Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer of Atonal Music

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 2009

Leon Kirchner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of expressive, rigorous, atonal yet romantic music, died Sept. 17 of congestive heart failure at his home in New York. He was 90.

A pianist and conductor as well as a composer, Mr. Kirchner stood somewhat outside the main musical currents of the late 20th century, forging his own way without being confrontational. A superb craftsman, he wrote music that was emotionally supercharged but also structurally rigorous, very much in the tradition of the Second Viennese School (Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, in particular). Yet Mr. Kirchner did not turn to the organizational principles so prevalent in his day: Serialism and the dodecaphonic (or 12-tone) system remained outside his field of inquiry.

Of the prevalent trends of his time, he once wrote that "idea, the precious ore of art, is lost in the jungle of graphs, prepared tapes, feedbacks and cold stylistic minutiae." Nonetheless, he was not above occasional experimentation.

In his Third String Quartet, he "set out to produce a meaningful confrontation between the 'new' electronic sounds and those of the traditional string quartet," writing a separate line for electronic tape. The work won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 -- marking the first time the Pulitzer went to a piece using electronics.

Leon Kirchner was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Jan. 24, 1919, and began studying piano at 4. When he was 9, his family moved to Los Angeles, where he was able to benefit from contact with European musicians who had fled Hitler's Germany. Studying at Los Angeles Community College, he won the attention of Ernst Toch, who recommended him to Schoenberg, another local resident. Schoenberg remained one of his strongest influences, although Mr. Kirchner never embraced Schoenberg's 12- note system.

Mr. Kirchner did graduate work with Ernest Bloch at the University of California at Berkeley, taking a hiatus to study with Roger Sessions in New York and to serve in the Army. He married Gertrude Schoenberg (no relation to Arnold Schoenberg) in 1949. In 1954, he took a position at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and in 1961 went on to teach at Harvard, where he remained until his retirement in 1989.

His most popular course combined musical analysis and performance by students such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and composer John Adams. He also founded the Harvard Chamber Orchestra.

In his music, Mr. Kirchner gradually moved from the large-scale hyper-expressivity of earlier pieces, such as his first piano sonata (1948) and his two piano concertos (1953 and 1963), to more compact utterances. (His fourth and final string quartet, from 2006, is only 13 minutes long.)

Mr. Kirchner devoted more than a decade to the composition of "Lily," his sole opera, based on Saul Bellow's novel "Henderson the Rain King." The opera's premiere at New York City Opera in 1977 was accounted a disaster by critics, which was a bitter blow to its creator. He later recast some of the music into other pieces, including a 20-minute work for soprano and chamber orchestra.

In 1997, the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered "Of Things Exactly as They Are," a large-scale work for soloists, chorus and orchestra that Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer called a "career-crowning achievement."

Mr. Kirchner continued composing to the end of his life. His final orchestral work, "The Forbidden," was given its premiere by James Levine and the Boston Symphony in October 2008. The piece was conceived as part of a loose triptych, along with Mr. Kirchner's last string quartet and third piano sonata, exploring techniques that were "forbidden" to composers in certain epochs, such as the diminished seventh interval.

Mr. Kirchner's wife died in 1999, and for the final years of his life he lived in New York with his companion, Sally Wardwell. Other survivors include two children and a stepdaughter from his first marriage; a brother; and a granddaughter.

Violist Scott Nickrenz recalled his first meeting with the composer as a teenager at Tanglewood, the prestigious Massachusetts training center and summer home of the Boston Symphony, where Mr. Kirchner taught. Nickrenz was playing the composer's second string quartet from the manuscript.

"I looked up at him," he recalled, "and said, 'There's either a 16th-note rest or a 16th note missing from this bar, Mr. Kirchner. What should we do about that?' "

Mr. Kirchner's response was an object lesson for all young musicians focused more on the notes than the meaning of the music: He ignored the problem altogether.

"He said, 'Young man, make it sound like a succulent green forest,' " Nickrenz said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company