About Leon: that harmonic stuff

September 17, 2009

Leon Kirchner © Jamie Cope

Leon Kirchner © Jamie Cope

He was called “Leon” not “Leo” or “Leonard.” I made this clear with Pete and Deb who are debating calling their son “Leo” extolling my preference for “Leon” as in “Leon Kirchner” who died today.

Leon was my teacher at Harvard between 1978 and 1983. I remember fondly our coffee breaks between classes; the composition seminar was slow but good. I preferred Earl Kim’s analysis seminars. Private lessons with Leon were always thrilling.

He guided my Masters degree which was “Sweet Alchemy” for orchestra, (commissioned by ALEA III). We had to play our own music at the piano, no matter what it was scored for, so I composed the piece so that I could play it, but also using my new tonal language. I played it for the seminar one day and his only comment was “Why do you have to write that harmonic stuff?” I replied that I was tired of thinking I had to grow up to become the next Elliott Carter, or Karlheinz Stockhausen. It’s not who I am, I insisted. He smiled and went on to the next composer. Leon used the same phrase–that harmonic stuff–when John Adams (who was also a Kirchner student) sent a cassette of “Shakers Loops.” Kirchner played it for our composition class.

Leon retired the year after I graduated for what I thought was a medical reason (his heart?). Of my professors at Harvard, Kirchner outlived Earl Kim, and Ivan Tcherepnin — Tison Street is alive and well in NYC. I mowed Leon’s lawn one summer. He introduced my to Randall Thompson in 1980 for whom I served as a personal assistant.

Leon always wished that he were better respected as a conductor. “Ah c’mon, you’ve had a great career” I replied.

I told him that I had figured out the style of this music: “It’s Russian Mysticism” out of the rib of Scriabin. He roared with laughter and we went back to our lesson.

In my first set of qualifying exams, Leon asked me what the iambic rhythmic figures were in the section just before the development in the B flat Sonata, first movement. I said I didn’t know. (I do now.) Because of this error, the committee (Leon) decided to give me a John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship to go to LA and investigate film music, and come back in a year to face a second set of oral exams where you will be expected to tell us the difference between Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven as exemplified by their complete string quartets, piano sonatas and symphonies.

I returned the following year and was grilled on Varese’s “Ameriques” and Debussy’ “La Mer.” Leon didn’t attend as he withdrew from all graduate teaching for a year — I have no idea why. I worked hard on that, and they didn’t even ask me about it.

It was Leon Kirchner who called Henri Lazarof to recommend me for the job at UCLA. That telephone call changed my life.

Farewell Leon. Thanks for everything. You had a wonderful life!

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