Six Canonic Pieces for Piano Trio
Theodor Kirchner (1823-1903) was widely considered to be the undisputed master of the character piece, a short kind of free form work. Kirchner literally wrote hundreds of such pieces which can rightly be considered little gems, little masterpieces.
He was born in the town of Neukirchen near Chemnitz in the German province of Saxony. He showed a prodigious musical talent at an early age, however, his father was reluctant to let him study music. It was only after hearing both Schumann and Mendelssohn highly praise his son’s talent that he permitted Theodor to attend the Leipzig Conservatory, where he studied with Mendelssohn, among others. It was upon Mendelssohn’s recommendation that Kirchner in 1843 obtained his first position as organist of the main church in Winterthur in Switzerland. He was a friend of both Robert and Clara Schumann as well as Brahms.
Kirchner’s compositional talent was widely respected and held in the highest regard by Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Wagner and many others. But Kirchner, found himself unable to write large scale works. Rather, he excelled at writing miniatures. He would often write several at a time and then publish them together, each with a different mood and feel and each perfect in its own way. Though primarily known, during his lifetime, as an organist, pianist and teacher, he wrote more than 1,000 works, most are short and for the piano, although he did write a small amount of very appealing chamber music, primarily for piano trio.
Kirchner was also generally considered to be the finest arranger of his time. And in the 19th century, there was great demand for arrangements of large works such as symphonies or big chamber works that could be played by a piano trio or piano four hands. Both Schumann and Brahms would only allow Kirchner to arrange their works for these small groups. His arrangements were brilliantly executed and effective as artistic works in their own right. Some critics held them to be better than the originals, hard though that may be to believe today. Publishers sought him out to arrange Beethoven and Mozart symphonies and many other famous works.
Composed in 1888, Kirchner’s Six Pieces in Canonic Style was loosely based on Robert Schumann’s Op.56 piano work of the same title. But this is by no means a mere transcription or slavish arrangement. It did not have to be as this work was not commissioned by either a composer or publisher, but rather a work Kirchner conceived on his own. The title page of the first edition which bears the inscription “A free arrangement” makes it quite clear that Kirchner intended something else and the result was a very different work from Schumann’s original. While the thematic material of Schumann is clearly recognizable, it is totally transmogrified by Kirchner in his setting for piano trio. One is reminded of the famous rejoinder made by Brahms when accosted by someone accusing him of using a theme by Mendelssohn—–”Yes, any idiot can see that, but did you hear what I did with it!” In short, Kirchner’s version stands on its own as an independent and very effective work.