notes to all of the words, and you go back and tinker with it, how do you know when it is finished, when you are ready to launch it?

KM:   Oh, something tells me.  I know when I’m unhappy about it and it’s not quite right, and then I get that feeling of elation, that I have hit it.  That’s why the beginning is always the hardest because I’m not quite sure how I’m going to do it yet.  I may try various ways, and maybe none of them is quite right, and I don’t quite know why.  Then, out of the blue, somehow it will come, and it will often be an amalgamation of several other ways that I’ve tried where I just simply didn’t realize what was right about each one, and what was wrong about each one.  Then it comes to me what is right, and what parts are wrong, and then I have something.  I know I have the germ that’s right, and then I can go on quite fast sometimes.  Sometimes that moment comes very early, sometimes it comes late and it’s very painful, but when it comes I always feel like getting down on my knees, or I’ll jump up from the piano and say thank you whoever you are for giving this to me!

BD:   When this moment comes, are you still in control, or is the pencil really controlling your hand?

KM:   Oh, no, I’m in control.  Again, I’m not so presumptuous.  I’m not so good as to have the feeling that Stravinsky had with the Le Sacre du Printemps.  He said once,
I was the vessel through which the Le Sacre flowed, as if it came directly from God through him to the paper, that he just was the conveyance!

BD:   You don’t feel that?

KM:   No, I don’t feel that.  As I said, I don’t understand it.  I don’t understand where it comes from.  By all rights I shouldn’t be a musician at all.  I shouldn’t be a composer.  That’s not what I started out to be.  I never expected to be a composer.  Even when I went into music, I thought I would be a choral conductor.  I would always write music on the side, but I never felt that I would really be a composer.  It was only that every time I wrote a piece, and I was happy with it that then I would try to write something a little more ambitious to see if I could do it.  If it turned out well, then I would go on to the next thing.  So it’s just something that surprised me.

BD:   When you’re crafting a libretto, obviously you know you’re going to be setting it to music.  Does that influence your prose-style?

KM:   Oh, absolutely!  That’s the whole reason to be a librettist.  You write it for music, and you write it for your own music, and you write it for your own opera.  Before I wrote Tartuffe, I studied the play very much.  I went to see it again and I mapped out the parts so I knew which ones should be cut.  I worked out what characters could be done away with, and what characters should be strengthened in order to achieve balance between the men and the women.  I actually made a whole scenario act by act, scene by scene, so as to see exactly what was going to happen
whether there was going to be duet here, a trio there, a recitative here, an aria theretrying to work out the balance of it, and knowing what kind of music it was going to be without actually knowing very much of the music itself.  This is unlike some composers who actually write part of the music as they do their libretto.  Wagner did that, and Verdi did that to some extent.  Verdi would write his own scenarios to begin with, and just get a poet to put it into verse for him.

BD:   When you have your own libretto, does the musician in you ever think
this is a terrible librettist?

KM:   Of course!  Being my own librettist, when the composer argues with the librettist, the composer always wins.  Not a page of the libretto will stay the way it originally was because as I write the music, maybe a musical idea will become predominant, so then I’ll rewrite what I’ve written in order to make it conform to the better music that took over.  So it’s a big advantage in a way, but in another way it’s like the doctor who treats himself and has a fool for a patient!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you been basically been pleased with the performances you’re heard of your music throughout the years?

KM:   That’s a hard question to answer.  I have certainly been pleased with many.  I would say I’ve been pleased with most.  I’ve been very fortunate in having lots of good performances of my music.  I’ve had some bad one, too, like everyone, but I’ve gotten philosophical with age.  I don’t worry about it so much anymore.  When I hear a bad performance of my music, I really don’t think it’s damaged my music anymore.  The music is still there for the next performance.  It’s all published, so I feel that it’s public property in a sense.  If somebody does it badly, somebody else will do it well.

BD:   There was nothing wrong with the music, it was just a poor performance?

KM:   Yes.  Sometimes I change my mind about my music, and I may hear a performance that I think is all right but I’m unhappy with the piece.  That’s more apt to happen with a bad performance, though.

BD:   Are there ever times when the performers will find things in your score you didn’t know you’d hidden there?

mechem KM:   Absolutely.  That’s why I gave up trying to tell performers exactly how to do everything, because I find that when you do that, you shut off their creativity and their innate musicality, and they don’t give nearly as much to the performance if they think they’re just doing this to please you.  I trust their musicality.  I always tell performers that I’m careful about the way I notate my tempos and everything, but every situation’s different, every voice is different, every hall is different, and you feel different at different times.  So try it my way scrupulously, and then make it your own.  If it doesn’t work my way, work until you see what I want and try to find how you can do that.  In doing so, I get a lot of pleasant surprises.  I didn’t learn this until my music started getting published and I started hearing people perform my music whom I didn’t know.  They would perform it in a way that I hadn’t quite thought of.  They would take a section a little slower, and I would see that it works better that way.

BD:   Is it always better?

KM:   No, not always.  Sometimes I’ve absolutely been in anguish at it.  I’ve had people misread
quarter note equals ninety-two, and think half note equals ninety-two, or the other way around.  [Laughs]  It’s God-awful.  I sat there in my chair writhing.

