6. Performing and teaching.
Since Hummel was one of Europe's most famous pianists, the brevity of his concert career may be surprising. Apart from his years as a prodigy and the short period before the appointment to Stuttgart, it was concentrated in the 1820s and early 1830s. His playing was the subject of many an enthusiastic review in which, even allowing for the usual exaggeration and self-interest of the writers (especially in journals owned by Hummel's publishers), certain features remain constant: his clarity, neatness, evenness, superb tone and delicacy, as well as an extraordinary quality of relaxation and the ability to create the illusion of speed without taking too rapid tempos. Adverse reviews – for example, by Beethoven's admirers – accused him of lacking warmth and passion. This criticism, however, must be evaluated in the light of Hummel's preference for the light-toned Viennese piano, whose evenness and transparency perfectly suited his aesthetic. Hiller warned against being misled by the absence of Lisztian passion in Hummel's playing, because, like most virtuosos at that time, he rarely performed the music of other composers and was not interested in mastering their styles. The restrained character of Hummel's classicism did not preclude audience-rousing qualities: on one occasion an audience stood on their seats to see his double trills better.
Hummel's concert programmes followed the conventions of the day: his own works – chamber music and concertos – and an improvisation were the centrepieces, while opera excerpts and, sometimes, music by local composers filled out the evening. His companions in the chamber works and the singers were the leading performers of the day; however, the orchestras he encountered on his tours were of mixed quality, and on some occasions he was forced to play his concertos with only a rudimentary accompaniment. Hummel's activity as a conductor increased in the 1820s, and it was in this sphere that he performed the music of other composers. The few surviving comments on his conducting are very general: some complain of coldness, others praise his fiery nature; all commend his precision and his ability to instil great security into an orchestra.
Whereas accounts of Hummel's interpretations often reflect the observers' prejudices, comments on his improvising show almost unanimous enthusiasm. More at ease improvising than playing formal compositions, he particularly excelled at creating four- or five-part fugal variations. The typical improvisation included a fantasy-like introduction, themes from popular operas or from the evening’s concert or party and a series of free variations, sometimes ending with a paraphrase of the finale of an opera such as Don Giovanni. In his autobiography Spohr described such an improvisation following a party for the Congress of Vienna: Hummel wove the themes of the concert into contrapuntal variations, a fugue and a bravura finale, all in waltz time to permit the last stragglers to dance.
For many years Hummel was one of the most important, and expensive, teachers in Germany. His pupils included many of the most notable musicians of the next generation: Hiller, Mendelssohn (briefly), Karl Eduard Hartknoch, Adolf Henselt, Karl Georg Mangold, Sigismond Thalberg and Giuseppe Unia. Schumann – who in the event did not study with Hummel – for several years considered taking lessons with him, feeling he should be able to list his name as an instructor, even though he considered him ten years behind the times. According to Hiller, Hummel was primarily concerned that the main voice sing, that the texture be clear and that fingering be secure. He used only his own compositions for teaching, but his pupils frequently performed the works of others. Although Hummel usually taught only the piano, Hiller found him even more gifted as a composition teacher. His teachings are summarized in his piano method, the Ausführlich theoretisch-practische Anweisung zum Piano-forte Spiel. This three-volume work, which is said to have sold thousands of copies within days of its publication in 1828, is one of the most important sources of information about the late Viennese style of performing and, in particular, ornamentation. A curious amalgam of expert knowledge and pedantry, it embraces such diverse topics as fingering exercises, improvisation, and large and small semitones. Although some of the information about ornaments seems to reflect Hummel's personal style more than the common practice, it nevertheless gives an invaluable insight into the aesthetics of his generation. Its educational intent is clearly far above that of the usual commercialized instruction books so characteristic of the 19th century, for whereas dexterity was the sole aim of most manuals, Hummel, stressing musicianship, placed the performance of Bach's music as the highest goal.
Hummel, Johann Nepomuk
As a composer Hummel stands on the borderline between epochs. For more than a century his reputation has been that of a typical 19th-century virtuoso specializing in piano music. This view of him, however, is grossly incorrect. When his little-known unpublished works and the bulk of his printed ones are placed beside his better-known compositions, it becomes clear that his work embraced virtually all the genres and performing media common at the turn of the century: operas, Singspiele, symphonic masses and other sacred works, occasional pieces, chamber music, songs and, of course, concertos and solo piano music, as well as many arrangements. Only the symphony is conspicuously absent (and this fact alone testifies to his deeply felt rivalry with Beethoven). He was, furthermore, a curious combination of the old composer-craftsman and the new composer-entrepreneur. Enormous quantities of music were written as part of his employment, but he was also a freelance who rarely lacked commissions and who could not satisfy all the demands of his publishers. His extraordinary ability to respond to the needs of the musical market-place is illustrated by his relationship with George Thomson, the Edinburgh folksong collector. The arrangements done by Beethoven for Thomson were too difficult and did not sell, but those by Hummel were just right. Yet Hummel, like Beethoven, was a composer whose music normally demanded the highest virtuosity.
