Leon Kirchner’s ‘Duo No. 2’ Shows the Composer’s Unfailing Vitality

Kirchner was 83 when he wrote the Duo No. 2 in 2002. He considered its completion proof that he still was capable of producing works of great vitality.

By Elizabeth Chang | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Leon Kirchner’s Duo No. 2 for Violin and Piano begins with an arpeggiated question mark in the piano, joined in unison by the violin, and proceeds to unfold in a 15-minute single movement that starts, stops, hesitates, hurtles forward, meanders, dances, evades, agitates, and unfolds into oases of ecstatic simplicity. As a teacher, Kirchner was given to enigmatic pronouncements that his students would ponder for weeks; his narrative style was frequently discursive—it was a not uncommon coaching device for him to recount a seemingly entirely unrelated anecdote or a fable that had you wondering if he had been paying any attention at all to you. On the other hand, he could be scorchingly analytical, drilling through to the structural and emotional inevitability of every note of a work.

Player: Violinist Elizabeth Chang is professor of violin at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a faculty member of the Pre-College Division at the Juilliard School. She is founder and artistic director of the Lighthouse Chamber Players and Musique de Chambre en Val Lamartinien (Burgundy); she also co-founded and co-directs the Five College New Music Festival and the UMass Bach Festival and Symposium. Her recording Transformations, featuring works by Sessions, Schoenberg, and Kirchner, was released by Albany Records in April 2021.
Title of Work Being Studied: Duo No. 2 for Violin and Piano
Composer: Leon Kirchner
Date Composed: 2002
Edition: Associated Music Publishers 

As Kirchner’s student in the 1980s and again at the end of his life, I worked with him on his Piano Trio No. 1 and his Sonata Concertante. I have also performed his Duo No. 1 and Music for Twelve. Kirchner’s first violin and piano duo, written in 1947 when he was still a student of Roger Sessions, is the first work in which he felt that he had found his own voice as a composer. 


By contrast, Kirchner was 83 when he wrote the Duo No. 2 in 2002, and the completion of this work was considered proof to himself and the world that he still was capable of producing works of great vitality. The language of this piece is fantastically energetic and unfailingly sensuous, full of sumptuous harmonies and restless tempo changes—it is difficult to believe that this was the work of a composer with failing health in the twilight of his life. 

Restless and volatile and searching was his normal personal mode…  

—John Adams on his teacher, Leon Kirchner

As pianist Steve Beck and I rehearsed this piece, we wrestled with the multiplicity of peaks, with how to make a coherent whole from the fitful pacing and the cascading torrent of excitability that, we thought, threatened to exhaust the listener. Audience reaction proved our fears were misplaced—people were swept away by the lush harmonic language and the charged energy of the piece. Comparisons with Alban Berg’s work came up again and again.

I embarked on the recording project Transformations as a way of immersing myself in the transformations wrought by pedagogical relationships. I have spent a huge part of my working life as a teacher, and as I draw farther away chronologically from my own years as a student, I increasingly have had occasion to reflect on how one’s identity—both as a musician and as a human being—is forged. A student is susceptible, in that fragile and fertile phase of life, to all manner of personal and musical encounters, but the special intensity of the student-teacher relationship in music has the potential to be uniquely transformative. 


Kirchner spent his own formative years in an unusually rich historical moment under the pedagogical influence of Arnold Schoenberg, Ernest Bloch, and Sessions; he was also in the orbit of Toch, Stravinsky, Milhaud, and many other eminent musicians, writers, and thinkers. Sessions said that his goal as a teacher of a young composer was to “liberate his talent and his creative personality, not to indoctrinate him to or from any specific point of view.” 

Indeed, Kirchner’s music seems to have little in common with the Sessions Solo Violin Sonata, the second work on the album, a work in which the composer makes no effort to soften his rigorous take-no-prisoners austerity. Schoenberg the teacher apparently focused strictly on tonal repertoire in his undergraduate teaching and, contrary to the way he is currently typecast, insisted on striving for emotional immediacy and lack of abstraction. His Phantasy, the final work on my album, clearly references his Viennese and Germanic heritage; Kirchner belongs firmly in that tradition.


The work we do in learning a new piece of music is a constant synthesis and reappraisal of the web of references and interconnections we have assimilated, both consciously and subliminally, from listening, collaborating, studying. It also takes work to preserve the freshness and visceral reaction of a first encounter with a composer or a piece of music, and to remind oneself that any given performance may be a first encounter for one or many listeners. In his Duo No. 2, Kirchner challenges the performer to probe his particularly vivid and immediate emotional world, and to trust that the volatile, searching journey of this piece will present finally a compelling narrative arc.

Elizabeth Chang’s Gear

Violin: 1701 Matteo Goffriller, on generous loan from a private collector
Bow: Pierre Simon
Strings: Thomastik-Infeld Vision