Kirke Mechem: Eight Decades of Choral Composition

Mar 12, 2021

SFCA’s Composer-in-Residence program stands out as a keystone among the various projects through which we collaborate with composers and nurture the creation of new choral works. One of the first composers to participate in the program, which now goes back over 20 years, is Kirke Mechem, who is also a long-standing friend of SFCA and Advisory Board member.

In 2015, when his memoir Believe Your Ears: Life of a Lyric Composer was published, he generously gave us this fascinating interview. We thought this would be a good time to catch up again.

At 95, Mechem is still going strong and working on a 40-minute choral theater piece – an ambitious project! Based on an Italian legend, Befana: A Christmas Fable calls for soloists, a 2-part men’s chorus, a children’s choir and chamber orchestra, as well as mixed chorus. 

It is the story of Befana, an old woman in a small village who is visited by the Magi on their way to Bethlehem.  The preface to Mechem’s libretto describes what happens:

They invite her to join them but she declares that she is too busy with her housework, and promises to join them later. When she realizes her mistake the next day, it is too late. Every year on Epiphany night Befana is doomed to fly on her broom with her gifts, searching for the baby. She leaves candy and gifts at every house where there are young children. 

“For the music to this folk legend I have chosen simplicity of expression,” Mechem writes, “I have sometimes used the styles of early Italian music, including the ancient church modes.” 

The work has been commissioned by the Ensemble Monterey Chamber Orchestra and Cabrillo College Choir, John Anderson and Cheryl Anderson, Conductors.  

Kirke Mechem Tartuffe St Petersberg 2019
In Russia for a performance of the opera Tartuffe

Asked what pieces he’d most like to be remembered for, Mechem’s first response is, “That’s like being asked, ‘Which of your children do you love the most?’,” but he does offer that some of his favorites are Songs of the Slave (1993), with orchestra, Songs of Wisdom (1958-59), a 33-minute a cappella cantata, and The Shepherd and His Love (1967), for 6-part chorus, piano, viola and piccolo. On a smaller scale, favorites include Suite for Chorus (2004), Three Motets (1993-94), Daybreak in Alabama (2012), Choral Variations on American Folk Songs (1995), and American Madrigals (1976).

Mechem’s general advice to young composers is a quote from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” But more specifically, he warns composers of a “double trap:”

At the heart of choral music is a paradox. A choral piece shapes and is shaped by its text, but because audiences rarely understand the words, they usually hear and judge the piece as pure music. This paradox creates a double trap for composers. If we obsess on the text, squeezing disparate musical imagery and emotion out of every line, the listener may hear only disjointed musical episodes. If we pay little attention to the text, focusing on the creation of a satisfying musical form, the result may be a disappointing disconnect between words and music. Today’s composers are more liable to fall into the first trap—obsessing on the text. I hear too many new choral pieces that lack musical organization. *

* From “The Text Trap” Choral Journal 2003.

I’d like to add a personal note here, as I feel so lucky to have known Kirke since my arrival in California almost thirty years ago. I had known his music before, of course, and was immensely touched that such a well-known composer would be so sweetly welcoming and generous to a stranger.   

SFCA was honored to have Kirke as our second Composer-in-Residence, and some of our all-time favorite pieces have been his, including  Loveliest of Trees (below), which always makes me tear up, and the American Trilogy, for which we were one of three premiering choirs.  Then there’s the deeply moving Songs of the Slave, much of which I also performed with the Oakland Symphony Chorus.  

I, and so many grateful conductors and singers, send you bushels of gratitude for the many ways you’ve enriched our lives!

— Magen Solomon

Magen Solomon with Kirke Mechem 2011