Kirchner: String Quartets

Leon Kirchner

The powerfully communicative voice of the composer and conductor Leon Kirchner has both moved and challenged audiences for over fifty years. Passionate, rhapsodic, and always relentlessly honest, his artistry is based on a deep appreciation of the past, translated into intensely personal terms. “One of the characteristics of an art work,” he has said, “is its uniqueness, its singularity. It is superb and inimitable. And yet this work is rooted in tradition, it is dumb without its historical connectedness. We move into, and test, unknown paths; we are able to extend ourselves into the future because of the balance established in historical precedent. Once music progresses in the sense that it makes obsolete previous endeavors, we submit, not to science, but to the trivial debris of technology. The musical achievement becomes momentarily chic, and the work of art is lost in the process.” The application of this philosophy has brought him not only the Pulitzer Prize in composition and commissions by top-ranking soloists and ensembles, but performances and guest conducting appearances with almost every major American orchestra.

Leon Kirchner was born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 24, 1919, and began his musical studies on the piano at the age of four. Five years later, his family moved to Los Angeles, a city which soon became a haven for many creative personalities fleeing Nazi Europe. He began composing while a student at Los Angeles City College, and, with the encouragement of his piano teachers and Ernst Toch, entered the class of Arnold Schoenberg at the University of California at Los Angeles. The master composer profoundly affected Kirchner and proved to be a crucial influence throughout his career.

After receiving a Bachelor's degree in 1940 from the University of California at Berkeley, Kirchner continued his studies there and was awarded the George Ladd Prix de Paris in 1942 for study abroad. As Europe was in turmoil, the young composer headed for New York where he worked privately with Roger Sessions. At the close of World War II he returned to Berkeley as a lecturer, and assisted Ernst Bloch and Sessions in theory. A Guggenheim Fellowship, granted in 1948 and renewed in 1949, took him back to New York, where he received his first critical acclaim as a composer.

Kirchner has since held a Slee Professorship at the University of Buffalo (he was preceded by Aaron Copland), and Professorships at the Universities of California and Southern California, Yale University, the Julliard School of Music, and Mills College, where he was named the first Luther Brusie Marchant Professor (1954-61). In 1961, he succeeded Walter Piston at Harvard, where he was named Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music in 1965 and taught there until 1989.

Noted writer and program annotator Michael Steinberg recalled, “Kirchner established the first graduate program in composition at Harvard, as well as a truly remarkable course, which combined analysis and performance. From this course grew a broad range of music-making which Kirchner single-handedly coordinated and conducted. The Cambridge/Boston community is profoundly in his debt.” Kirchner founded and directed the Harvard Chamber Players which included many who would become world renowned performers. Out of this group emerged the highly acclaimed Harvard Chamber Orchestra and Friends, a professional group of free-lancers which continues to this day.

Among Kirchner's other activities have been appearances as a conductor and/or pianist with major American and international orchestras. Kirchner has received numerous commissions and honors, including the Pulitzer Prize and appointments to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In recognition of his unique contribution to the music and culture of our time, Leon Kirchner was awarded Honorary Life Membership to the Friends of Arnold Schoenberg Institute. He has served as Composer-in-Residence as well as pianist at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, the Tanglewood Music Center where he also served as Festival Director, the Aspen, Charleston, Marlboro, Aldeburgh, and Spoleto Festivals, and was Resident Senior Composer at the American Academy in Rome. Appointed a Fellow of the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, he exchanged theoretical principles in musical structures with Fellows from various fields of the Behavioral Sciences.

A fiercely individual composer, Leon Kirchner has created a unique voice. In an advanced and often complex musical idiom of linear chromaticism, asymmetric rhythms, and contrasting textures, he has composed music of surging physicality, lyricism, and sensuousness. Pieces are conceived as organic wholes, often utilizing linked movements and repetitive materials; despite this tight organization, they seem to unfold spontaneously, almost as if composing themselves. Aaron Copland observed, “The impression carried away from a Kirchner performance is one of having made contact not merely with the composer, but with a highly sentient human being; of a man who creates his music out of an awareness of the special climate of today's unsettled world; Kirchner's pages prove that he reacts strongly to that world; they are charged with an emotional impact and explosive power that is almost frightening in intensity. Whatever else may be said, this is music that is most certainly felt.”

