Johann Nepomuk Hummel

(14 November 1778 - 17 October 1837)

The Austrian composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel was one of the greatest piano virtuosos of his day and a highly influential composer whose works bridged the Classical and Romantic Styles. He was a pupil of Mozart’s, even living with him for a time, and critics of the day put him on par with Ludwig van Beethoven, although the latter began to overshadow him over time.

Hummel was born in present-day Bratislava, Slovakia. His father introduced him to the violin at a young age, and he was quickly recognized as a prodigy, achieving a remarkable level of musicianship by the age of five. The next year, he took up the piano, which quickly became his primary instrument.

Although he was blessed with an overabundance of talent at a young age, a certain part of Hummel’s success must be attributed to good fortune as, upon his family’s move to Vienna, Hummel was chosen by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to both live and study with him. By the time of his tenth birthday, he had finished his studies with Mozart and had gone on to tour throughout Europe as a child-piano prodigy, playing throughout Austria, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and England over the course of the next four years. During this time he also spent one year in London studying with the prominent Italian composer Muzio Clementi.

In 1793 Hummel returned to his home base of Vienna, where he essentially sequestered himself, studying intensively with Antonio Salieri, Johann Georg Albrechtsberger and Franz Joseph Haydn. These years were a marked contrast to his childhood celebrity period, and Hummel did not play a single public recital for nearly a decade. However, it was still an incredibly prolific time for the teenage musician. Not only were the contacts he made at this time indispensable for his later career opportunities, they were also the catalyst for a period of intense composition.

The last of the true Classicists, and yet his piano music prefigures some of the techniques and actual ideas that went into Romanticism.

Most of Hummel’s early works featured the piano or the violin, the two instruments with which he was the most comfortable. In 1794 he completed his first set of variations for piano, and in 1798 he finished two sonatas for piano and violin. His chamber works were particularly effective among his early repertoire, incorporating his virtuosic approach to both instruments with a developing romantic sensibility. Not surprisingly for a still developing composer, Hummel had difficulty with the elements of longer form and pacing, required to write an opera, and left two operas unfinished in the late 1790s, Il viaggiator ridicolo and Don Anchise. However, his Trumpet Concerto (1803) from this period is still widely performed today.

The year 1804 was a momentous one for Hummel, most notably for his appointment as Concertmaster at the Eisenstadt Court, a post previously occupied by Haydn. Commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, Hummel began work on his five symphonic masses that year, while also completing the opera Le vicende d’amore in his spare time. Supported by the patronage of the Esterházy family, Hummel was able to settle into several years of fruitful composing. He completed two more operas, Der vereitelten Ränke (1806), and Mathilde von Guise (1810).

Eventually his relationship with his wealthy benefactors soured, and Hummel was dismissed, forcing him to return to Vienna. It was while there that he was a witness to history, playing a well-received concert at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, the meeting of various European heads of state following the Napoleonic Wars which redistributed land and natural resources among the main political players to even the playing field, and punish the French. Hummel’s native Austria was forced to cede all of what is now Belgium, but gained a significant amount of territory in neighboring Italy, including the city of Venice.

In 1819, Hummel was appointed to a Concertmaster position in Weimar similar to the one he had held in Eisenstadt, and he would serve there until his death roughly twenty years later. While in Weimar he continued to be immersed in the cultural currents of Europe, becoming good friends with the writer, poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, perhaps the single most important German literary voice. It was in Weimer that Hummel wrote the bulk of his mature works, including his Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello, Op. 83 (1819), his Sonata in A Flat, for four hand piano, Op. 92 (1820) and his Piano Quintet, Op. 87, which contained the untraditional addition of a double bass in addition to violin, viola and cello. Hummel’s Piano Quintet was, which interestingly has the same atypical instrumentation as Franz Schubert’s Trout Quintet (1819), is commonly viewed as one of his greatest works.

Hummel’s A minor Piano Concerto, the most famous of the six he wrote, deserves special mention as well. Still a valuable part of the modern repertoire, this fluid and melodic work was been called “easily the equal of Mendelssohn’s and Chopin’s concertos, and is a worthy companion of the majority of Mozart’s” by New York Times critic Howard Klein. Harold Schonberg, another music critic for the New York Times, noted that many of Chopin’s pieces, including his two piano concertos, “betray an obvious indebtedness” to this work. He went on to call Hummel “the last of the true Classicists, and yet his piano music prefigures some of the techniques and actual ideas that went into Romanticism.”

You can put in all the difficulties, jumps, runs, and any other devilish complexities you like, except... features which do not suit the formation of hands.

Although his work was used as a basis and an inspiration for a generation of Romantic composers including Mendelssohn, Chopin and Liszt, Hummel was unfortunate enough to be largely overshadowed by them as well as his contemporary Ludwig van Beethoven, with whom he shared an uneasy friendship. In the early years of his career, many actually ranked him higher than Beethoven, although this comparison would obviously reverse after their deaths and Beethoven’s Romantic sensibilities became the height of fashion. Nevertheless, Hummel’s genius at the piano, his essential role in ushering in the Romantic era, and the beauty of his compositions is undeniable, and he remains perhaps the most regrettably overlooked composer of his time.

Header image: courtesy of Austria Forum
Other images: courtesy of Musicalion and Edison Silver Trust

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