Kirkpatrick, John, 1905-1991

Alternative names
Birth 1905-03-19
Death 1991-11-08

Biographical notes:

American pianist.

From the description of The John Kirkpatrick papers, 1836-1993 (inclusive). (Yale University). WorldCat record id: 702150415

Professor of Music.

Pianist and professor of Music, Cornell University.

From the description of John Kirkpatrick papers, 1951-1965. (Cornell University Library). WorldCat record id: 74898137

b New York

Epithet: pianist

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000472.0x000345

[You have] no idea of the pathological extent of my magpiety. 1

With those words John Kirkpatrick unintentionally posited one reason why his papers are extraordinarily important: there are over 25,000 items in his correspondence and 724 entries in the list of his editions. Kirkpatrick's papers are an almost daily record of a musical life dedicated to perceptive performance, rigorous editing, and an indefatigable scholarship that was especially concentrated on American music.

Over time he held a close, sometimes penetrating relationship 2 with a significant group of American composers whom he held in high regard for their formal sensibilities and strength of melodic direction, including Elliott Carter, Theodore Chandler, Aaron Copland, Ross Lee Finney, Roy Harris, Hunter Johnson, Quinto Maganini, Robert Palmer, Quincy Porter, Roger Sessions, and Virgil Thomson. As a performer Kirkpatrick also championed, among others, Jack Beeson, Arthur Farwell, Stephen Foster, George Gershwin, Henry F. B. Gilbert, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, John Lessard, Edward MacDowell, Daniel Gregory Mason, Charles Mills, Vincent Persichetti, William Grant Still, and Bernard Whitefield. 3 Even more significant, however, was his long relationship with Carl Ruggles and Charles Ives, for whom Kirkpatrick became a family friend and the composers' musical executor and curator.

John Kirkpatrick's lifetime effectively spanned the twentieth century: born in New York City on 18 March 1905, he died in Ithaca, New York, on 8 November 1991. His father's considerable success in the jewelry business allowed John a privileged youth and the best of educations: Westminster and Lawrenceville schools, followed by four years at Princeton University. While he was at Lawrenceville, the publicity about the death of Charles Tomlinson Griffes sparked Kirkpatrick's first enthusiasm for American music. (For him, at that time, American music meant mainly that of MacDowell and Griffes.) In 1925, between his junior and senior years, he spent the summer as a student at the Conservatoire Américain at Fontainebleau, near Paris. There he discovered exciting people, new music, fascinating challenges, and, in Nadia Boulanger, a truly great teacher.

Back at Princeton for his senior year, John's interest in academic pursuits soured. By February 1926 he decided to give up his pursuit of a degree and in June returned to Paris for what became a five-year period that included studying piano first with Camille Decreus and Isidore Philipp and later with Louta Nouneberg, musical studies at the École Normale de Musique de Paris, and continued work with Boulanger. During this period Kirkpatrick became close to Virgil Thomson; Igor, Soulima, and Théodore Stravinsky (John studied with Igor in 1929 and 1931); Aaron Copland (writing for the Fontainebleau Alumni Bulletin of May 1928, what seems to have been the first published commentary on Copland's music); Roy Harris; Quincy Porter; and a number of other important musical figures. On Katherine Heyman's piano John noticed a copy of Ives's "Concord" Sonata and immediately wrote to Ives (7 October 1927). This led to a relationship with Ives's music that fairly defined Kirkpatrick's life and reputation thereafter.

His father's death in 1928 and the onset of the Depression conspired to force John back to America in 1931. He set himself up living and teaching piano, first in Greenwich, then Riverside, and, by the end of the 1930s, in Stamford, Connecticut. He was immediately a part of Copland's circle, performing at the first Festival of Contemporary Music at the Saratoga Springs, New York, estate called Yaddo (30 April 1932). 4 Sometime in the early 1930s, perhaps introduced by Ives, John began corresponding and working with Carl Ruggles on the composer's piano pieces, Evocations .