Stylistically, Hummel's music is among the finest of the last years of Classicism, with basically homophonic textures, well-spun, ornate italianate melodies, and virtuoso embroidery supported by modernized Alberti accompaniments. His style, which is most modern in works employing the piano, followed a straight path of development throughout his lifetime, although after his return to the concert stage in 1814 his compositions expanded considerably in expressive range, harmonic and melodic variety, and brilliance. Despite these proto-Romantic elements, however, this new style is still clearly Classical in essence, and the consistency of mood within large sections is quite the opposite of the emotional contrasts exploited by the younger generation. Clarity of transitions between phrases and between sections is still of primary importance, and the relatively slow harmonic rhythm that generally prevails ensures that the listener is not swept away by the harmonic flux, as the young Romantics so often seem to have intended. The presence in his manuscripts of such formulae as figured bass indications suggests that Hummel conceived of music as the decoration of harmonic progressions. This seemingly archaic procedure did not, however, preclude a modern and imaginative harmonic vocabulary. Particularly after 1814, he was very fond of 3rd-relationships, secondary and tertiary dominants, and chromatic passing notes. (Good examples of these appear in the Piano Trio op.83 and the Sonata op.81.)
In spite of his orientation towards harmonically conceived structures, Hummel excelled in melodic writing, particularly in his mature works, where the lines became less predictable and symmetrical, and the finely wrought ornamentation and new harmonic variety resulted in long phrases that stand at the highest level of the era (Beethoven excepted). Because his melodies are supported by a thoroughly accompanimental texture, and because the accompaniment is so rarely placed anywhere but below the melody, his music can easily be described as a pianist would experience it physically – ‘right-handed’. But in fact, because of his Viennese piano's clarity of sound (which influenced all his music), the effect produced by his note-blackened pages was delicate and transparent, permitting extensive counterpoint even in virtuoso sections. This counterpoint is of two types, one strictly decorative (such as the multi-level filigree prominent in the later compositions, which became an important part of Schumann's repertory of pianistic techniques), the other more truly structural (as in the inevitable fugato that rescues so many flagging development sections).
Like so many composers of his generation, Hummel's undoing often came in the construction of large musical units. Because of this, his variation sets are frequently the most successful of his longer works in this regard, even when the ideas are weak. In ‘sonata-allegro’ movements and in rondos – Hummel's two favourite large forms – one often has the impression that the structure is a mosaic of melodies and textures. (There is actually a strong resemblance to the methods of Domenico Scarlatti, given the difference in style and scope.) While the charm of Hummel's ideas generally lies in their freely unfolding melodiousness, this very gift for melodic writing was treacherous. Unlike Beethoven's ideas, which could organically generate structures of monumental proportions as they gradually revealed their potential, Hummel's, being long and self-contained, offered little scope for true development and, because of their diffuseness, tended to generate movements that were excessively long. This was particularly true in chamber music, where the sympathetic Hummel often further weakened the overall shape by giving each player a turn at the long melodies. He attempted to overcome this weakness by contrasting songlike and virtuoso passages, but the continual domination of the topmost part often caused success to elude him. He did, however, achieve a lyricism and brilliance that paralleled Rossini's accomplishments for the voice.
Even with his shortcomings, Hummel's generally superb craftsmanship made him one of the most important composers of the European mainstream. His studies with Mozart and his style – called classical even during his lifetime – made him an elder statesman of Viennese Classicism. When Classicism came to be regarded as old-fashioned, however, he began a rapid descent in public esteem. Suddenly he was an anachronism. His own virtuosity had helped to create a new class of spectator-audience that, far more than the old one of cultivated amateurs, demanded titillation by ever more spectacular virtuosity. As a teacher, too, he was considered passé: Czerny's simple exercises were far more accessible than Hummel's counterpoint; his use of the metronome to teach exactness of tempo was more readily grasped than Hummel's insistence on developing the impalpable quality of ‘musicianship’. It is possible that Hummel's decline in productivity in his last years resulted not from his comfortable life at Weimar (as Liszt thought), but from his recognition that his time was over. There is perhaps a parallel to be found in Rossini.
Hummel's music reached the highest level accessible to one who lacks ultimate genius. Yet while his compositions have not fulfilled the promise of immortality, they and his style of performing had a lasting importance. As perhaps the finest and, in his time, the most renowned representative of late Classicism, he clearly linked the styles of Clementi and Mozart, in a line that bypassed Beethoven, with those of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, early Liszt and Schumann, some of whom came to rebel against the very man whose music did so much to form their own. Hummel's essential conservatism brought the Viennese style to its ultimate fruition and decay, for in completing the work of the 18th century he prepared the way for the violent reaction of his juniors. His final significance, however, depends not on the fame of those who followed him, but on his own position as the true representative of his age. Through Hummel, not Beethoven, may be seen the crucial phase in which the Classical style outlived its usefulness, as the old virtues of clarity, symmetry, elegance and ‘learnedness’ yielded to the new ‘inspiration’, emotionalism, commercialism and bombast.
Hummel, Johann Nepomuk