Born in New York, Leon Kirchner moved with his family to Los Angeles and began his studies at the Los Angeles City College. His talents immediately stood out and was referred him to be taught under Arnold Shoenberg. Kirchner pursued his graduate studies at University of California at Berkeley under Ernest Bloch. While at UC Berkeley, Kirchner was awarded the George Ladd Prix de Paris in 1942 but, due to the war, was unable to go. Instead, for three years during his military service in New York, Kirchner studied with Roger Sessions, after which he returned to Berkeley. In 1948-49, Kirchner was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and, in 1950, joined the faculty at University of Southern California. At the recommendation of Stravinsky, Kirchner joined the faculty at Mills College in 1954. Stravinsky, however, had second thoughts and attempted to persuade Kirchner out of taking the teaching position, urging him that he should instead perform and compose. Kirchner ignored this advice and continued teaching and composing, joining the Harvard faculty in 1961. In 1966, Kirchner filled the Walter Bigelow Roser Professor of Music position, created a course focusing on the analyzing and performing of chamber music, and also became the conductor for the Harvard Chamber Orchestra which was made up of mostly freelance musicians from the Boston area. In 1989, Kirchner retired from Harvard and focused more on composing.
While remaining very independent of any traditional school of thought, Kirchner’s early influencers were Hindemith, Bartök, and Stravinsky. He also drew on the Viennese traditions with influence coming from Shoenberg and Berg as well as Webern. In his later years, an influence of the Romantic tradition alongside Mahler can be seen. Kirchner’s four string quartets, the composition of which span across fifty seven years, together serve as a witness of his full stylistic transformation over his entire career.
During his life, Kirchner was found praise amongst his peers, critics and audiences alike. He was honored by the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1962), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1963), the center for Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences (1974), the New York Critics (for the first and second string quartets), the Naumburg Award (for the first piano concerto), a Pulitzer Prize (1967 for the third quartet), and a Friedheim Award (for Music for Cello and Orchestra).