The pianist and composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel is something of a puzzle – a child prodigy who was highly celebrated and lauded during his lifetime, however his music has not thrived in popularity over time. Yet, with a catalogue of over 175 compositions, many of which were highly influential to Hummel’s classical contemporaries and Romantic successors including Chopin, Mendelssohn and Liszt, there is surely more to Hummel than perhaps modern audiences realise?
Hummel was born in 1778 in Pressburg, then part of the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy but now in Bratislava. His father, Director of the Imperial School of Military Music and Conductor of the Theatre Orchestra, was himself a string player and organised Johann’s first lessons. Johann became proficient on violin by the age of 5. He favoured the piano, however, and demonstrated a highly accomplished technique at the age of just 6. When he was 8 he was given the opportunity to live and study with Mozart in Vienna for two years. Hummel travelled with his father in 1787 and gave numerous concerts throughout Europe at the age of only 9 before settling for a short time in London. Haydn was in London at the same time and, having met Hummel, composed a sonata for him. Hummel performed the piece in Hanover Square Rooms in Haydn’s presence and when the performance was over Haydn reportedly thanked Hummel and gave him a guinea.
Returning to Vienna in 1793, Hummel received tuition in counterpoint and composition with Salieri and Clementi and he also had the opportunity to study the organ with Haydn; in addition, he studied with the Austrian musician and composer, Albrechtsberger. Around the same time, Beethoven also arrived in Vienna and studied with Haydn and Albrechtsberger; so began a friendship (and rivalry) which would last until Beethoven’s death in 1827.
In 1804, Hummel became Konzertmeister at the court of Prince Esterházy. He had in fact taken over many of the duties of the Kapellmeister, Haydn, owing to Haydn’s ill health, but out of respect to Haydn, Hummel assumed the title of Konzertmeister. On Haydn’s death in 1809 Hummel received the title Kapellmeister; he remained in this post until 1811 when he was dismissed for neglecting his duties. Over the next two years Hummel devoted his time to composition, and married the opera singer Elisabeth Röckel in 1813.
Latterly, Hummel held the position of Kapellmeister in Stuttgart from 1816 to 1819 and then in Weimar from 1819 until his death in 1837.
With such a vast repertoire to choose from, this is a necessarily concise selection!
- Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 81 (published 1819)
- Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 89 (1827)
- Theme and Variations, Op. 97 (1820)
- Bagatelles, No. 3, ‘La contemplazione’, Op. 107 (1826)
- The Mass in D Minor (1805)
- Mass in E flat, Op. 80
- Missa Solemnis in C (1806)
- Mass in D, Op. 111 (1808)
- Piano Trio No. 2 in F, Op. 22 (1799)
- Piano Quintet, Op. 87 (1802)
- Cello Sonata, Op. 104
- Military Septet (1829)
- Mathilde von Guise (first performed 1810)
If you get to listen to some of the compositions above, then surely you’ll agree with me that Hummel deserves the attention & enjoyment of a modern audience.