Date of Award

Summer 2019

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


School of Music

First Advisor

Larry Wyatt


Kirke Mechem (born 1925) has had a long career, spanning several decades. In looking at his large body of work, it is argued that the role of communicative language is central to his compositional style. This priority, originating from his own background, has influenced his choices of musical and textual language, his preferred genres of composition, and his beliefs about the role of music. The importance of communicative language in Mechem’s music sets him apart in the musical landscape of the late 20th and early 21st century.

From early on both music and the written word held a high importance for Mechem, due to the influence of his writer-father and musician-mother. This duality led him to compose extensively in vocal genres. His musical studies at Stanford and Harvard Universities encouraged him to use a tonal musical language, which was in contrast to most American universities in the post-WW2 era. Mechem believed that music could only be communicative when it used a language that its audience could understand, and so continued to communicate through the language of tonality. Likewise, Mechem sought to set texts that were intelligible to an audience, choosing vernacular texts and often communicating directly with texts that he penned himself. His value of musical and textual communication eventually led him to opera, and he wrote four (librettos and music), the most famous to date being Tartuffe. In the process of striving to communicate with his audience through musical and textual language, Mechem’s own personality made an imprint on his musical style. Aspects of his personality that are evident in his music are wit, humor, optimism, and social justice.

Having written over 150 choral works and four operas, Mechem has made a unique contribution to the choral and operatic repertories through his intentional use of communicative language. Through a large-view look at his works (including their genre, subject matter, and musical style), and a study of the philosophical writings of the composer, the author has supported her thesis that the use of communicative language, both verbal and musical, is a unifying and prevalent feature in Kirke Mechem’s entire compositional output.

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