Theodor Kirchner (1823-1903)

Theodor Kirchner, Holzstich nach einer Originalzeichnung
Theodor Kirchner, wood engraving on original drawing (StadtMuseum Bonn)

Theodor Kirchner was originally from Chemnitz and received music lessons very early, especially in organ playing as well as music theory. In fall 1837 his father took him to Leipzig and introduced him to Robert Schumann, who noted in his diary, the 14 year old still has to exercise. A year later, Theodor Kirchner was introduced to Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and cantor Weinlig.

Mendelssohn encouraged the young boy to stay in Leipzig, and to take lessons with the organist of the Nikolai Church, Carl Ferdinand Becker. Schumann and Kirchner now met more often, and in June 1838 Schumann noted that, Kirchner was "a major talent and good mind." After the founding of the Leipzig Conservatory under Mendelssohn's direction, Kirchner became the first student and received a royal permission.

In 1843 Kirchner applied for a position as organist in Winterthur, for which he was recommended for by Mendelssohn and Schumann and which he finally received. In 1851 and 1853 he visited Clara and Robert Schumann in Düsseldorf. Schumann reviewed Kirchner’s Piano Pieces op .10 very positive. After his death, Kirchner still stayed in contact with Clara who visited him in Switzerland and came to know him better.


Kirchner adored Schumann's music - and Clara. In the summer of 1863, he visited her in her home in Lichtenthal near Baden-Baden for a few weeks and persuaded her to abandon the role as a motherly friend and to see him not only as a friend but also as her lover.

Clara Schumann tried to argue Kirchner out of his passion for gambling. She paid his debts and gave him money, which he then gambled away despite his promising to stop. Kirchner was one of the few people whom Clara Schumann allowed to address her on first-name terms. After Clara realized the fact Kirchner would not change and she won’t have any influence on him, this familiar intercourse was no longer acceptable for her.

In July 1864, she wrote a letter to him in which she restored the distance and returned to formal addressing. It seems that they never saw each other again. She was deeply disappointed by his behavior and one year later she called him a “big blackguard”.

Kirchner was appointed as conductor in 1862 and moved to Zurich. He gave concerts and piano lessons there as well as in Winterthur. In 1872 he went to the Meiningen court as a music teacher and in 1873 he moved to Würzburg as director of the school of music, a position for which he was not suitable, as he found out himself.

From 1876 onwards, he scratched a living with his wife and three children in Leipzig as a composer and arranger, but lived in constant need of money. The situation did not improve after moving to Dresden in 1883.

In 1890, he went to Hamburg alone, where he was supported by Hans von Bülow and Brahms. Almost blind, he died in 1903 after suffering from several strokes. He was a prolific composer and focused his work mainly on piano works.

(Julia M. Nauhaus, translated by Katharina Ma)

Cp. Renate Hofmann, Clara Schumanns Briefe an Theodor Kirchner. Mit einer Lebensskizze des Komponisten, 1996. Still available in bookstores (

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