1. Early career.
Hummel was a prodigy; he is described as having been more advanced at three than most children twice his age. At four he could read music, at five play the violin and at six the piano. When he was eight, the family moved to Vienna, where his father Johannes, a string player and conductor, became music director of the Theater auf der Wieden, a post that was to give his son useful theatrical experience.
Hummel made rapid progress as a pianist, becoming a pupil of Mozart soon after going to Vienna. According to his father, the boy so impressed Mozart that he taught him free of charge; as was often the arrangement at the time, Hummel lived with the Mozarts. He and Mozart apparently became close friends, frequently going about Vienna together. Hummel's first public performance is said to have been at a concert under Mozart's direction in 1787, but the evidence about this period in his life is contradictory. In 1788 Mozart had to discontinue the lessons and recommended that the boy make himself known to the musical world. Accordingly, father and son embarked on a tour that was to last four years. After a stop in Prague, where they met Dussek and Mašek, they went on to Dresden. There, on 10 March 1789, Hummel played a piano concerto, Mozart's variations on ‘Lison dormait’ and a set of original variations that must have been one of his earliest compositions. His father later claimed, incorrectly, that Mozart was in the audience and exclaimed that the boy would become as a pianist what Raphael was to art (Mozart did in fact hear Hummel play at a concert in Berlin some ten weeks later). At any event, this beginning was auspicious enough to encourage the boy and his father to undertake a long series of appearances at Berlin, Magdeburg, Göttingen, Brunswick, Kassel, Weissenstein (where Hummel caught smallpox), Hanover, Celle, Hamburg, Kiel, Rensburg, Flensburg, Lübeck, Schleswig and Copenhagen, and on an island at Odense. These concerts were generally speculative ventures, and while Johannes Hummel's diary relates that some were badly attended, the overall results must have been satisfactory.
In spring 1790 the two arrived in Edinburgh, where they made a tremendous impression and acquired enough pupils (both were teaching) to stabilize their finances and allow the boy to study English. After three months they headed south, giving concerts in Durham and Cambridge and arriving in London that autumn. Hummel’s first verifiable concert there did not take place until 5 May 1792, at the Hanover Square Rooms, when he played a Mozart concerto and a ‘new sonata’ of his own. (The existence of a native prodigy, F.L. Hummell, tends to confuse information about this period.) William Gardiner, a manufacturer with a great interest in music, wrote many years later that Hummel ‘as a youth … was the most surprising performer that had ever visited [England], except the young Mozart’ (fig.1). The interest he aroused is attested to by the subscription list for his op.2, which includes 92 names from Vienna and 159 from London.
The Hummels originally intended to follow their two years in London with a tour of France or Spain, but, deterred by the revolutionary turmoil, they embarked, some time in autumn 1792, for the Netherlands. For two months Johann Nepomuk performed every Sunday at the Prince of Orange's palace at The Hague, until the advancing French troops forced them on to Amsterdam, Cologne, Bonn, Mainz, Frankfurt and through Bavaria to Linz, where they rejoined Frau Hummel. By early in 1793 the family was back in Vienna.
2. Vienna and the Esterházys.
Hummel's next decade was largely one of study, composition and teaching, with only rare public performances. From Albrechtsberger he learnt counterpoint, and from Salieri, vocal composition, aesthetics and the philosophy of music. When Haydn, with whom Hummel had become acquainted in London, returned from his second trip there (1795), he gave him organ lessons, warning him, however, that too much organ playing would ruin his hands for the piano. Hummel spent these years in great financial insecurity, giving nine or ten lessons a day, composing until 4 a.m., and building a large circle of devoted followers. The most momentous event of the period was Beethoven's emergence in Vienna, which nearly destroyed Hummel's self-confidence. Yet despite constant partisan warfare among their disciples, the two began a long, but stormy, friendship.
In 1803 Haydn recommended Hummel for the post of Hofkapellmeister at Stuttgart, but he was passed over for the Weimar Kapellmeister Johann Friedrich Kranz. He was also offered a job by the director of the Vienna court theatre, but on 1 April 1804 signed a contract as Konzertmeister to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy at Eisenstadt (this post was in effect that of Kapellmeister, although Haydn continued to hold the title). The suggestion that he was engaged because of the prince's interest in sacred music has been refuted on the grounds that Hummel had no previous experience in that field and almost none as an orchestral composer. He appears rather to have been selected partly because of his long connection with Vienna's theatres. Nevertheless, he had to serve the Esterházys' chapel; so far as is known, all his sacred compositions, as well as many of his dramatic ones, were written while he held this post.
Hummel received a salary of 1200 florins and lodging at Eisenstadt. In addition to composing and conducting the chapel, which had about 100 members, his duties included teaching the choirboys the piano, violin and cello and assembling a Haydn archive. This last task gave rise to an accusation that he had sold the publication rights to 42 Haydn canons particularly treasured by the prince. This charge, although later refuted, was only one source of animosity, since Hummel, as successor to the much loved Haydn, was inevitably resented by some. He also became increasingly engrossed in composing music for Vienna. In addition to performances of sacred and dramatic works there, he had, through his father, director of the Apollosaal, an outlet for annual sets of minuets and German dances. In short, he seemed not to be giving the Esterházy court the exclusive service it desired. At Christmas 1808 he was dismissed, but then re-engaged, possibly after Haydn's intervention; in May 1811 his contract was finally terminated. These years had given him valuable experience in sacred and dramatic music, in handling an orchestra and opera house and administering the affairs of a major musical establishment. The closeness of Vienna had also given him the opportunity to secure a lasting foothold in that crucial musical centre.
