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Hummel, Johann Nepomuk

(b Pressburg [now Bratislava], 14 Nov 1778; d Weimar, 17 Oct 1837). Austrian pianist, composer, teacher and conductor. He was considered in his time to be one of Europe's greatest composers and perhaps its greatest pianist.

1. Early career.

2. Vienna and the Esterházys.

3. Weimar.

4. Later tours and final years.

5. Character.

6. Performing and teaching.

7. Works.




Hummel, Johann Nepomuk

1. Early career.

Hummel was a prodigy; he is described as having been more advanced at three than most children twice his age. At four he could read music, at five play the violin and at six the piano. When he was eight, the family moved to Vienna, where his father Johannes, a string player and conductor, became music director of the Theater auf der Wieden, a post that was to give his son useful theatrical experience.

Hummel made rapid progress as a pianist, becoming a pupil of Mozart soon after going to Vienna. According to his father, the boy so impressed Mozart that he taught him free of charge; as was often the arrangement at the time, Hummel lived with the Mozarts. He and Mozart apparently became close friends, frequently going about Vienna together. Hummel's first public performance is said to have been at a concert under Mozart's direction in 1787, but the evidence about this period in his life is contradictory. In 1788 Mozart had to discontinue the lessons and recommended that the boy make himself known to the musical world. Accordingly, father and son embarked on a tour that was to last four years. After a stop in Prague, where they met Dussek and Mašek, they went on to Dresden. There, on 10 March 1789, Hummel played a piano concerto, Mozart's variations on ‘Lison dormait’ and a set of original variations that must have been one of his earliest compositions. His father later claimed, incorrectly, that Mozart was in the audience and exclaimed that the boy would become as a pianist what Raphael was to art (Mozart did in fact hear Hummel play at a concert in Berlin some ten weeks later). At any event, this beginning was auspicious enough to encourage the boy and his father to undertake a long series of appearances at Berlin, Magdeburg, Göttingen, Brunswick, Kassel, Weissenstein (where Hummel caught smallpox), Hanover, Celle, Hamburg, Kiel, Rensburg, Flensburg, Lübeck, Schleswig and Copenhagen, and on an island at Odense. These concerts were generally speculative ventures, and while Johannes Hummel's diary relates that some were badly attended, the overall results must have been satisfactory.

In spring 1790 the two arrived in Edinburgh, where they made a tremendous impression and acquired enough pupils (both were teaching) to stabilize their finances and allow the boy to study English. After three months they headed south, giving concerts in Durham and Cambridge and arriving in London that autumn. Hummel’s first verifiable concert there did not take place until 5 May 1792, at the Hanover Square Rooms, when he played a Mozart concerto and a ‘new sonata’ of his own. (The existence of a native prodigy, F.L. Hummell, tends to confuse information about this period.) William Gardiner, a manufacturer with a great interest in music, wrote many years later that Hummel ‘as a youth … was the most surprising performer that had ever visited [England], except the young Mozart’ (fig.1). The interest he aroused is attested to by the subscription list for his op.2, which includes 92 names from Vienna and 159 from London.

The Hummels originally intended to follow their two years in London with a tour of France or Spain, but, deterred by the revolutionary turmoil, they embarked, some time in autumn 1792, for the Netherlands. For two months Johann Nepomuk performed every Sunday at the Prince of Orange's palace at The Hague, until the advancing French troops forced them on to Amsterdam, Cologne, Bonn, Mainz, Frankfurt and through Bavaria to Linz, where they rejoined Frau Hummel. By early in 1793 the family was back in Vienna.

Hummel, Johann Nepomuk

2. Vienna and the Esterházys.

Hummel's next decade was largely one of study, composition and teaching, with only rare public performances. From Albrechtsberger he learnt counterpoint, and from Salieri, vocal composition, aesthetics and the philosophy of music. When Haydn, with whom Hummel had become acquainted in London, returned from his second trip there (1795), he gave him organ lessons, warning him, however, that too much organ playing would ruin his hands for the piano. Hummel spent these years in great financial insecurity, giving nine or ten lessons a day, composing until 4 a.m., and building a large circle of devoted followers. The most momentous event of the period was Beethoven's emergence in Vienna, which nearly destroyed Hummel's self-confidence. Yet despite constant partisan warfare among their disciples, the two began a long, but stormy, friendship.

In 1803 Haydn recommended Hummel for the post of Hofkapellmeister at Stuttgart, but he was passed over for the Weimar Kapellmeister Johann Friedrich Kranz. He was also offered a job by the director of the Vienna court theatre, but on 1 April 1804 signed a contract as Konzertmeister to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy at Eisenstadt (this post was in effect that of Kapellmeister, although Haydn continued to hold the title). The suggestion that he was engaged because of the prince's interest in sacred music has been refuted on the grounds that Hummel had no previous experience in that field and almost none as an orchestral composer. He appears rather to have been selected partly because of his long connection with Vienna's theatres. Nevertheless, he had to serve the Esterházys' chapel; so far as is known, all his sacred compositions, as well as many of his dramatic ones, were written while he held this post.

Hummel received a salary of 1200 florins and lodging at Eisenstadt. In addition to composing and conducting the chapel, which had about 100 members, his duties included teaching the choirboys the piano, violin and cello and assembling a Haydn archive. This last task gave rise to an accusation that he had sold the publication rights to 42 Haydn canons particularly treasured by the prince. This charge, although later refuted, was only one source of animosity, since Hummel, as successor to the much loved Haydn, was inevitably resented by some. He also became increasingly engrossed in composing music for Vienna. In addition to performances of sacred and dramatic works there, he had, through his father, director of the Apollosaal, an outlet for annual sets of minuets and German dances. In short, he seemed not to be giving the Esterházy court the exclusive service it desired. At Christmas 1808 he was dismissed, but then re-engaged, possibly after Haydn's intervention; in May 1811 his contract was finally terminated. These years had given him valuable experience in sacred and dramatic music, in handling an orchestra and opera house and administering the affairs of a major musical establishment. The closeness of Vienna had also given him the opportunity to secure a lasting foothold in that crucial musical centre.

After returning to Vienna in 1811, Hummel did not appear publicly as a pianist, but was very active as a composer of piano, chamber and dramatic works. In 1813 he married the well-known singer Elisabeth Röckel, by whom he had two sons, Eduard, a pianist, and Karl, a painter. During these years his relations with Beethoven fluctuated. Friction between the two had developed as early as 1807, after a performance of Beethoven's C major Mass at which Hummel was thought to have tacitly agreed with Prince Nikolaus's adverse criticism; and Beethoven's supposed interest in Elisabeth Röckel may also have stood between them after the marriage. Nevertheless contact was not broken; in 1814 Hummel was percussionist in a performance of the Battle Symphony conducted by Beethoven, and a subsequent note from Beethoven shows that their friendship survived the event. But Hummel's arrangement of the overture to Fidelio (piano, four hands) did not satisfy Beethoven, who tore it up and gave the job of completing a piano score to Moscheles. The stylistic gap between Vienna's two idols was now very wide.

Hummel, Johann Nepomuk
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