Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)
Hummel was born in the year 1778 in Pressburg, in the now modern Bratislava, the son of a local musician. Similar to Mozart, he was reading music at the age of four, playing the violin at 5 and the piano at 6. His father, obviously seeing the possibilities and parallels, sought the opportunity to meet Mozart in 1786. Wolfgang, very taken with the young Hummel, arranged with the father to have Johann stay in Vienna with him so as to give him lessons and compositional training. Mozart is supposed to have said; “Agreed, I shall instruct the boy, but he has to live with me so that I can keep a constant eye on him. He will get everything free: instruction, room, board.” For approximately two years, Hummel lived with the Mozarts so as to take advantage of this opportunity. Aside from the teaching aspects, it appears that Hummel played for Mozart the compositions he submitted to him for review, as well as piano-duet playing of Wolfgang’s (and other composers) various works.
It is not known whether Mozart took on Hummel gratis (as some reported above) or whether indeed some sort of payment was rendered. Leopold Mozart had as well taken in talented students to live with him, but the parents in those cases paid room and board, if nothing else, for the privilege of allowing this. Given Mozart's money problems in the 1786-88 timeframe, it seems far more likely that, however noble giving free lessons to a fellow prodigy sounds, some sort of support must have been agreed on. However, no evidence exists to confirm such payments.
As well, on a somewhat darker note, Leopold had taken in Mozart's sister's firstborn son to live with him. His letters to Nannerl keep up a flow of information on little Leopoldl's musical abilities (starting at age 3 months, no less), all seemingly aimed at the goal of raising another Wolfgang. An excerpt from a letter reporting on Leopoldl at three months says, "I can never look at the child's right hand without being moved. The most skilled pianist cannot place his hand so beautifully on the keyboard as he customarily holds his hand…In brief, one could not see anything more beautiful. I am often truly saddened when I see this, for I wish he were already just three years old…so that he would already be able to play." Was Leopold in a rush to replace his "lost" son with another love? Curiously (or not), he never told Wolfgang about Leopoldl living with him; that news came from other sources, and Leopold was upset that the news was out.
In another curious (or not) twist, not long after this news was received by Mozart, the young Hummel appeared on his doorstep and ended up boarding there, being given lessons. Maynard Solomon questions whether or not competitiveness played a part in here as well, with Wolfgang seeking to one-up his father. There is no knowing any truths here at this point, but this might have a bearing on whether Mozart truly undertook this training gratis for noble purposes, or for reasons tinged with a dash of spite.
Edward Holmes, in his 1845 biography on Mozart, gives us a few anecdotes of Hummel and Mozart. The first anecdote (from pgs 220-221 of his biography of Mozart) runs as follows:
"The master kept an eye on his pupil's progress, by deputing him to play any new music which he was desirous to hear, and which he would else have played himself. The following relation, derived from one of the members of the family, may give a view of the interior of the composer's abode, and at the same time show the manner in which Hummel profited.”
“At a late hour Mozart and his wife returned home from a party. On entering the apartment the boy is discovered stretched on chairs, fast asleep. Some new pianoforte music has just arrived which they are both anxious to hear. Mozart, however, will not play it himself, but tells his wife...to wake up Hans, give him a glass of wine, and let him play. This is no sooner said than done; and now, should anything go wrong, there is an opportunity for suggestions. It is in fact a lesson, though given at the rather unusual hour of midnight."
Footnoted at the bottom of page 220 we also read: "While a boy in Mozart's house, he had made the acquaintance of Haydn, who much admired him. They both met in England in 1791, when Haydn wrote a beautiful pianoforte sonata in A flat, for Master Hummel, who played it at the Hanover Square rooms, in the presence of the composer. Hummel, on a visit to this country a few years ago, still spoke of his boyish delight at having received from Haydn, on this occasion, his thanks accompanied by a guinea!"
The actual evidence of Hummel’s boarding with the Mozarts is somewhat thin, though enough is there so that in total his boarding at the Mozart home is taken at face value by researchers. The main evidence of Hummel's living at the Mozart's apartment comes from a letter from Constanze Mozart to Hummel's sons Eduard and Karl, dated 23. Jan. 1838 (some time after their father’s death), in which she writes to them that:
"Shouldn't that great man [Hummel] have thought of me at the time of his death? He did promise me often that [...] he would certainly reward me for all my troubles, love, care, and expenses for the food, shelter, and lessons, which he enjoyed from my late husband Mozart..."
