Kirke Mechem (born August 16, 1925) is an American composer. His first opera, Tartuffe, with over 400 performances in six countries, has become one of the most popular operas written by an American. He has composed more than 250 works in almost every form. In 2002, ASCAP registered performances of his music in 42 countries. He is often called the ”dean of American choral composers” (G. Schirmer bio). His memoir, Believe Your Ears: Life of a Lyric Composer, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2015; it won ASCAP Foundation’s 48th annual Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award for outstanding musical biography.Kirke Mechem American composer born 1925
Kirke Mechem was born August 16, 1925, in Wichita, Kansas. His family moved to Topeka when he was five. His father was a writer of published novels, plays and poetry and was director of the Kansas State Historical Society. His mother was a German-trained concert pianist. Kirke Mechem began studying piano with his mother at an early age but was more interested in sports. He later worked for a time as a sports reporter for the Topeka Daily Capital. He played popular music by ear and at age seventeen began writing what he describes as ”stacks of wretched songs.”
During World War II, he served two and half years in the army, then enrolled at Stanford University as an English major, intending to follow in his father’s footsteps as a writer. Out of curiosity he took a harmony course taught by Harold Schmidt, the choral director, who later became the principal influence on his development as a choral composer and conductor.
He continued his study of harmony and counterpoint, changing his major to music at the end of his junior year. His principal teachers at Stanford were Leonard Ratner (harmony, counterpoint) and Sandor Salgo (orchestration and conducting). In his senior year, Mechem orchestrated and conducted the student variety show.
He earned a master’s degree at Harvard in 1953, studying composition with Walter Piston and Randall Thompson, and was winner of the Boott Prize for vocal composition. He was assistant choral director for three years at Stanford, composing both choral and instrumental music and conducting an opera. He lived in Vienna, Austria in 1956-57 and 1961-63. During his first year there he turned down a teaching and conducting post at Harvard in order to devote as much time as possible to composition.
In 1963 Kirke Mechem returned to the Bay Area with his wife and children and settled into the house in San Francisco where he still lives. He became composer-in-residence at the University of San Francisco and has also taught at many other universities as a guest composer and conductor.
In the early 1970s, Kirke Mechem and his family moved to London for a year. On May 13, 2012, Mechem received an honorary Doctorate from the University of Kansas for ”notable contributions to choral music and opera”.
Most of Kirke Mechem’s early work was for chorus. Some of these pieces, composed as an undergraduate and graduate student, were published and have become staples of the choral literature, including ”Make A Joyful Noise”, (recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) and ”Give Thanks Unto The Lord.” The latter won the tri-annual SAI American Music Award and helped thrust Mechem’s choral work into prominence.
His Opus 5 was a Suite for Piano, later followed by a Piano Sonata and a book of teaching pieces called Whims. In Vienna, he began writing chamber music. His Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano was followed by a Divertimento for Flute and String Trio, and by his first String Quartet, which was the only American prize-winner at the fourth International Concourse for Composition in Monaco.
Mechem’s first major orchestral success was the 1965 San Francisco Symphony premiere of his Symphony No. 1 under Josef Krips, who called the work ”one of the world’s great pieces of music” (Associated Press). Krips commissioned Mechem to write a Second Symphony, which he premiered in 1967 with such success that he repeated it two years later.
Kirke Mechem wrote many commissioned choral suites, cantatas and other vocal works during the early 1970s. Seven doctoral dissertations have been written about his music. In the 70s he saw a performance of Molière’s classic satire, Tartuffe, which inspired him to write his first opera. He wrote his own libretto, as he does for all his operas.
Premiered in 1980 by the San Francisco Opera, Tartuffe was an immediate hit and has since played to audiences in Canada, China, Russia, Austria and Germany, as well as in the United States. Opera Now (London), reviewing the Vienna production, called the work ”a delight, a deft, glimmering, witty score” and praised Mechem’s ”distinctive voice…a genuine flair for theater and an acute understanding of comedy.” In 1998 the National Opera Association presented Mechem with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
The success of Tartuffe encouraged Kirke Mechem to embark upon his most ambitious work, an opera based on the life of the controversial abolitionist, John Brown. An essay Mechem wrote for the American Music Center’s online magazine, New Music Box, describes the long evolution of this work.
