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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

On the Fringe: Hummel

Today’s post is devoted to the life and work of a single composer whose name is heard now and again in the world of music, but who really must be considered as being on the fringe of present-day musical consciousness. This man lived at the same time as Beethoven and he really deserves to be better-known. His name is Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

Hummel was born in Pressburg, the city now known as Bratislava (the capital of Slovakia) on 14 November, 1778. According to Grove Music Online (the principal source for this article), Hummel was a prodigy who could read music at the age of four, play the violin at five and the piano at six. When he was eight the family moved to Vienna due to his father’s appointment as music director of the Theater auf der Wieden.

Hummel's birthplace

Very soon, Hummel started studying with Mozart, who was extremely impressed by the boy’s abilities. Hummel - according to the custom of the time - lived with the Mozarts and became a good friend of the famous composer despite their difference in ages (very much like Mozart himself, as a boy, was befriended by JC Bach in London). At Mozart’s suggestion, Hummel and his father embarked on a European tour when the boy was ten, a tour which was to last four years.

Taking them initially to Prague, the tour saw them visit Dresden, Berlin, Magdeburg, Göttingen, Brunswick, Kassel, Weissenstein, Hanover, Celle, Hamburg, Kiel, Rensburg, Flensburg, Lübeck, Schleswig, Copenhagen and Odense. They covered all these cities in about a year, before eventually arriving in Edinburgh in the spring of 1790. Concerts in Durham and Cambridge followed before the Hummels arrived in London later the same year.

They stayed in London for two years and the young Hummel eventually attracted an enormous following. This is attested to by the fact the publication of his opus 2 piano sonatas drew many more subscribers from London than it did from Vienna. This is the third sonata in the opus 2 set. [listen]

In the autumn of 1792 the Hummels headed for The Netherlands. After two months in The Hague they continued on to Amsterdam, Cologne, Bonn, Mainz, Frankfurt and Linz, en route to Vienna. This early sonata for piano and flute dates from 1792 and it shows amazing maturity and confidence in handling musical structure, especially remembering Hummel was 13 when he wrote it. [listen]

Over the next ten years Hummel’s life in Vienna was taken up with study, composition and teaching, and very little public performance. He studied with the finest musical minds Vienna had to offer at the time. His counterpoint teacher was Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, while he studied aesthetics, vocal composition and musical philosophy with Antonio Salieri. He also became reacquainted with Haydn - whom he had met in London - and the old master gave the young newcomer organ lessons.

Johann Georg Albrechtsberger

Mähler: Antonio Salieri (1815)

These years were financially precarious for Hummel. He taught nine or ten lessons every day and composed most of the night, but he steadily developed contacts and admirers. Unfortunately for Hummel, the late 1790s saw the rise to prominence in Vienna of one of the mightiest musical personalities of any era: Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven, who was eight years older than Hummel, had contacts and admirers of his own, and there was often open artistic warfare between their respective fans. Both were composers and both were prodigiously gifted pianists, yet despite the occasional falling out, Hummel and Beethoven maintained a friendship which transcended the snobbery of their supporters.

The vast majority of Hummel’s compositional output, to this point in his career, was made up of works for solo piano, or chamber works. A piano trio in E flat was published in around 1803 as his Op 12. [listen]

In 1803, Haydn recommended Hummel for a post in Stuttgart, but he didn’t get the job. The Vienna Court Theatre offered him a position but this was turned down in favour of the post of Concertmaster to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. In effect Hummel had the more senior post of Kapellmeister, but this title was still held by Haydn. Before the contract was formally signed in April 1804, Hummel wrote one of the few works which has maintained a more-or-less permanent place in the repertoire: his trumpet concerto. Composed for the same trumpeter for whom Haydn had composed his trumpet concerto in 1796, this work was, like Haydn’s, intended for the newly-developed keyed trumpet which enabled trumpeters for the first time to play completely chromatic music, and not just the notes of the harmonic series, which had hitherto been the case.

Hummel chose to write his concerto in E major, but these days it is more commonly performed a semitone lower, in E flat, as this is a far more comfortable key for the modern trumpet. (It does require one small passage for the first violins in the second movement to be rewritten as the transposition briefly takes it below the violin’s lowest note). [listen]

Hummel was really thrown in the deep end when he took up his appointment at the Esterházy establishment in early 1804. It is often said that he was given the job because of the prince’s interest in sacred music, but Hummel had no experience as a composer of sacred music before entering the Prince’s service. In fact he had very little experience writing for orchestra, either.

Once in the employ of the Esterházy establishment, though, Hummel had to produce a large amount of orchestrally accompanied sacred music. He lived at Eisenstadt, the Prince’s establishment south-east of Vienna. His job also involved directing the 100 members of the chapel, teaching the choirboys piano, violin and cello, and assembling an archive of Haydn’s music (Haydn had been employed by the Esterházy court for decades and was much-loved elder statesman of the musical establishment).

As the newcomer, Hummel aroused resentment among those who adored the elderly Haydn. He was accused of selling some of Haydn’s music to a Viennese publisher, an accusation later refuted. More seriously, he was involved a great deal with composing music for Vienna and claims inevitably arose that Esterházy wasn’t getting the exclusive service from Hummel that it required. He was dismissed at Christmas, 1808, but then reinstated, possibly after the intervention of Haydn. Things lingered on until Hummel was finally dismissed in May 1811, although by that time he had gained much valuable experience in composition and musical management which would be put to good use in the future.