Researchers doubt Constanze would invent the story out of thin air solely in order to claim some money from Hummel's sons. One can understand that she was somewhat bitter, because even though Hummel had become a well-known virtuoso and composer over the years (and lessons from Mozart must obviously have been very useful to him), he didn't think to reimburse the widow for at least some of those early expenses. This is, of course, Constanze's side of the story; and perhaps things would look different viewed from Hummel's side.
There are also other, less direct, sources to consider. In 1873, a Leipzig periodical published reminiscences of Hummel's father, in which Hummel Sr. wrote that his son indeed lived at the Mozarts', for free, and that they were like father and mother to him. It's not clear what exactly was the source of this story: was it a genuine document from Hummel Sr.'s hand or a second-hand story told in the first person? In any case, this is the other primary source used to place Hummel at the Mozarts.
Finally, we have Ferdinand Hiller in his reminiscences (from 1880) telling about a meeting with Hummel in 1827 in Vienna, during which Hummel led Hiller to the house where Mozart (and he himself) lived. Hummel showed him the rooms, described what they looked like when he lived there, and gave Hiller every confidence that they were visiting his old home.
All in all, it seems that there is enough evidence for Hummel's stay at the Mozarts, although the length of the stay is unknown.
In any event, after about two years of instruction, Hummel and his father, at Mozart's suggestion, departed on a grand concert tour of Europe that lasted four years. Billed as a pupil of "the famous Herr Mozart, " they traveled the length of the German states, Denmark and England. In Hummel’s own words: “Now my father traveled with me through Germany, Denmark, Holland, Scotland and England. The encouragement with which I met everywhere, combined with my own diligence in this business and propensity for it, spurred on my talent. And as far as the piano is concerned, I had been left to my own devices since Mozart’s instruction and had to become my own guide…When I was 15, I returned to Vienna in 1793, studied counterpoint under Albrechtsberger, and later on had the benefit of Salieri’s instruction vocal composition, aesthetic views, and musical philosophy in general…”
Mozart may have crossed paths with Hummel one more time, as they both passed through Berlin in May of 1789; Mozart attempting to gain a commission or post with the King of Prussia, Hummel (now 10) giving a concert on the 23rd of the month. Mozart stayed on in Berlin until the 28th, so he may well have stopped in to check up on his former pupil. If so, this meeting sadly has gone unrecorded.
In London, Hummel met up with Haydn while he was on his own tour there, playing for the great man on occasion, and getting rewarded with a small payment (noted above) as a show of Haydn’s esteem. Also, he met Muzio Clementi and may have well been a pupil of his for a short while. By all accounts, the “Grand” tour the Hummels made was a success. However, in the year 1792, plans to tour France and Spain were shelved due to the revolutionary fever sweeping that portion of the continent, so father and son ended up back in Vienna.
The next ten or so years saw Hummel engaged in study of composition and in teaching. Beethoven, when he arrived in Vienna, sought lessons from Haydn and Salieri. Hummel also learned from these masters, as well. Haydn gave him organ lessons (but warned of the possible effect on his touch as a pianist), while Salieri instructed him on writing for voice. Through Haydn, Hummel became (in 1804) Konzertmeister to Prince Nikolas Esterhazy. With Haydn effectively retired (but still retained on staff) Hummel became the de facto Kapellmeister as well. One of his first duties, as such, was to handle a performance of The Magic Flute K.620. Although, due to "neglect of duties," he was dismissed from Esterhazy service in 1808, Haydn was able to intercede and get him reinstated. He finally left this service in 1811, having become well-grounded in church and theater music. Since his father had by this time become director of music at the Theater auf der Wieden (founded by Schikaneder) other musical opportunities were available as well.
By 1814, Hummel was back on the concert stage and was able to impress many dignitaries at the Congress of Vienna (held to redraw the map of Europe after Napoleon's demise as Emperor of France) that same year. As well, Hummel became a freelance composer and teacher, meeting his future wife Elisabeth via such lessons. Pupils over the years numbered such luminaries as Thalberg, Hiller and Mendelssohn. He had also gotten on close personal terms with Beethoven, and on the occasion of the premiere of the Battle Symphony (Wellington’s Victory), Beethoven wrote him a nice note asking Hummel to conduct one of the two secondary orchestras, equipped with drums and miniature cannons. Salieri, it should be pointed out, also assisted with this performance. This relationship with Beethoven Hummel enjoyed for many years until an inevitable misunderstanding occurred between the two, provoked in part by Beethoven’s deafness and paranoia, which derailed it.