In February 1933, Kirkpatrick performed the "Alcotts" movement of Ives's "Concord" Sonata at a recital in Alma Wertheim's New York City home--his first performance of any music by Ives. On 28 January 1936 at his Town Hall debut recital, John presented his first public performance of the "Emerson" movement. 5 A year and a half later he finally met Ives personally for the first time (12 May 1937 at Ives's West Redding, Connecticut, country home). His first complete performance of the Concord from memory was for a private gathering (28 November 1938, "The Old House," Cos Cob), in preparation for a coming recital in Town Hall. That signal event (20 January 1939) was poorly attended, but New York's most significant music critic, Lawrence Gilman, was present out of keen interest in Ives's Sonata. Gilman's rave review stunned the town's musical cognoscenti and catapulted forward both the composer's reputation and the pianist's career. 6

In January 1940, Kirkpatrick was called in as a last-minute replacement for an accompanist and met Hope Miller, a soprano and a woman of remarkable cultivation. On the immediate recital tour they fell in love and were married on June 20th in New York; her parents built for them a lovely summer home ("Windways") in Georgetown, Connecticut (whose close proximity to Ives's West Redding home was providential). The following fall John Kirkpatrick made what must have been his first recording, Robert Palmer's Piano Sonata No. 1 for the Yaddo label. 7 At this time John began performing in recitals under the auspices of the American Association of Colleges (74 throughout the country between 1940 and 1953).

In 1942, the Kirkpatricks relocated to Godfrey, Illinois, where for one year John headed the music department at Monticello College. The following year John moved to an associate professorship at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. While there, their first child was born, Marguerite ("Daisy"). On 9 April 1945 John set down the premiere recording of the "Concord" Sonata (and "In the Inn") for Columbia Records (issued 1948). In 1946, the Kirkpatricks relocated again for John's new position at Cornell University (later deflecting approaches from UCLA and Indiana University). There in Ithaca their son, David Hope, and second daughter, Mary Paul, were born. From 1949 to 1953 John was chairman of the music department and, from 1950 to 1968, a full professor. On 11 June 1950 he recorded Carl Ruggles's Evocations (revision of 1950) for Columbia (issued 1955). From 1953 to 1957 he led Cornell's Sage Chapel Choir (on 25 April 1954 conducting a performance of his own translation and arrangement of Honegger's Le roi David ). On 23-28 August 1954 Helen Boatwright joined him in recording twenty-four songs of Charles Ives for Overtone (issued 1955).

With the death of Charles Ives in May 1954, Kirkpatrick took on the task of sorting over seven thousand pages of Ives manuscripts and nearly as many photostats in the West Redding barn. Six years and many stages later Kirkpatrick finished the incomparable A Temporary Mimeographed Catalogue of the Music Manuscripts and Related Materials of Charles Edward Ives (November 1960) which, contrary to its modest title, was his greatest scholarly achievement.

A talk at Tanglewood on 4 July 1958 prompted John to fashion a corrected version of Ives's Second String Quartet for the Walden String Quartet's performance there; this was the beginning of his familiarity with critical editorial procedure. 8 In finishing the Ives catalogue he was able to assemble the nearly complete typescripts of Ives's Memos and used his 1966-67 fifteen-month sabbatical from Cornell to do the bulk of his exacting editing of the text. The result was published, with Kirkpatrick's extraordinary annotations, 21 appendixes, and 3 indexes, by W. W. Norton & Co. in late 1972.

On 28-29 March 1968 Kirkpatrick recorded the "Concord" Sonata for the second time, again for Columbia Records (issued 1968), garnering the Edison Award (conferred in Amsterdam, 16 October 1970). John accepted a Yale University professorship of piano and curatorship of the Ives Collection in fall 1968 (and with it a Yale honorary Master of Arts degree) and moved to New Haven, Connecticut.

After his retirement in 1973, he became chairman of the newly reactivated Charles Ives Society, Inc. and mentored and cultivated with great generosity a new generation of Ives and Ruggles scholars. He himself entered a period of intense editing of Ives's works and performing--most significantly, the Ives Violin Sonatas in performances with Daniel Stepner (both playing without music, even at the 18-19 & 22 December 1978 recording sessions later released on the Music Masters/Musical Heritage Society labels, 1981/82) and two of the most personally satisfying performances of his lifetime, the "Concord" Sonata for the Ives Centennial Festival-Conference (17 October 1974) and for the bicentennial of Concord, Massachusetts (4 March 1975). 9 In June 1977, the University of Hartford conferred on Kirkpatrick an Honorary Doctor of Music degree.

