Remembering Leon Kirchner: Anxiety, Restlessness, and Ecstasy

Leon Kirchner, who died last week at the age of 90, was my teacher during the stormy years of the late sixties and early seventies. Somehow it still seems fitting that I should always associate my apprenticeship with him with that turbulent era, an era full of anxiety, restlessness, and ecstasy. Those are the words—anxiety, restlessness, and ecstasy—that pretty much sum up Leon’s music.

The first piece of his I recall hearing was his third string quartet, performed live at Sanders Theater in Cambridge sometime shortly after its premiere. The electronic sounds emerging from the speakers onstage sounded futuristic and appealingly alien, reminding me of sci fi movies. It was not however the electronic burbling coming from Buchla oscillators that mesmerized me but rather the mercurial, hyperlyrical writing for the string players. It was music of intense yearning, summoning an emotional world of extreme, at times unbearable intensity. I felt I was hearing music that was mature, difficult, and important, the same impression I’d received from my first exposure to the late Beethoven quartets.

Leon’s intellect was every bit as staggering as his emotional sensibilities. He relied greatly on these native instincts, instincts that made him a great teacher, able to spot weaknesses in another’s music. He had the capacity to articulate his impressions in what often could be devastatingly candid words. A bad encounter with him in the seminar room could require weeks for one to recover enough self-esteem to continue. But he was fundamentally a kind person, and those who knew him well stayed faithful to him to the end of his life.

I once wrote that I thought composing for Leon was “a ferocious wrestling match with inner demons.” The older I get, the more I realize that I was right, and that Leon was also right. Creativity IS a ferocious wrestling match. If it’s not, it’s unlikely to produce anything of much value. And value was what the experience of being around Leon was all about. He had no time for mediocrity or superficiality. In class we heard over and over about Bach and Schubert, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Dostoevsky and Mann. He had no toleration for intellectual posturing. Nothing angered him more than the artifice and gamesmanship of the academic serialists with whom he was often lumped together by careless critics and commentators. He was a deep soul, as those who came in contact with his fiery furnace can attest. I owe him much.