Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778- 1837)
Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 85
Piano Concerto in B Minor, Op. 89
Johann Nepomuk Humrnel has been largely neglected byposterity, yet in his own time he enjoyed the highest reputation both as acomposer and as a virtuoso performer. That subsequent neglect has been largelyunjustified must be clear from recordings of his music now available, althoughneither the bicentenary of his birth nor the 150th anniversary of his deathhave stirred the interest that his work seems to deserve.
Hummel was born in 1778 in Pressburg, the modern Bratislava,the son of a musician. At the age of four he could read music, at five play theviolin and at six the piano. Two years later he became a pupil of Mozart in Vienna,lodging, as was the custom, in his master's house. On Mozart's suggestion theboy and his father embarked, in 1788, on an extended concert tour. For fouryears they travelled through Germany and Denmark. By the spring of 1790 theywere in
Edinburgh, where they spent three months, and therefollowed visits to Durham and to Cambridge before they arrived, in the autumn,in London. Plans in 1792 to tour France and Spain seemed inopportune at a timeof revolution, so that father and son made their way back through Holland to Vienna.
The next ten years of Hummel's career found him occupiedin study, in composition and in teaching in Vienna. When Beethoven had settledin Vienna in 1792, the year after Mozart's death, he had sought lessons fromHaydn Albrechtsberger and from the Court Composer Antonio salieri. Hummel was tostudy with the same teachers, the most distinguished Vienna had to offer. Albrechtsbergerprovided a sound technical basis for his composition, while
salieri gave instruction in writing for the voice and inthe philosophy of aesthetics. Haydn, after his second visit to London, gave himsome organ lessons, but warned him of the possible effect on his touch as apianist. It was through Haydn that Hummel in 1804 became Konzertmeister toPrince Nikolaus Esterhclzy, effectively doing the work of Kapellmeister, anominal title that Haydn held until his death in 1809. He had Haydn to thank,too, for his retention of his position with the Esterhazy family when in 1808neglect of his duties had brought dismissal. His connection with the Esterhazyscame to an end in 1811, but had served to give him experience as a composer ofchurch and theatre music, while his father, as director of music at the Theaterauf der
Wieden and later of the famous Apollo Saal, providedother musical opportunities.
Hummel had impressed audiences as a child by hisvirtuosity as a pianist.
He was to return to the concert plat from in 1814, at thetime of the Congress of Vienna, a year after his marriage, but it was the GrandDuchy of Weimar that was able to provide him, in 1818, with a basis for hiscareer. He was allowed, by the terms of his employment, leave of absence forthree months each spring, a period to be spent in concert tours. In ProtestantWeimar he was relieved of the responsibilities of church music, but presided atthe opera, and joined Goethe as one of the tourist attractions of the place,although in speech his homely
Viennese accent sorted ill with the purer accents of theresident literati.
In 1828 Hummel published his study of pianoforteperformance technique, a work that enjoyed immediate success, and has proved avaluable source for our knowledge of contemporary performance practice. Towardsthe end of his life his brilliance as player diminished, and this, after all,was the age of Liszt and a new school of piano virtuosity. Hummel represented,rather, a continuation of the classical style of playing of his teacher,Mozart. As a composer he seems to extend that style into the age of Chopin.
The Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 85, waswritten in Vienna probably in 1816 and published in 1821. The work is skilfullyorchestrated, marked by happy melodic invention, with tireless demands on thebrilliance of the soloist, reminding us at times of Hummers contemporaryBeethoven, with whom he enjoyed a varying relationship. Hummel, of course,offers a more predictable concerto, leading to a final sparkling conclusion.
The Piano Concerto in B Minor, Opus 89, waswritten in 1819, after Hummel's appointment to Weimar, following a brief spell asKapellmeister at Stuttgart, and published in Leipzig two years later. It openswith the ominous accompaniment of timpani and again presents in its threemovements startling demands on the skill of the soloist, within a musical idiomthat is always felicitous and never vapid.