A stroke on 17 June 1981 arrested Kirkpatrick's headlong drive of accomplishment. He recovered enough to dedicate himself to the hope of finishing an edition, begun at least four times with varying purposes, of Ives's "Concord" Sonata . He accomplished a handsome ink score, but the mass of multi-revised footnotes are confusing. By 1990 the Kirkpatricks felt the need to be near their children and moved back to Ithaca. Before leaving New Haven, John donated his papers to the Yale Music Library. A year and a half later he died quietly at home.

1 See Kirkpatrick's letter to Theodore M. Finney where John responds to the question of whether he might have kept correspondence with Ross Lee Finney concerning the composer's Piano Sonata No. 4, in I. A. Correspondence: University of Pittsburgh, 1962 Jan 4. 2 Hunter Johnson elucidates this: "I learned more about composition from you than from any other source. From your persistent probing, and questioning and commenting came enlightenment, about clarity, and finish and certain refinements of structure, and many other matters too numerous to mention." (see I. A. Correspondence: Kirkpatrick 80th birthday/Johnson, 1985 March 14) 3 Kirkpatrick states that, between 1933-1950, he gave the first performance of Bowles: Sonatina; Chanler: Toccata, A Child in the House; Copland: Piano Sonata; Farwell: 2nd Navajo War Dance; Finney: Fantasy, Nostalgic Waltzes, Piano Sonatas 3 & 4; Foster: Old Folks at Home Variations; Ives: "Concord" Sonata; Johnson: Piano Sonata; Lessard: 2nd Piano Sonata; Mills: 1st Piano Sonata; Palmer: 3 Preludes, Piano Sonatas 1 & 2; and Ruggles: Evocations. (see letter responding to Tait Sanford in I. A. Correspondence: University of Michigan, 1950 May 10) 4 Years later Kirkpatrick recalled that his resolve to learn the "Concord" Sonata was sparked by hearing Copland and Hubert Linscott perform seven songs of Ives at the third concert (1932 May 1) in this festival. (see I. A. Correspondence: Copland, 1958 October 17) 5 This is the first of his own recitals later cited by Kirkpatrick in response to a 1970 inquiry for his "outstanding programs" (see I. A. Correspondence: Kehler). The others checked-off in a slightly longer list are: 20 January 1939, 8 November 1949, November 1950-April 1951 (at Cornell), 25 April 1954, 9 November 1955, 12 February 1956, 18 October 1964. 6 This prompted the first known all-Ives recital: a repeat performance of the Concord, but with mezzo-soprano Mina Hager filling out the recital with fourteen Ives songs and Kirkpatrick adding his arrangement for piano of Ives's "Fugue" from the 4th Symphony. 7 Other recordings by Kirkpatrick not mentioned in this introduction are: Palmer Quartet for piano and strings with the Walden Trio for Columbia Records (1947, issued 1954); Edward MacDowell Woodland Sketches, Sea Pieces, Fireside Tales & New England Idyls for Columbia Records (1948?, issued 1951); Hunter Johnson Letter to the World (1949?, issued 1950s) and Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1954, issued 1954) both for Concert Hall, with Robert Hull conducting; Henry Cowell Toccanta for Columbia Records (4 Feb 1955?, issued 1955); Gottschalk Danza, O ma charmante, Suis-mois, El Cocoyé recorded live, Pan American Union, Washington, DC (17 December 1969, issued by Turnabout, 1971); Charles Ives Songs (25) with Helen Boatwright, for Columbia Records (18-25 November 1969, issued 1974); Ruggles Evocations for the second time, for CBS Masterworks (11 October 1977, issued 1980). 8 See Kirkpatrick's letter to Todd Vunderink in I. A. Correspondence: Peer-Southern Organization, 1986 Jul 10. 9 John said that on these occasions he felt Ives was there with him, "I didn't feel that I was playing the music, more that the music was playing me!" On 20 Jan 1979 (the 40th anniversary of his premiere of the Concord), Kirkpatrick performed Concord for the last time (apparently his 70th performance of the complete work). Only days earlier he had written to Randall Marsh, "I suspect I ought to do something like retire." (see I. A. Correspondence: Marsh, 1979 Jan 8).

From the guide to the The John Kirkpatrick Papers, 1836-1993 (inclusive), (Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Yale University)

Biographical notes are generated from the bibliographic and archival source records supplied by data contributors.


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  • Pianists
  • Musicians
  • Music--United States--20th century.
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  • Pianists--United States.
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