Leon Kirchner lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife, Getrude, and their son Paul.

Boston Composers String Quartet

The Boston Composers String Quartet's performances of freshly written works by Boston area composers, beginning in 1985, have enabled it to carve a distinctive profile among New England ensembles. Response to its “sonorous, keen and persuasive” (Boston Globe) interpretations has led to the composition of numerous new works dedicated to the Quartet. The BCSQ's 1988 debut recitals in Boston and New York City received overwhelming critical acclaim. Of the Jordan Hall performance, the Boston Globe stated, “the quartet bestowed upon a responsive audience as satisfying an afternoon of contemporary chamber music as one could wish for,” and at Weill Recital Hall, Andrew Porter of the The New Yorker described the Quartet as “bold, accomplished advocates.”

In 1993, the Boston Composers String Quartet won the silver medal at the first Osaka International Chamber Music Competition and Festa in Osaka, Japan. As part of its program, the BCSQ performed string quartets by Beethoven, Bartók, and a new work composed specifically for the Festa, String Quartet No. 3 by Akira Miyoshi. The same year, the BCSQ became the first Artists-in-Residence at the All Newton Music School in West Newton, Massachusetts. Through a series of performances, open rehearsals, and lecture-demonstrations, the Quartet shares with their audience the process of rehearsing, polishing, and performing pieces which are being incorporated into the BCSQ repertoire. The summer of 1993 marked the release of the BCSQ's recording of Daniel Pinkham's String Quartet No. 1 on a CD for Koch International Classics. The Quartet's interpretation of this wonderful composition was said to be “an impressive disc debut” by the Boston Globe.

As a recipient of a three-year Chamber Music Residency Program grant through Chamber Music America, the BCSQ has created a unique music history course. This course, currently designed specifically for fourth graders, is first being offered in the Newton Public Schools. Historical Journey through Music of the String Quartet includes monthly visits to four schools, radio broadcasts on Boston Performances for WGBH-Radio, and Saturday morning performances every month at the All Newton Music School. In order to provide the most historically informative performances possible, the BCSQ performs the Baroque and Classical period segments of the course on period instruments. Already this program has received substantial appreciation within the musical and educational communities, and is expected to expand into other locations in the future. Additional recording projects include string quartets by Pozzi Escot, Robert Kyr, and Gardner Read for three separate CD's promoting a variety of works by these composers.

The ensemble brings together a wealth of experience, its members being champions of new and twentieth-century music as well as accomplished performers on period instruments. The Quartet's original mission of presenting freshly written works performed to the highest standard has been expanded in recent seasons to include, additionally, the rediscovery of neglected or unpublished quartets. From its investigations into the early history of the string quartet to its premieres of new works, the Boston Composers String Quartet brings its repertoire to life with stylistically informed, vibrant performances. The energy the Quartet creates at its concerts excites audiences and critics alike, allowing a greater understanding of the creative process and expression of the human condition.

The Boston Composers String Quartet and the three string quartets of Leon Kirchner

The recording of the three string quartets (1949, 1958, and 1967) by Leon Kirchner is a milestone in the happy relationship the Boston Composers String Quartet has developed with these masterworks over the last six years. After considering many quartet scores we decided to add Kirchner's String Quartet No. 2 to our repertoire for the 1989-90 season. The first and third quartets (respectively) came the following seasons. Kirchner's works are immediately engaging, yet dramatically different; the composer has stated, “They require the utmost musicality and technical expertise; qualities in short required of any other chamber work in the literature, past and present.”

