Theodor Kirchner (1823-1903)

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

Theodor Kirchner was born near Chemnitz and received music lessons from an early age, especially in organ playing and music theory. In the autumn of 1837, his father took him to Leipzig and introduced him to Robert Schumann, who noted in his diary that the fourteen-year-old still had a lot to learn. One year later, Theodor Kirchner was introduced to Felix Mendelssohn and the Cantor at St Thomas, Weinlig.

Mendelssohn prompted the boy to stay in Leipzig, who then took lessons with the organist of St Nicholas Church, Carl Ferdinand Becker. Kirchner and Schumann now met quite often, and in June 1838, Schumann noted that Kirchner was “[a major talent and very intelligent]”. After the founding of the Leipzig Conservatoire with Mendelssohn as Director, Kirchner became the first pupil to enrol and he also received a royal scholarship.

In 1843, Kirchner applied for a position as organist in Winterthur, for which he had recommendations from Mendelssohn and Schumann and which he did receive. In 1851 and 1853, he visited Clara and Robert Schumann in Düsseldorf. Schumann gave a very positive review of Kirchner’s Piano Pieces, Op. 2. After his death, Kirchner maintained a loose contact with Clara; she even went to see him in Switzerland and got to know him better.

Kirchner loved Schumann’s music - and Clara. In the summer of 1863, when he was a guest at her house in Lichtenthal near Baden-Baden for a few weeks, he managed to persuade her to abandon her role as a motherly friend and to see him not only as a friend but also as a lover.

Clara Schumann tried to argue Kirchner out of his passion for gambling. She paid his debts and gave him money which, however, he gambled away again despite his promises to the contrary. Kirchner was one of the few people whom Clara Schumann allowed to address her on first-name terms. After Clara had to realise that she would not be able to change Kirchner and have any real influence on him, it was no longer possible for her to have a familiar relationship with him.

In July 1864, she therefore wrote a letter to him in which she restored the distance and returned to formal addressing. After that, it seems she did not see him ever again. She was deeply disappointed by his behaviour and one year later she called Kirchner a “big rascal”.

Kirchner was appointed conductor in 1862 and moved to Zurich, giving concerts there and in Winterthur, and teaching the piano. In 1872, he was appointed music teacher at the Court in Meiningen, and in 1873, he moved to Würzburg as Director of the Conservatoire, a position for which he was not suited, as he found out himself.

From 1876, he scratched a living for himself, his wife and two children* as a composer and arranger in Leipzig, but was constantly in 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 several strokes. He was an extremely prolific composer, focusing mainly on piano works.

(Julia M. Nauhaus, translated by Thomas Henninger)

Cf. Renate Hofmann: Clara Schumanns Briefe an Theodor Kirchner. Mit einer Lebensskizze des Komponisten, 1996. The book is still available from bookshops (

* According to information kindly provided (mail of 17th October 2011) by Harry Joelsen-Strohbach, Theodor Kirchner Werke, Winterthur/Switzerland, the Kirchners actually had “[three children but the second daughter, Blanka, born on 29th September 1871, died of cholera three months later]” (I.B.)

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