Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 – 1837) was one of the most celebrated musicians of his time. Born in what was then Hungary but is now Slovakia, Hummel was a child prodigy. He soon found his way to Vienna where he lived and studied with Mozart for two years. He also studied with Haydn and Salieri. He knew Beethoven and was considered at least his equal at the piano. He was one of the great piano virtuosos of any period. He also knew Schubert who dedicated his last three piano sonatas to Hummel. By the time they were published both musicians were dead so the dedication was changed to Schumann. Chopin was a great admirer of both Hummel’s compositions and playing. Hummel taught some of the greatest pianists of the mid 19th century – eg, Sigismond Thalberg. He ended his life in Weimar where, along with Goethe, he was the cultural star of the city. In life he was world famous, in death oblivion.
What happened? Mostly it was Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert whose lives overlapped his. Their music and that of the great composers who followed overwhelmed Hummel who was thought to be old fashioned and inferior. Regardless of cause, Hummel’s posthumous lot was silence; he was a footnote to the classical age of music. His only composition that most musically literate people knew was the trumpet concerto which was apologetically performed as a virtuoso vehicle for a gaudy trumpet player. It’s likely that Hummel himself was intimidated by the greatness that surrounded him. He wrote no symphonies. I suspect Beethoven scared him away from the form.
Recently there has been a gradual resurgence in interest in Hummel’s music. The author of about 175 compositions, his best work is for piano – sonatas, chamber music, and concertos are prominent among his output. His writing for piano requires a skill that only the finest pianists possess. He started out as a Haydn/Mozart epigone. But by the time he was forty he had developed into a progenitor of romanticism in music.
His work, at its best, is tightly constructed and harmonically advanced. The two compositions that are on the featured disc show both Hummel’s development and his originality. His second sonata written in 1809 (Op 13) is very interesting. Its first movement sounds like he’d never heard a note of Beethoven. It’s well constructed, but it sounds as if written forty years earlier. The adagio that follows is from a different world. It has its’ own voice and quite lovely. The final movement, marked allegro con spirito, is a rousing display of vigor and virtuosity. Ian Hobson, the soloist on this recording, gets everything possible out of it.
The 5th sonata (Op 81) was written 10 years after the 2nd. In this great piece, likely his most adventurous work for solo piano, Hummel is deep within the romantic era. The first movement is more a fantasy than a sonata form movement. Its feel and weight are those of music written decades later. It’s worthy of comparison to Schubert and Schumann at their best. The second movement seems like Chopin though the great Pole was only nine years old when this work in F Sharp Minor appeared. Listen to the opening of this movement (Largo) and you’ll hear why everyone who listens to it thinks of Chopin. The final movement presents a technical challenge built around a folk-like dance theme. The sonata is a masterpiece that deserve frequent performance.
It’s clear that Hummel was a great composer. Though not in the front rank with Beethoven and Schubert, he was right behind. His music is just beginning to be rediscovered after languishing for more than a century and a half. I’ll return to his work in later posts.