A dominant figure in American music throughout most of the twentieth century, composer Leon Kirchner (b. 1919) wrote a large quantity of music which, although stylistically tied to the work of Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, remains powerfully individual in expression, and free of the systematic use of 12-tone techniques. In addition, he proved himself to be a formidable pianist, and a skilled conductor of his own works and the established classics.
Born in Brooklyn, Kirchner received most of his musical education in southern California. Piano lessons began at the age of four, and Kirchner's early compositions, written in his teens, gained the notice of composer Ernst Toch at Los Angeles City College (where Kirchner was studying at the time), who recommended that Kirchner study with Schoenberg at the University of California Los Angeles. After taking a BA from the University in 1940 Kirchner began graduate work with Ernst Bloch at Berkeley, though a period of study in New York with Roger Sessions during 1942, and three years of military service would postpone the completion of a master's degree until 1949.
He had already been awarded, in 1948, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1949 he was honored by that foundation a second time. During the early 1950s, Kirchner served on the faculty of the University of Southern California Los Angeles, after which in 1954, he accepted an appointment with Mills College in Oakland. He joined Harvard University in 1961, eventually succeeding Walter Piston as the Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music. In addition to his activities as a composer, Kirchner was active as a conductor and pianist at Harvard, as well as with numerous professional orchestras, until his retirement in 1989. He received many awards and honors throughout his long career, including two New York Music Critics Circle Awards (for his first two string quartets, in 1950 and 1960, respectively), the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for his Third String Quartet, and, in 1994, the Kennedy Center Friedham Award. Since the 1960s, and through the 1990s, he was a member of both the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Despite the wide variety of influences Kirchner was exposed to during his student years -- or perhaps because of it -- his music is consistently original in both content and language. His music is very chromatic, usually in a linear fashion, while a love of irregular rhythm adds a piquant metric flavor to his work. The intervallic content of Kirchner's language and the manner in which intervallic/harmonic units are employed throughout a given work bespeak the influence of Schoenberg, though Kirchner has never been a strictly serial composer in any sense of the word. His consummate craftsmanship is most apparent in the three string quartets. Kirchner remained active during the 1990s, the Music for Cello and Orchestra, premiered by Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra, being perhaps the most famous work composed in that decade.