The relationship that members of the BCSQ have developed with Leon Kirchner has evolved for over a decade, from teacher, coach and mentor, to colleague and friend. Members of the Quartet have worked with Kirchner since our college years in the early 1980's at Boston University and the New England Conservatory of Music. More recently we have worked intimately with Kirchner as members of the Harvard Chamber Orchestra and Friends (an outgrowth of the Harvard Chamber Players and Friends) which Kirchner directs. When we began scheduling Kirchner's string quartets for performances an even deeper friendship grew as the BCSQ mastered Kirchner's personal musical language at coachings and discussions with the composer at his home. Misprints in the scores and parts were corrected, subtle adjustments of tempo were made, and just the right execution of each movement, each phrase (practically each note!) was established. The composer was also present at the recording sessions to help add final touches to the interpretation of each work.

String Quartet No. 1 was written in 1949 and won a New York Critics' Circle Award. The composer has said that the music of Béla Bartók influenced this work and describes his own work as follows:

“The first movement of the Quartet, Allegro ma non troppo, is divided into four sections. The first section contains two expositions of thematic material presented in the opening measures. The second section contrasts this material harmonically, metrically and structurally. The third section is a pre-recapitulation of the modified introductory material and the final section combines the functions of recapitulation and coda.

The second movement, Adagio, is an outgrowth of a detail in the original thematic material. It has one principle theme built from various alterations of the interval of a third, first introduced by the `cello.

The third movement is a Scherzo with obligatory Trio. The last movement, Adagio, serves as a recapitulatory movement in which character and tempo relationships are largely modified. The final section of this movement presents the opening thematic idea in a new and closing ambience.”

String Quartet No. 2 was written in 1958 and also won a New York Critics' Circle Award. The concert annotator Benjamin Folkman describes the work as follows:

“String Quartet No. 2 opens by stating its basic thematic principles. The descending minor second in the first violin against its inversion in the second violin, the rising third in the viola, and the rising scale topped by a third in the `cello, all heard in the opening measure, dominate the material throughout. The first movement is mostly vigorous until near its end, when a recapitulation of its first two measures develops into a discussion around a rising scale passage.

Mysterious chords open the slow movement. Exotic colors soon provoke accelerating climaxes. Discussion of the first movement subsides into an evocation of the opening. The concluding section is more florid and expansively lyrical, especially the `cello solo near the close.

Repeated chords predominate in the finale, and descending scales are now quick to rebuke rising ones. An intense passage for the first violin dramatically leads to a recapitulation of some sixteen measures from near the opening of the slow movement, to which the `cello contributes an important new pizzicato chord and a new countermelody. The rocking figure leads back to the earlier material. The quietness of the ending is only its first surprise — the intrusive cadence near its conclusion sounds brand new but has actually been heard at various points in all three movements.”

String Quartet No. 3 with Electronic Tape was written in 1967 and won a Pulitzer Prize. The initial stage of learning and performing this Quartet was an adventure. Having not been performed for years, the music was difficult to come by and the reel tape was in a highly deteriorated and volatile state. The only extant copy of the tape and original published edition were at the time in the possession of Mr. Kirchner. It should be said that the original published edition is a visually beautiful and fascinating display of notation with colorful artwork interspersed throughout, which evokes a sense of the part played by the reel tape as it enters and exits the scene.

Realizing that the reel tape portion of this intriguing string quartet was close to extinction, the BCSQ got to work. The first thing was to stabilize the situation by transferring to DAT (Digital Audio Tape), the unique electronic sounds created by Leon Kirchner in 1967. The BCSQ and Mr. Kirchner along with careful guidance by Toby Mountain of Northeastern Digital Sound continued with de-noising, re-editing, and re-mastering the electronic material.