At the height of his success as a touring artist, his reputation as a pianist was near-legendary: at one concert the audience was reported to have gotten up on the chairs and craned their necks in order to get a better view of his remarkable double trills. In 1822, John Field, the celebrated composer and performer, in attendance at a solo piano concert, hearing a brilliant improvisation being performed by an artist he did not know, is said to have cried out “Either you are the Devil or you are Hummel!” It was, of course, the latter.
He ultimately took up a post with the Duchy of Weimar in 1818, which gave him 3 months leave a year for concert tours. Over the years, he had learned a great deal about such posts and the perks that went with them, so he negotiated that 3 month leave, plus a free supply of wood, free rooms, and a guaranteed cash payment of 300 reichstalers to his family in the event of his death (a lesson from Mozart’s death, perhaps?). He became one of the star attractions of the court, along with such luminaries as Goethe, though Hummel's strong Viennese accent set him apart from the rest of the literati crowd. It was here as well that he arranged Mozart’s last 6 symphonies for a chamber ensemble, K.504 (the “Prague”) being dedicated to Goethe himself for the many courtesies he extended to Hummel. Hummel may have had a special insight into these works, as he had been staying with Mozart in Vienna when they were composed.
In 1828, Hummel published a study of pianoforte technique, which enjoyed an immediate success. It as well provided a valuable source for the knowledge of contemporary performance practices of the time. Hummel, through his contacts and dealings, became a skilled negotiator and businessman, assisting on deals with other composers and publishers. He was also a pioneer in the various issues of copyright protection. He liked to work with plants as well, so much so that his garden was known far and wide, and was a must-see when visiting his home.
By the 1820’s however, the taste of the concert going public was changing again. Hummel’s elegant melodies, fairly linear textures and general sense of musical orderliness beckoned back to the earlier days, as opposed to looking forward and following the new trends. The 1830’s brought diminishing success to him, both in performing and composing. With the advent of Chopin and Liszt and thus a new style of piano virtuosity, Hummel fell out of favor. For his age and placement, he represents a continuation of the Classical style of playing taught by Mozart. As such, many histories of the Classical Era give the date of it “official” end as 1837, when Hummel passed away.
His compositions as well are grounded in the Classical style, as are most of the young Romantic composers of the time. It was not so much the architecture that changed at this time, but the emotional sentiments and their technical display that did. This plays no small part in the fact that while Hummel composed several cadenzas for various Mozart piano concerti, one seldom hears them performed today, despite their initial relationship as pupil/teacher.
Sadly, Hummel’s star diminished over the years, and today he is too often seen as a composer of more or less limited historical interest, basically bridging the gap between Mozart and Chopin, composing “chandelier” music of little significance. He ends up in some circles being more scorned than acknowledged for his many accomplishments. However, his happy blend of classical convention, melody, striking technique and musical devices along with the prophecy of things to come, makes exploring Hummel’s works highly worthwhile.
If you have an interest in trying out works by Hummel, some suggested works for listening are:
Piano Concerti # 2in in e, #3 in b on the Naxos label 8.550837
Concerto for Bassoon in F S63/WoO23 on Naxos label 8.554280
Concerto for Trumpet in Eb S49/WoO1 on Sony SBK 47663
Concerto for Piano & Violin in G Op.17 on Chandos 9687
Works for Piano Vol. I and II on the Dynamic label S 2023/S 2035
Mozart Symphonies Arranged by Hummel (for fortepiano, flute, violin and cello: K.504 and K.551) on the MDG label MDG 605 0858-2
Mozart Piano Concerti arranged by Hummel (for fortepiano, flute, violin and cello): K466 and K.503) on the BIS label BIS CD-1147
Clive, Peter Mozart and His Circle: A Biographical Dictionary Yale University Press, New Haven 1993
Sadie, Stanley (Ed.) The New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians 2nd Edition Groves Dictionaries, New York 2000
Artaria composers list
Liner notes from some of the above CDs
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