LEON KIRCHNER – An American Journey – String Quartet No. 1

Leon Kirchner [born 1919] was an American composer who wrote four string quartets.

The first, written in 1949 contains four movements. It opens with an slightly entropic feeling; a sort of muted chaos. It reminds me of a large city, Metropolis, a 1927 silent movie! It moves into a period of quiet solo cello, then the violins enter to complete the mood. The tempo returns, with associated string sound effects, which, to me, make for the sound of an urban landscape.

The second movement opens with pizzicato and strange, distant sounds, coming from the violins. It brings to mind the early hours in a vast city, with things going on in back alleys and mysterious places. This is a very alluring, mildly atonal scene. It has no forward impetus, just sketches of a murky mood.

The third movement opens with a violin flourish before moving into a tempo, no stasis here. This piece just won’t settle; it wants to be somewhere. The movement is palpable. The violins scuttle here and there and I can feel rats in the environment.

The final movement is an adagio, with dissonant melodies prevailing. This is stasis, with no forward movement. It does eventually pick up tempo, and, nearing the end, is quite assertive.

I need to hear it again, but my first impression is that this is an early Modern American quartet, which paints a mesmeric, although bleak, scene.

SQ No. 2, quite similar to the above, is in three movements. Written in 1958, it appears to be of the same mid-1950s style. I’m amazed how many American composers go for this type of emotional sound space. The first, short, movement opens in a pensive mood, set up by an early melodic statement. Nearing the end, the mood turns very peaceful.

The second movement, marked adagio, goes straight into abstraction. I wish I could find another word for this type of feeling. There are synonyms, but they don’t seem right for a sound that I have been seeking my whole musical life. It’s a rumbling, slightly dissonant world that is definitely of this era. I first experienced this atmosphere way back in 1970, on our national broadcaster, the ABC, which played a lot of weird music at that time. It’s an inexplicable type of beauty. Such is the mystery of music. It’s a topic that deserves its own post. I am working on it, but there are many more works to be heard first!

The final movement is agitated and insistent. The instruments clash, both harmonically and rhythmically. This feeling mellows only slightly and it retains an intangible quality throughout its short duration.

Back to Kirchner. His third quartet is for SQ and tape. I find it appalling. It’s like Peter Sculthorpe (reviewed June 2016), arranging all of his quartets for SQ and didgeridoo. I just find it unfathomable.

The final quartet is in one movement, and of ten minutes duration. It was probably written in the early 2000s, as it does not make my fabulous reference volume, The Twentieth-Century String Quartet by Ian Lawrence, which is mostly very reliable. This one opens in a mood of high drama. After a time, it lightens up. The melodies become gentler, and the cello ‘walks’ for one bar! It is an emotionally static work, but still worth hearing.

Interestingly, the composer doesn’t seem to have modified his style in these works, which were written over a period of fifty years.

Kirchner’s complete quartets are available in several versions, some of which only contain the first three quartets – watch out. On the Albany label, the Orion String Quartet version on Amazon is complete, with all four. This performance is also available on Spotify.

Many Kirchner quartets can be found on YouTube and there is also a fine performance of the First Quartet by the Orion String Quartet on earsense.

Listenability: Satisfying but has a very limited emotional range.


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