Leon Kirchner (1919-2009)

name
Leon Kirchner
Photo by Lisa Kirchner Courtesy G. Schirmer/AMP

Composer Leon Kirchner died today after a long illness. Among the most honored American composers, Kirchner has been the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize (for his third string quartet), the Naumburg Award (for his first piano concerto), the Friedheim Award (for Music for Cello and Orchestra), and two New York Music Critics’ Circle Awards (for his first two string quartets). A student of Ernest Bloch, Roger Sessions, and Arnold Schoenberg, Kirchner was a fiercely independent composer who never adopted the twelve-tone technique although his music was rigorously chromatic and atonal. His compositions include the opera Lily (for which he wrote his own libretto based on Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King), two piano concertos, concertante works for flute and cello, four string quartets, and two piano trios. A formidable pianist, he also composed numerous works for solo piano including three sonatas. Although not frequently associated with electronic music, his String Quartet No. 3, which includes passages for electronic tape, was the first composition involving electronics to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music. Among the many performers who have championed his music are James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Yo-Yo Ma, the Orion String Quartet (who have recorded his complete quartets), and the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. Kirchner taught composition for many years at Harvard University where his students included John Adams, David Borden, Curt Cacioppo, Lawrence Moss, Stanley Silverman, Richard Wernick, and the late Jonathan Kramer.

UPDATE (September 28, 2009): There will be a Leon Kirchner Memorial Concert in New York City at 11:00 A.M. on October 13, 2009 at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Special guests include cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Corey Cerovsek, pianist Jeremy Denk, the Claremont Trio, and members from Harvard University’s Music 180, a class Kirchner founded at Harvard which combines performance and music analysis.—FJO