BD:   Could you correct it for the next performance?

KM:   No, I didn’t mention it.  I did tell the conductor in his case.  I said there was a bad printing in his score, and this looks like a quarter note, but it’s a half note.

BD:   When you’re preparing the first performance, do you work with the conductor and make changes and lots of suggestions, or do you basically stay out of the conductor’s way?

KM:   It depends on the piece, and it depends on the conductor.  It’s nice to have the luxury of working with the first performance and being able to say,
I misjudged that.  Let’s take it a little slower (or a little faster).  Even saying things like, Let’s double this, or let’s not double that can be a big help with the instrumental balance.  I don’t do this very often, but once in a while with a complicated piece I have had the luxury of being able to listen to a tape of a performance, and then actually making a change to revise it.  I don’t normally do much revision.  Even a big piece like Tartuffe, which is my first opera, has had very little revision.  It’s almost printed the way it was originally written.

BD:   So you got it right the first time?

KM:   More or less!  I’ve made a few cuts and a few touch-ups.  Even though it was my first opera, I’d already written an awful lot of music for voice, and a lot of music for voice with orchestra, so the dramatic part was really what was new.  But as I already told you, an awful lot of my choral music was dramatic.  I seem to always be looking for ways to make dramatic pieces out of poems.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You do some teaching, also?

mechem KM:   No more!  I haven’t for about twelve or fifteen years.  I’ve been able to do without it, and it’s a great luxury

BD:   When you were teaching, did you get enough time to compose?

KM:   Sometimes, but usually not.

BD:   What advice do you have for people who want to compose concert music?

KM:   I don’t know that I have any advice for them.  They have my sympathy if they have to teach full-time, or do any other job full-time, because it’s very frustrating.  There aren’t many places in our culture for serious composers because they can’t make their living at it.

BD:   Should they able to make their living at it?

KM:   There you open a whole can of worms because that says an awful lot about our society.  We would have to get into a large discussion about the state of twentieth-century music and its relationship to the audience, and I don’t think we have time for it!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Then let’s just explore one little corner of that discussion.  Where is music going today?

KM:   I think that it’s going to be more simple.  The twentieth-century has seen such an overload of cerebralization of music, and more and more complexity that it has really has gotten too dense.  What’s happened in the twentieth-century is we lost God and we found science, and science has become God.  From science has flowed technology, and music has joined the other parts of our world in embracing technology and science as if they were somehow ends in themselves, whereas art is the opposite of science.  Science is a body of discipline; that is, you prove something and you go onto the next thing, and you prove the next thing.  Technology is to make something to use.  Then you improve it, and then you throw it away and you do something else.  Art is communication between human beings, and if it does not communicate, it’s lost its purpose, and that’s what I think has happened in the twentieth-century.  When the pendulum swings too far there’s always a reaction, and it goes too far in the other way, and the name of that is minimalism.  I think minimalism is serving a very useful function because just as we were overly cerebral, it’s overly simple.  It’s almost an insult to have to sit through some of it because it’s so simple.

BD:   We need that just to cleanse our palettes?

KM:   I think so.  Whether we need it or not, it’s inevitable.  It’s not something you can say we need it or not, but it’s very understandable that there would be a movement that is overly simple in reaction to the overly complex which has lost touch with an audience.  So this has found its own audience
a very large audiencethat responds to the very simplicity and just enjoys bathing in it.  From that point it will perhaps grow.  I can already see a lot of the young composers now feel its okay to write tonal music even if they’re not minimalists.  When I was in college, it wasn’t allowed.  I was an outcast almost.  You had to write serial music, or at least atonal music of some kind in order to be a member of the club.

BD:   Are you glad that music has come around to what you’ve been saying all along?

KM:   Oh, yes, very much so!  If any kind of art doesn’t communicate, what’s it good for?  It’s humanity; it’s to connect us with each other, to speak to each other!

BD:   Should there not be a place for the atonalists?

mechem KM:   Anyone can do anything he or she likes.  That’s fine, and anyone is perfectly able to write it and to listen to it.  [Hesitates a moment]  But to be objective, to look at what’s happened to the music, one can certainly see that it has not been very communicative to many people.  Never before in history has so much been written for so few.

BD:   But now we seem to be breaking out of this?

KM:   I think so.

BD:   What advice do you have for audiences?

KM:   I don’t give advice to audiences.  Audiences are people who go because they want this kind of communication.  I never try to educate the audiences.  Audiences often react negatively to that.  If I ever am inveigled into giving a preview or something to the audience, what I try to do is put them at their ease, and tell them that all they need to listen to my music is to be human and to be musical.  I assume they wouldn’t be coming to a concert if they weren’t musical, or if they didn’t love music.  I don’t try to write down to an audience; I try to write up to the audience.  I always assume that they love music, and have listened to great music all their lives, and it’s very difficult to measure up to that.  Naturally I’m not trying to write like Beethoven or anybody else, but it’s a great challenge to satisfy people who have listened to music that is so rich.

