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Hummel, Johann Nepomuk

Johann Nepomuk Hummel

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778–1837) enjoyed immense fame during his lifetime, and critics of the day termed him the equal of Ludwig van Beethoven. The Austrian pianist and composer's musical legacy was eclipsed, however, by the romantic composers who immediately followed, and his works were largely forgotten a century later. Hummel, noted New York Times critic Howard Klein, "produced much music in a style between Mozart and the early romantics—good music, not great, possibly, but with much intellectual and musical content."

Hummel was born on November 14, 1778, in Pressburg, as Bratislava—later the capital city of Slovakia—was known at the time. Pressburg was one of the great cities of the Austro–Hungarian empire, the vast conglomeration of Central European and Slavic lands that dominated the European political landscape of the time. His musical gifts were likely inherited from his father Josef, who served as director of the Imperial School of Military Music in Bratislava. Hummel began on the violin and the piano under his father's instruction at an early age, and when he was eight years old, his father was offered the post of music director of the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna.

Talent Emerged in Childhood

The Hummel family relocated to the glittering Austro–Hungarian capital city, with its flourishing cultural climate, and young Hummel emerged as a child prodigy there. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the pianist and composer who was then enjoying the height of fame in Vienna, soon heard of the boy's talents, and personally instructed him for two years. Hummel made his professional debut in the city in 1787, quickly followed by a lengthy tour that included stops in Bohemia, Germany, Denmark, Scotland, the Netherlands, and England. He was feted as the next musical genius to emerge from Vienna, and his first piece, a string quartet, debuted in Oxford, England.

In 1793, after spending nearly five years on tour, Hummel went back to Vienna to continue his studies. He did not play again in public for nearly a decade, but developed his talents under a roster of well–known names, including Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Antonio Salieri—Vienna's exalted opera composer and a rival of Mozart's—and Josef Haydn, under whom he studied the organ.

The contact with Haydn proved fruitful: Haydn was a famed composer in traditional classical vein that was the precursor to the romantic style, and had served as Kapellmeister, or resident composer and musical supervisor, for the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, one of the Austro–Hungarian empire's royal families, for many years. Hummel would spend several years at the Esterházy court in Eisenstadt, near the border of Austria and Hungary, and gradually took over more and more duties as Kapellmeister there. A Kapellmeister post was a prestigious and well–paid position that allowed a composer time to write after his duties as the director of music for the royal household were finished. When Haydn died in 1809, Hummel became the main composer at the court, during which time he produced his only opera, Mathilde von Guise, which premiered on March 26, 1810, in Vienna.

Endured Piano Concerto

Hummel stayed in Eisenstadt until 1811, and taught in Vienna thereafter. His talents as a pianist had sharpened, and he won much acclaim for performances given during the Congress of Vienna, the major 1814–15 gathering of diplomats in Vienna that redrew the map of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. "This time he was a mature artist, and his clean, Classical, elegant piano playing was the talk of Europe," noted Harold C. Schonberg in the New York Times. His compositions did not stand the test of time, but one of them, noted Klein in the New York Times, survived the ages. The A Minor Piano Concerto, Klein wrote, features "three movements . . . full of lovely, simple themes which are richly ornamented in Hummel's flowing piano style. The orchestration shows great understanding of the resources of the instruments. In all, the concerto is easily the equal of Mendelssohn's and Chopin's concertos, and is a worthy companion of the majority of Mozart's."

After a tour of Germany in 1816, Hummel settled in Stuttgart to serve as Kapellmeister for the Duchy of Württemberg's royal seat. In 1819, he took a similar position as the Grand Ducal Kapellmeister in Weimar, a position he held until his death nearly 20 years later. Weimar was also a center of culture in Central Europe, and there Hummel became friends with the esteemed German Romantic writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He continued to tour regularly, however, and earned a rather good income from this. He was a particular favorite with French and English concertgoers, and made stops in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1822, Belgium and the Netherlands in 1826, and Warsaw in 1828. Paris and London served as his mainstay, however, and he toured both in 1830, and in London again in 1831 and 1833.

As a composer, others claimed Hummel was the equal of Beethoven, perhaps even more gifted. It is known that in 1827, he went to pay his respects to Beethoven when the esteemed figure was deathly ill, and took a lock of his hair. But by the 1830s, musical tastes had begun to change, and Hummel's reputation suffered somewhat in Germany and Austria. German romantic composer Robert Schumann, who published the Die neue Zeitschrift für Musik, reviewed a Dresden concert in April of 1834 and asserted, "Hummel should make no further concert tour, at least not in Germany and France, where piano playing has reached the pinnacle of culture and only the most extraordinary can please," according to Joel Sachs' Kapellmeister Hummel in England and France. "He significantly debases his well–earned fame thereby. His palmy days are long gone. His art has declined, as his years have increased."

