Monday, 18 April 2011

Leon Kirchner and 'a Boo for the Boos of Boulez'

Known throughout his career for his controversial stances and outspoken polemics, in 1952 Pierre Boulez aroused considerable ire with his essay “Schoenberg is Dead”, which denigrated the aging composer for being too conservative in comparison to Webern.

In 1963 Leon Kirchner was in his second year of teaching at Harvard. Despite his discomfort with Boulez’ attack on Schoenberg, he was prepared to offer camaraderie to the Frenchman during his own sojourn in Cambridge. During the following years Boulez became increasingly active and successful as an orchestral conductor and remained in contact with Kicrhner. Robert Riggs takes up the story in his recently published biography,
Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer, and Teacher:

In January 1969 Boulez’ appointment as music director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London was announced, and in the spring of that year he came to the United States again, this time as a guest conductor with the orchestras in Cleveland, Boston, Chicago, and New York. Boulez agreed to be interviewed in Boston by Joan Peyser for a feature article to be published in the New York Times. During the interview over a long lunch at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Boulez became quite expansive, providing Peyser with numerous quotable but also controversial remarks for her article, which appeared in the Arts and Leisure Section on Sunday, March 9, 1969. The headline, “A Fighter From Way Back” (supplied by the Times editors), already gives a premonition of the article’s thrust: an attack by Boulez on various aspects of American musical life.

According to Boulez, composers who publish in Perspectives of New Music “think they are great scientists. They are not. I know great scientists and they possess invention and imagination. Composers who publish in this journal never discuss important questions of choice and decision. They write only about putting different things together. This is not an esthetic point of view. It’s what I call a ‘cashier’s point of view.’’’ Addressing the perceived rivalry between European and American composers, Boulez asserted: “The Americans do operate under a severe handicap, of course; they have no strong personalities in the field. If they were strong enough to establish their personality on the world, they would see that no national favoritism exists. . . . They have no one in America as good as Hans Werner Henze, and that is not setting your sights very high. A composer the stature of Stockhausen they have not.” Boulez also offered a diagnosis of what caused this alleged impoverished state of music in America:

European music in not connected with the university. There is no ivory castle for us. But here, the university people and practical musicians ignore each other. It’s a very unhealthy state of affairs. I do not like this pedantic approach. I do not like scholars who bring only Death to music. The university situation is incestuous. It is one big marriage in which the progeny deteriorates, like the progeny of old and noble families. The university musician is in a self-made ghetto, and what is worse, he likes it there.

The night before “A Fighter From Way Back” appeared in the New York Times, Boulez was a guest at the home of Leon and Gertrude Kirchner in Cambridge. Although Boulez obviously knew that the interview/article would be coming out soon, if not the very next day, he was, according to Kirchner, urbane, charming, and completely relaxed that evening. After the very pleasant dinner party on Saturday, the Sunday paper brought Kirchner a rude and totally unexpected shock. Boulez’s inflammatory and judgmental remarks, the sting of which was augmented by his deceptively collegial demeanor the previous evening, disturbed Kirchner. In response, three weeks later he sent a lengthy letter to the editor of the Times.

Peyser had begun her article by recounting how Boulez, as a twenty-year-old, had booed a performance of Stravinsky’s music in Paris. Boulez explained that his action had been directed not at Stravinsky, but rather at those in the music establishment who considered him a God and an idol. Thus, Boulez had booed Stravinsky in order to draw attention to Schoenberg, and eventually he was successful in doing so. Then, a few years later, after Schoenberg’s serial techniques had attracted a wide following, Boulez attacked him in order to promote Webern.

Kirchner prefaced his letter with an extract from Peyser’s article that recounted this story of Boulez’s boos. Then, in the manner of Robert Schumann—who divided his persona between two fictitious interlocutors in order to debate musical issues in his journal, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik—Kirchner launched a satiric dialogue between “Leon” and “Kirchner” who discussed their reactions to the Boulez interview:

LEON: What did you think of “A Fighter from Way Back?”