BD:   Do you feel that you are part of a lineage of composers?

KM:   Of course.  I’m part of a lineage of human beings, and that’s what composers are.  Composers in the beginning were listeners.  We love music, so we want to be part of it in the way that we seem to have a knack.  As I say, I’m a composer by accident.  I just kind of discovered I had a knack for it.  When I took harmony and counterpoint, they were so simple for me.  It was just like play.  I found that I could do these things, and that I could continue to grow in this in a way that I don’t think I could as a writer.  I was a pretty good writer as a young person, but I realized there were a lot of people for whom it was easier, and who were better prepared, and I just didn’t have it.

BD:   I trust you’re not disappointed with what you’ve done with your life?

KM:   No, not at all.  I think it’s somehow very strange and wonderful, but unexpected.  

BD:   You’ve been in the composing business now for quite a while.  Are you now at the point you expected to be?

KM:   Well, I never expected to be in any place...

BD:   But once you decided to be a composer...

KM:   No, even that.  I never decided.  It just happened.  I just kept composing, and pretty soon I started thinking of myself as a composer.  Then I got more ambitious, but I never expected to end up writing any operas... although I should have because, as I see now, that’s really what I was born to do.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are all of your works commissioned?

KM:   No.  In fact, neither of my operas were.  I first wrote the opera, and then I got the commission.  Years ago that’s what Stravinsky said, that the trick is write the piece you want and then get it commissioned.  That way you don’t have a deadline, and you don’t have anybody telling you how it’s supposed to be.

mechem BD:   You do get some advance commissions, though?

KM:   Oh, yes, I’ve written a lot of music on commission.

BD:   When a commission comes your way, how do you decide if you will accept it, or turn it aside?

KM:   I look to see if it’s something I want to write.  I’ve turned down many more commissions than I have accepted.  In fact, you have to be crazy to operate the way I do.  The John Brown opera is a piece that I’ve been working with on and off for ten years, and I’ve turned down $300,000-worth of commissions just so that I can continue to write it.  My hope is that I’ll get a commission to make up for it all!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is it nearly finished?

KM:   Oh, it is finished, but I have to do the real drudgery of proof-reading and all that.  

BD:   You don’t have to make all the parts, do you?

KM:   No, I have a copyist who works for my publisher, G. Schirmer, and I’ve trained him so he’s able to understand what I have put down.  I compose using a lot of shorthand that he understands, but then I do have to proof-read it because anyone else could tell when he’s made a mistake from what I wrote down, but nobody else can tell that what I wrote down was wrong! [Much laughter]

BD:   Is composing fun?

KM:   Most of the time it is.  It has its agony, too, like anything else.  You get down on yourself and you think, 
“Oh my God, I’m not doing anything.  This isn’t coming out right.  Why am I doing this?  Why am I kidding myself?  That doesn’t happen very often now, but it happens at the beginning of pieces sometimes.  Every time I’ve not written anything for a long time, I think I can’t write anymore.  I’ve no ideas.  I can’t do it!  But once I lock myself in the room and start walking around, thinking, maybe improvising a little bit, I get ideas, and finally get to that ‘aha’ place everyone knows about.  Then it’s fun, it really is fun.  It’s the thing that becomes so concentrated that I’m not aware of anything else in the world.  That happened to me very early in my life, even before I’d ever studied music, when I was just learning.  I did learn to play the pianonot very well from my motherbut I was too interested in sports.  Then, when I was about sixteen or seventeen, I got interested in popular music and started playing by ear and learning how to write it down.  Even from that point, my family had a saying that when I was at the piano writing music, they’d call me to dinner, or they’d say the house was on fire, or anything, and I wouldn’t even hear them.  They’d say they couldn’t get through to me!  This would go on for hours, but it just becomes a totally absorbing experiencenot so much now as then, but as completely for shorter periods of time.  Sometimes I’ll still do that, but as I get older I learn that it’s better to take breaks.  I’ll go with intense concentration for an hour and a half, or two hours, and then I start getting a little fidgety, or something won’t go quite right.  Now I don’t just stay there and knock my head against the wall, I just get up and I go outdoors and take a walk.  I may walk for fifteen or twenty minutes.

BD:   Then come back to it refreshed?

KM:   Yes, come back to it refreshed... or better yet, it will be working in my head while I’m walking!  I won’t even be trying to, but it’ll be there.  Then suddenly something clicks, and I get a different perspective on it.

BD:   You’re back to the ‘aha’ moment.

KM:   That’s right.  Sometimes I’ll even wake up in the morning, and there it is.

BD:   Thank you for coming to Chicago.  I hope that you’ll be back!

KM:   I hope so too.  I like it very much.  I’m very impressed with the Chicago opera.  Everything I’ve seen and heard indicates a real first-rate place. 

BD:   Thank you for spending the time with me this afternoon.

KM:   Oh, it’s been my pleasure, it really has.  I’ve always enjoyed reading your interviews in The Opera Journal.  I’ve probably read most of them, and I find them very interesting.

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© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 16, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1993, 1995, and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2017, 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.

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.