Since the reel tape had to go through a thorough procedure to properly preserve it and make it usable, the BCSQ, remembering an earlier conversation with the composer, seized the opportunity to go even further. Leon Kirchner had wished that the performing ensemble could manage to start and stop the tape part themselves during the performance. The tape part enters and exits numerous times during the piece and had in the past required a fifth person following the musical score behind the scenes to control the entrance and exit of the taped electronic sounds. Having Mr. Kirchner's wish in mind, the Boston Composers String Quartet developed an idea of putting the tape part onto a CD (Compact Disc) and using a portable compact disc player with a foot pedal as a remote toggle switch. With the help of modern technology and Bob Alac of Alactronics, a foot pedal was attached to control the on and off mechanism of the portable compact disc player and part of the composer's dream, held back by the technology of 1967, became a reality in 1992.

These improvements, the de-noising, re-editing, re-mastering, transfering to CD digital format, and foot pedal design, have provided ease of use for performing this Pulitzer Prize winning string quartet, and will prolong the life of this fascinating work for many generations.

The composer gives his thoughts on electronic music (circa 1967) and describes his work as follows:

“Before beginning my String Quartet No. 3 with Electronic Tape, I gave considerable thought to the particular attributes of electronic music. The electronic medium is frequently spoken of as being absolutely unlimited in possibility. In general, I would say that music has gained new insights from the manipulations of electronic sounds, but the supposed lack of limitation is quite deceptive. Theoretically, it would seem to be unlimited, and yet I think this is the area which is most problematic. By a third, if not second, performance of even an exemplary electronic piece, one develops a certain listener's fatigue... it could be boredom. There is no `characteristic limit' or instant accommodation to a brilliant whim or `accident.' The subtle manifestations, the deep reflections on structure and gestalt that are subject to human control in the great performer have a restrictive life in the electronic medium.

More interesting to me are the combinations of instruments with electronic sounds and filters. Instrumental qualities are then somehow reflected, extended, and adumbrated in interesting ways. `Human involvement' is, of course, essential; for the problems of composition remain the primary factors. I set out to produce a meaningful and musical confrontation between `new' electronic sounds and those of the traditional string quartet.

There is a great deal of talk these days about systems analysis, determination of rules, and so forth, but the act of total involvement, of physical and spiritual play, seems to be forgotten. One of the naive assumptions in the construction of electronic or computer music, for instance, is that if one programs the parameters (duration, density, pitch, harmony, etc.) music should result. Granted competence in techniques, it is their use that is essential — and their artistic use depends on the vast and total memory bank of the human mind. In this sense, though the electronic sounds in my Quartet took four days to write, the notes took fifty years.

Music is an art not a science, and if a science, as Machaut postulated, “it is a science which must make people laugh and dance and sing”. The recent, almost exclusive involvement with the `substantive' and the craze for `verification' or `causal explanation' seems to me to fossilize that art and make it bloodless. My String Quartet No. 3 with Electronic Tape is not concerned with systems, rules, procedures — or that monstrosity known as `total control.' I composed the work because of sheer musical urge. It was fun, and while I composed it I was very conscious of the joy of creating music.”

The three string quartets of Leon Kirchner were recorded during the 1993-1994 concert season at Saint Paul's Church, Brookline, Massachusetts. The composer was present for the recording sessions.

Produced by: Boston Composers String Quartet. • Recorded by: Anthony DiBartolo. • Edited and mastered by: Toby Mountain, Northeastern Digital Recording. • Photography by: Susan Wilson. Photo of Leon Kirchner by John Goodman.

Liner notes by: Boston Composers String Quartet, based on conversations with and materials provided by Leon Kirchner, biographical sketch about the composer by Ellen Schantz from the Associated Music Publishers brochure (permission given by AMP Inc.), and program notes on String Quartet No. 2 by Benjamin Folkman (permission given by Benjamin Folkman).

The Boston Composers String Quartet would like to thank the following individuals and organizations for their invaluable help and support:

Aaron Copland Fund for Music • All Newton Music School • Susan Feder, G. Schirmer, Inc., and Associated Music Publishers, Inc. • Thomas Jenei and the Music Committee of Saint Paul's Church, Brookline, Massachusetts • National Endowment for the Arts