A Bridge Between Musical Styles

Hummel's health deteriorated in his later years, and he died on October 17, 1837, in Weimar, Germany. His works were soon forgotten in the subsequent era, though there have been periodic predictions of a revival for his reputation. Various musical societies in Europe and America occasionally performed his work, among which an 1803 Trumpet Concerto and some chamber music survive as his best examples. The Trumpet Concerto was performed on New Year's Day of 1804, and features references to two significant musical styles. According to an essay in Music & Letters by John A. Rice, "Hummel's references in the opening Allegro con spirito of the Trumpet Concerto to the first movement of Mozart's 'Haffner' Symphony are obvious and have been pointed out more than once." Yet near the end, Rice found a reference to Cherubini's Les Deux Journees, a very popular opera at the time that had recently made its way from Paris to Vienna. There is a comic moment in it when some hoodwinked soldiers march off, and "Hummel obviously liked it, and his courtly audience must have immediately recognized the march and enjoyed its unexpected appearance near the end of the Trumpet Concerto," noted Rice. "By introducing Cherubini's march from Les Deux Journees into the finale of his 'New Year' Concerto, Hummel made sure that a work largely concerned with the glories of Vienna's musical past ended with a celebration of its musical present."

Hummel's compositions were largely forgotten in the wake of the new romantic composers who emerged in the 1830s, among them Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Liszt. As Schonberg noted in the New York Times, Hummel "was the last of the true Classicists, and yet his piano music prefigures some of the techniques and actual ideas that went into Romanticism." The critic also commended the same concerto praised by his predecessor at the newspaper in 1966, noting on the occasion of some renewed interest in Hummel in 1982 that that "what, above all, makes his piano music fascinating to scholars is the virtuoso writing that often breathes the very world of Chopin. Hummel's A minor Piano Concerto is an example, and Chopin's two piano concertos betray an obvious indebtedness."

"A Sharp Businessman"

Hummel was a decidedly unassuming celebrity for one who had once been the musical toast of Vienna at the age of ten, Schonberg conceded. "He was not a prepossessing figure. He was corpulent, had a pockmarked face, had rather crude manners and dressed ostentatiously. Yet he must have had intellectual qualities of a high order," citing his friendships with leading names of the day, including Goethe. "He was reputed to be a sharp businessman, and he led the fight for copyright laws in Germany and Austria. At his death he left a good–sized estate."

From his years as a teacher, Hummel wrote an important instruction book that remained a standard text for many years, A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course of Instruction on the Art of Playing the Piano Forte, which appeared in 1828. He married an opera singer, Elisabeth Röckl, with whom he had two sons. One became a pianist, the other a painter. A grandson, Wilhelm, became a wealthy industrialist in Germany in the early twentieth century, and made a small fortune from supplying a certain formula of paint to the navies of Russia and Britain. Wilhelm collected much of grandfather's work, papers, and various memorabilia, including the lock of Beethoven's hair, at his Italian villa. The cache has been preserved by Hummel's heirs.

Books

Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Centennial edition, Nicolas Slonimsky, Editor Emeritus, Schirmer, 2001.

Sachs, Joel, Kapellmeister Hummel in England and France, Detroit Monographs in Musicology, No. 6, Information Coordinators, 1977.

Periodicals

New York Times, March 20, 1966; April 25, 1982. Opera News, October 1997.

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Hummel, Johann Nepomuk

Hummel, Johann Nepomuk (b Pozsony, 1778; d Weimar, 1837). Austrian pianist and composer. Lived and studied pf. with Mozart 1785–7. Début Vienna 1787 at Mozart concert. Kapellmeister to Prince Esterházy 1804–11. Kapellmeister at Stuttgart 1816–18, then at Weimar 1819–37. Toured extensively, conducting the Ger. Opera in London, 1833. Pubd. pf. sch. 1828. Comp. numerous works incl. pf. concs. and sonatas, tpt. conc., bn. conc., mandolin conc., operas, oratorios, and much chamber mus. incl. Septet militaire and pf. quintet. Mus. has melodic grace and abundant craftsmanship. Pf. writing influenced Chopin. His relationship with Beethoven fluctuated but they were reconciled at Beethoven's death-bed. Was pall-bearer at Beethoven's funeral and played at his memorial concert. Schubert dedicated his last 3 pf. sonatas to him (but publisher altered the dedications after Schubert's death).

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Hummel, Johann Nepomuk

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (yō´hän nā´pōmŏŏk hŏŏm´əl), 1778–1837, Hungarian-born pianist and composer. In piano technique and improvisatory ability Hummel was thought to rival Beethoven. His compositions—124 opus numbers, many written for piano and chamber groups—represent a link between the classical and romantic styles.

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"Hummel, Johann Nepomuk." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Hummel, Johann Nepomuk." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hummel-johann-nepomuk