Harvard Square — a loosely defined ten- to twelve-block area in the heart of Cambridge, Massachusetts, articulated by a maze of streets and characterized by the interpenetration of university and commercial interests—is full of life, crowded, stimulating, and noisy. Cars, taxis, buses, and a subway station service a constant and remarkably diverse flow of humanity. Students and professors represent only a small fraction of this international, polyglot urban population. Musicians, jugglers, glass harmonica players, and political activists vie for prime sidewalk locations, while youth in punk attire add color. And yet, immediately adjacent to the square, there are a few quiet, narrow, one-way streets lined with buildings from the nineteenth and even eighteenth centuries. For four decades Leon Kirchner made his home in one of these idyllic havens, at 8 Hilliard Street.
On August 12, 2003, I visited him there to continue the series of interviews that I had been conducting over the previous two years. Even at eighty-four, Kirchner’s erect and imposing six-foot-one inch frame had lost very little altitude to the ravages of time. Admittedly, his movements were slow, and he carefully settled into the low sofa across from me, his lanky legs stretched out, almost bridging the distance between us. He had just returned two days earlier from a trip to New York City, and—totally without preamble—he launched immediately into a report.
“We were at a cocktail party and met scientists from Cold Spring Harbor where McClintock, the Nobel Prize winner, had worked. They invited us out to their laboratory. But I was nervous about going, because Watson was going to be there. After what had happened years ago, I didn’t want to encounter him.”
Assuming that I knew something about Cold Spring Harbor, McClintock, and Watson (which I did not) he apparently was not going to offer further explanation. The mysterious Watson intrigued me most, so naturally I probed: “Who was Watson, and what had happened?” It turned out that he was James Watson, a distinguished molecular biologist and former Harvard professor. Kirchner had first met him under unusual circumstances almost forty years earlier.
At that time, because of Kirchner’s reputation for “being from Hollywood,” he was invited by Paul Doty of the Harvard Chemistry Department to attend a reception, ten days hence, for the Greek actress Melina Mercouri. In addition to appearing in Never on Sunday and many other films, she later served, from 1981 to 1989, as the flamboyant and controversial Greek minister of culture.
Although Kirchner had only recently assumed his Harvard post, the University of Chicago was courting him, and just prior to this reception he made a trip there to explore their offer of a university professorship. In Chicago he stayed with Saul Bellow and was wined and dined by university officials. One of the conditions that Kirchner imposed on his acceptance of the position was the guarantee that he could bring in whomever he wished to study composition, even if his choice fell on a candidate whose résumé did not fit the usual standards.
Kirchner discussed this topic at length with George Beadle, the president of the university, emphasizing his conviction that sometimes the most talented and brilliant individuals simply do not conform to traditional expectations in regard to degree acquisition as well as other professional credentials and social skills. Beadle, a distinguished geneticist and Nobel Prize winner, readily agreed with him and related his own experience with just such a case, a highly gifted but problematic scientist named James Watson whom he had supported, against strong opposition from his colleagues, years earlier at the California Institute of Technology. (At this point Kirchner digressed into an explanation of why he eventually turned down the Chicago offer: because of “its location in the middle of the country, the harsh climate, and the distasteful experience of seeing thousands of white fish dying in Lake Michigan during his visit.”)
A few days later, back in Cambridge, Kirchner went to the reception for Mercouri. While most of the guests were hovering around the fascinating actress/ politician, he fell into a pleasant conversation with a faculty member with whom he was not acquainted. Their discussion focused on the topic of extraordinarily talented individuals who sometimes just do not fit in. This of course led to Kirchner’s recent trip to Chicago, and he began to recount his meeting with George Beadle and their conversation about a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, who, in spite his of great intellectual gifts, had experienced some personal and even academic difficulties. Before Kirchner got very far, the unknown man interrupted him: “I think I should tell you that my name is James Watson.” Kirchner had been so embarrassed that he avoided Watson for years on the Harvard campus.
Returning finally to his trip to New York City the previous week, Kirchner said that his friends had made a call to Cold Spring Harbor, which I learned was a research facility on Long Island, and had determined that Watson remembered Kirchner well and would be delighted to have him visit. The trip was a wonderful experience. The physical beauty of the location was beyond compare, and Kirchner had been fascinated by the laboratory’s biochemical research on brain functions, which he described in vivid detail. At one point Watson had expressed doubt that concert pianists, who by necessity have to practice so many hours a day in order to master the technical demands of their instrument, could be broadly educated intellectuals. Naturally, Kirchner took umbrage and suggested that this misconception would be cleared up if he could meet two outstanding pianists, with multifaceted academic credentials, who had recently been championing Kirchner’s music: Jeremy Denk and Jonathan Biss. It turned out that the laboratory ran its own small concert series each year, and Kirchner recommended that these young artists be engaged.
I have related this encounter in such detail because it provides a rich and characteristic entry into several aspects of Kirchner’s persona: his love of storytelling, his interest in science, his wonderful sense of humor, and his outgoing sociability. He delighted in relating personal anecdotes, and his colorful career provided a rich reservoir of material. Moreover, he was a brilliant raconteur, with an astounding memory for details of past conversations and events, and, when needed, the talent to mimic the accents and mannerisms of his protagonists.
With him, however, one anecdote rarely came alone. His conversation was governed by an active stream of consciousness in which associations constantly triggered new ideas and memories. An encounter with Kirchner was always an adventure— stimulating, challenging, and surprising. Sometimes, as in the story described above, the episodes fit neatly inside each other like a Russian nested doll, but one often had to ask for clarification or additional information in order to follow his fleet and fertile chain of thought. It was always worth the effort.
Kirchner’s keen sense of humor always served him especially well in his roles as teacher and conductor. He could be very entertaining and was not above laughter at his own expense. One of his favorite stories concerned an experience at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont where he had performed as pianist in his Sonata Concertante with violinist Alexander Schneider at the beginning of a concert. During the intermission, the violinist Jaime Laredo, who was in the audience, overheard a conversation between two elderly women seated next to him. One asked if the pianist, Kirchner, had indeed composed “that work.” Her friend assured her that he had. “Then,” she pursued, “did all of those notes come out of his head?” “Well, yes, they did,” the friend replied, to which the other retorted, “it must have felt awfully good to get rid of them!”
This extract comes from the opening chapter of Robert Riggs’ new biography, Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer, and Teacher. Readers of this blog may buy this book at 40% discount until the end of November (shipping extra: US $5.95 UK £3.00 Europe £6.50). Simply visit the book’s page on our website and follow the order instructions, quoting reference number $10358 in the US and Canada and =10307 elsewhere. Do hurry, this offer can only run until 30 November 2010.