The premiere of John Brown did not take place until 2008, when Lyric Opera Kansas City scored ”the sort of magical success that composers and musicians dream of” (Kansas City Star), at which ”the crowd leapt to its feet and clapped so long and hard that hands grew sore” (Pitch.com).
In the twenty-some years between John Brown’s inception and premiere, Mechem wrote many other compositions, including two new operas: The Rivals, based upon Sheridan’s classic play of the same name; and Pride and Prejudice, on Jane Austen’s famous novel. ”The Rivals” received its professional premiere in September, 2011 by the Skylight Opera Theater, Milwaukee to rave reviews—”A hit, an instant classic” (Third Coast Digest).
”Pride and Prejudice” was given its concert premiere by the Redwood Symphony in April 2019, and was given its first staging by the Opera Department of the Peabody Institute in November 2019. Kirke Mechem’s Songs of The Slave, a suite from John Brown, had its full premiere in 1994 and has enjoyed more than 100 performances.
In 1990 Kirke Mechem made his first of three trips to Russia, then still the Soviet Union. That year he was a guest of honor at the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, and was invited back for an ”enormously successful” (Pravda) all-Mechem symphonic concert by the USSR Radio-Television Orchestra in March, 1991—the first time a Soviet orchestra had devoted an entire concert to a living American composer. Five years later he was invited to attend the Russian-language premiere of Tartuffe by the Mussorgsky National Theater for Opera and Ballet in St. Petersburg.
Throughout his career Kirke Mechem continued to write a large number of commissioned choral works. In 2007 the American Choral Directors Association celebrated his 50 years of choral publications with a retrospective concert, performed by the Western Illinois University Singers, at its national convention.
From Kirke Mechem the composer
”As a child I often went to sleep listening to my mother practice the piano. She played at least one recital or concerto every year and we children understood that these were important events. She was a devout Presbyterian, my father an atheist, and they respected each other’s beliefs unreservedly. The common spiritual force in our family was music.
In my adolescence, my confusions or griefs were assuaged by putting on a record of Ravel, Rachmaninov or Bach. Though I do not share my mother’s religious beliefs, the great poetry of the Old Testament and the great music it has inspired through the centuries touch the deepest part of my being because it connects me with my mother. But it also connects me with my father, who was a fine poet (I have set many of his poems to music), and who loved my mother through music just as all of their children did.
”Is it any wonder then that I should regard music as something almost sacred? I do not mean sacred in a religious sense. I mean it in the sense that one would say truth is sacred, life is sacred. They are not to be mocked. While I love to laugh at hypocrisy, and love humor almost anywhere I find it, I am overly sensitive when I hear what I perceive as the trivialization or brutalization of music, or what was common practice in the 20th century—deliberately making it unintelligible to most music-lovers. This wonderful art has room for endless variety, from lighthearted to tragic, from Western to Eastern and everything in between. Each person has a right to his or her own taste, and I recognize that just as we all come from different backgrounds, we all have different ways of listening.
And so I readily admit that my own background has conditioned what I look for in a new piece of music, whether my own, or someone else’s. I don’t want to find new music ”interesting” in a purely intellectual way; I am impatient with novelty or experimentation for their own sake; I am too old to be taken in by trends or jargon. Been there, heard that. I want to love a piece of music, to be delighted by it, to be moved to tears or laughter or in some way taken out of myself. At the very least I must want to hear the piece again, the sooner the better. We composers are speaking a very old language. The new ways in which we speak must be understood by our contemporaries. Otherwise, we are simply spinning our wheels, and music becomes just another plaything, a hobby, an elitist way of putting down the uninitiated. I prefer it to be the magnificent source of joy, consolation, beauty, ingenuity, and inspiration that it has been for generations, and was in my own family.