All of Hummel’s sacred music was written for the Esterházy establishment. There are five masses which follow the tradition of the late Haydn masses, plus a substantial number of smaller sacred works. Haydn’s last mass for the Esterházy chapel, the Harmoniemesse, was performed in 1802, just before Hummel’s engagement by the Prince. Upon taking up the post in 1804, Hummel (now aged 25) wrote his first mass, the Mass in E flat, clearly designed to impress. Here’s the Gloria, and you’ll hear immediately that Hummel had done his homework. [listen]

After leaving Esterházy's service in 1811, Hummel returned to Vienna. He was by now an accomplished piano virtuoso but his activities in Vienna were geared more towards composition than performing. He produced piano works, chamber music, and works for the theatre. He also married a well-known singer, Elisabeth Röckel, with whom he was to have two sons, Eduard (who became a pianist) and Karl (who became a painter).

Of course, returning to Vienna saw Hummel living once again in the same city as Beethoven, but despite the inevitable friction which on occasion arose between the two, there was never a complete break in their friendship, Hummel is known to have played percussion in an 1814 performance of Beethoven’s Battle Symphony (“Wellington’s Victory”) which was conducted by Beethoven. Nevertheless, Beethoven was abrupt and blunt to everyone at some time. He tore up Hummel’s four-hand piano arrangement of the overture to Fidelio, for example, and gave the job of making the arrangement to Ignaz Moscheles.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (c. 1814)

Around 1814, at the suggestion of his wife, Hummel recommenced his career as a solo pianist. This was impeccable timing. The Congress of Vienna meant that there were many concerts and parties taking place in the city, and Hummel’s appearances at these made him a sensation. A concert tour of Germany in 1816 raised him to the ranks of a celebrity, albeit with little financial security. In searching for secure employment he accepted a post as Hofkapellmeister in Stuttgart which rapidly proved unsatisfactory. There was constant tension between his need to be in Stuttgart and his need to tour, and there were various intrigues against him in the city. He resigned in November 1818 to become grand-ducal Kapellmeister in Weimar, the principal task of which was to conduct at the court theatre. This new contract provided him with three months’ annual leave, which enabled him to maintain his touring as a piano virtuoso.

Stieler: Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1820)

Before long, Hummel - along with Goethe - became one of Weimar’s leading tourist attractions. In 1819, shortly after his arrival, he composed the B minor piano concerto op 89, a rich and thrilling work which really deserves to be better-known. But then again, the phenomenal stamina required to play the solo part - which Hummel wrote for himself to play, of course - might put some pianists off tackling this piece. Not so Stephen Hough! [listen]

Hummel had ample time to teach and to compose after he became based in Weimar, and the 1820s were incredibly productive for him. Between 1822 and 1825 he wrote his massive treatise on piano playing, Ausfürhliche theoretisch-practische Anweisung zum Piano-forte Spiel. This is an amazing insight not only into piano playing styles of the early 19th century, but also into Hummel’s own technique and teaching methods. In the midst of writing this, he produced the piano sonata in D, op 106. The second movement is a scherzo which looks back to earlier styles and also forward to later composers. There are hints of Schumann, especially, in this music. [listen]

Bust of Hummel, Deutsches Nationaltheatrer, Weimar

Hummel toured widely as a performer in the 1820s as well. He played in Russia (where he met John Field), Poland (where he met Chopin), France, and The Netherlands. In 1827 he made hasty trip to Vienna to visit the dying Beethoven, a visit which saw the two great idols of Vienna finally reconciled. Hummel was a pallbearer at the funeral, and at the memorial concert he improvised on themes from Beethoven’s music, in accordance with Beethoven’s wishes. Eyewitness reports particularly mention Hummel’s moving improvisation of the Prisoners’ Chorus from Beethoven’s Fidelio.

On the same visit to Vienna Hummel met Schubert (who was to die the following year). Schubert dedicated the last three of his piano sonatas to Hummel, but bizarrely, as these were not published until after both Schubert and Hummel were dead, the publisher changed the dedication to Schumann.

In 1830, Hummel undertook a major tour to Paris and London. It was his first visit to the English capital in nearly four decades and it was the climax of his career. For the tour, Hummel composed his piano concerto in A flat, op 113, and at performances in Germany, France and England it was hugely successful. [listen]

After the successes of the 1830 tour, Hummel’s reputation declined rapidly. Further visits to London in 1831 and 1833 were much less successful, and a visit to Vienna in 1834 was his last tour. The last three years of his life saw him ill and more or less inactive musically. He died in Weimar on 17 October 1837, a month short of his 59th birthday.

Hummel's grave, Weimar

One of Hummel’s greatest claims to fame as a performer was his ability to improvise on pre-existing themes, and one of his greatest skills as a composer was the writing of variations. In one his last works, this "Fantasina: on “Non più andrai” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (composed in 1833), we hear both aspects of Hummel’s craft as the composer-virtuoso. [listen]

Johann Nepomuk Hummel wrote some of the best music of the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic eras, a period where Beethoven has usurped the memory of nearly all others. I hope this post has encouraged you to explore the work of this neglected composer, and that in so doing you’ll make some exciting discoveries.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in July, 2006.

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