KIRCHNER: Boulez lost his “cool.” He led with his right. Perhaps he should confine himself to leading Booing Groups.

L: Have you ever led a Booing Group?

K: Well, to be perfectly frank, I’ve booed Boulez’s Boos, not that I was attacking him. I have the greatest respect for him. I was only attacking the establishment which considers Boos “the God, the Idol, the Only Truth.” I’ll be honest with you. I did it to draw attention to Babbitt’s Boos. However, I soon realized I would have to defl ower Babbitt’s Boos with a dwindling supply of my own. Not that I didn’t respect him but I thought it was time to draw some attention to Carter. But really, I don’t want to be drawn into this, it can only lead to Boo dropping. I’d have to mention so many.

The Times decided to use “A Boo for the Boos of Boulez” as the headline for Kirchner’s letter.

After addressing several points in this manner, Kirchner discontinued his humorous repartee in favor of a traditional and serious examination of one the most troubling issues raised by Boulez: the role of universities in American musical life. Having been uncomfortable for many years with the increasing emphasis on positivistic approaches in the cultivation of music within academia, Kirchner proposed that the root of the problem was to be found not with the universities but with the individuals who reside there.

As an example of a rare scholar who recognized this condition, he cited German musicologist Friedrich Blume, who, in a recent guest lecture at Harvard, had given “a vigorous polemic ‘against the encroachment of philological methods’ which ‘pushed aside concern with interpretation, meaning and technique’ to the point where ‘scholars forget that they have to do with music at all.’” In agreement with Boulez’s low assessment of much academic writing about music, Kirchner maintained that “composers can, apparently, demonstrate brilliantly that they are subject to the same restrictive and essentially trivial involvements as some of their colleagues in musicology.”

Broadening the discussion beyond music, Kirchner touched on aspects of the relationship between the arts and the sciences that had concerned him in “Notes on Understanding.” He maintained,

What affects the sciences affects the arts: the inability to distinguish between the operation of a calculus and the operation of human language forms. The enormous success of technology in the solution of a variety of soluble problems has made this inability to distinguish operations more difficult, and the result is that profoundly important areas of activity are suppressed and vanish in favour of a monolithic approach to what appears to be all there is. We are caught in a struggle of methodologies; control and prediction of human behavior vs. the demonstration of human competence and creativity.

Buttressing his position from an unlikely source, and at the same time tying it in to current political issues, Kirchner noted with irony that

we must turn to Vice-Admiral Hyman G. Rickover (the New York Times, June 9, 1967) to be told that “war is not quantifiable,” that human life is not a factor in mathematical cost-effectiveness equations that are fed into computers because there is no way to assign intrinsic value and fi nite proportions to it . . . that “our society is threatened by any man who knows method but not meaning, technique but not principle . . . any man who depreciates wisdom, experience and intuition.”

In response to Boulez’s charge that many American composers, in their fixation on systems and analysis, devalue or even ignore the parameters of imagination, choice, and aesthetics, Kirchner admitted,

In our recent craze and almost exclusive involvement with the “substantive,” we tend to fossilize our art and repudiate its function. One of the wonderful things about Schoenberg—whom Boulez not long ago likened to an unfortunate Moses who never got to the promised 12-tone land—is the contest between abstract rule (from time immemorial a catalyst) and sheer musical urge. The resultant modifications, or “mutants” if you like, are exciting, a result which would be statistically unlikely without the two. At all points, there is a choice to be made and it is the memory bank operating in the continuing present and all that the memory stores of experience and of contemplation that guides the choice.

We talk a great deal about systems analysis, determination of rules and so forth, but in the process we forget the act of total involvement, of physical and spiritual play. Rules are valuable and with a proper understanding we can construct models from which invaluable information may be inferred. But the adequacy of a rule is entirely dependent upon highly refined and sensitive observation and, given an adequate rule, we must also understand that the variables (a most productive area) are difficult to “cover.” When we grasp a fact by describing it, there is no reason to assume that we have understood the total phenomenon.

Leon Kirchner
is available from all good booksellers, both virtual and real, or in case of difficulty, direct from our website.

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