After returning to Vienna in 1811, Hummel did not appear publicly as a pianist, but was very active as a composer of piano, chamber and dramatic works. In 1813 he married the well-known singer Elisabeth Röckel, by whom he had two sons, Eduard, a pianist, and Karl, a painter. During these years his relations with Beethoven fluctuated. Friction between the two had developed as early as 1807, after a performance of Beethoven's C major Mass at which Hummel was thought to have tacitly agreed with Prince Nikolaus's adverse criticism; and Beethoven's supposed interest in Elisabeth Röckel may also have stood between them after the marriage. Nevertheless contact was not broken; in 1814 Hummel was percussionist in a performance of the Battle Symphony conducted by Beethoven, and a subsequent note from Beethoven shows that their friendship survived the event. But Hummel's arrangement of the overture to Fidelio (piano, four hands) did not satisfy Beethoven, who tore it up and gave the job of completing a piano score to Moscheles. The stylistic gap between Vienna's two idols was now very wide.
About 1814 Elisabeth Hummel persuaded her husband to appear again as a pianist. Her sense of timing was excellent: at the many concerts and parties for the Congress of Vienna, Hummel was a sensation, playing for noblemen and bureaucrats, many of whom functioned peripherally as the equivalent of international booking agents for entertainers. A tour of Germany in spring 1816 gave him renewed confidence and made him a celebrity. But once again financial stability eluded him. Having a family to support, he resolved to seek a secure and permanent post. He appeared to reach his goal late that year as Hofkapellmeister in Stuttgart, but despite the splendid chapel and excellent orchestra, the position was unsatisfactory. He had no time for composing; touring necessitated a constant battle for permission to travel. He considered taste in Stuttgart abysmally low and stifling, and intrigues at the Opera, whose aristocratic management did not like the coarse Hummel, made life unpleasant. In November 1818 he resigned to become grand-ducal Kapellmeister at Weimar. The Weimar contract, dated 5 January 1819, was a decided improvement on the Stuttgart one: it included a three-month annual leave, which could be taken in the spring, the height of the European concert season. Furthermore, the Catholic Hummel was relieved of the direction of sacred music for this Protestant court.
The Weimar years were pleasant and productive. Hummel settled into a thoroughly bourgeois existence, complete with house and garden. Through Goethe he met the leading figures of the intellectual world and soon became one of Weimar's tourist attractions: without seeing Goethe and hearing Hummel play, no visit to the town was complete. His primary job was to conduct at the court theatre. Here his contract was again favourable, divesting him of responsibility for ‘trivial’ operas and granting him full control over tempos, an object of constant dispute. The repertory was varied, including works by the most important composers of the past and, over the years, newer operas by Rossini, Auber, Meyerbeer, Halévy, Spohr and Bellini. The productions benefited considerably from Hummel's tours, during which he met and hired talented foreign singers. Probably as a result of his success with the opera company, he was a candidate for the directorship of the German opera in Dresden vacated by Weber's death in 1826. His other responsibilites at Weimar were diverse. He initiated and conducted at annual pension-fund concerts, celebrations, special performances in honour of the ducal family and local luminaries like Goethe, concerts by visiting artists such as Paganini (1829) and private parties (his orchestra was not large – strings 188.8.131.52.2, and double wind).
With ample time to teach privately and compose, Hummel made the 1820s one of his most productive periods. In addition to music for his tours, he wrote cantatas for the court and Masonic lodge, and numerous small works for publishers, including arrangements of overtures, symphonies and concertos for London publishers and Scottish songs for George Thomson of Edinburgh. Yet nothing occupied his time and imagination so fully as writing a comprehensive, multi-volume treatise on piano playing, a project so time-consuming that he eventually abandoned a commission from the Paris Opéra whose libretto in any case seems to have lost its fascination.
4. Later tours and final years.
The 1820s were also busy for Hummel as a touring performer. He travelled as far afield as Russia (where he met John Field in 1822) and Poland (where he met Chopin in 1828), France and the Netherlands. In 1827 the Hummels and his pupil Ferdinand Hiller hastily made their way to Vienna to visit the dying Beethoven. Their meeting saw a final reconciliation; Hummel was a pallbearer at the funeral, and at the memorial concert, following Beethoven's wishes, he improvised on themes from the dead composer's works, most movingly on the Prisoners' Chorus from Fidelio. During this stay Hummel also met Schubert and gave him great pleasure on one occasion by improvising on Der blinde Knabe. Schubert dedicated his last three piano sonatas to Hummel, presumably hoping he would perform them, but because they were not published until after the death of both men, the publisher changed the dedication to Schumann.
Cancellation of his annual leave in 1829 gave Hummel six months in 1830 for a major trip to Paris and his first visit to London for nearly 40 years. This tour was the climax of his career, since the later stays in London in 1831 and 1833 showed his reputation already on the decline. The first of these two was virtually ruined by competition from Paganini, while in the second Hummel functioned largely as director of the German opera season, which was not overwhelmingly successful. An equally lukewarm visit to Vienna in 1834 was his last tour. In the three remaining years of his life, illness reduced his activity to almost nothing. His death was regarded as the passing of an era and was appropriately marked in Vienna by a performance of Mozart's Requiem.
Despite his great success, Hummel seems to have remained fundamentally a warm and simple person. Hiller described life in the Weimar household as regular and peaceful. Hummel believed in hard work, with intensive, but not excessive, daily practising, and daily periods of composition to nourish the skills and spirit. His main recreations were gardening and taking walks. A lover of conversation, he spoke a good German that retained a hint of his Viennese background. According to Hiller, he was very articulate, but disliked extra-curricular discussions of music because they made one stale. Grillparzer, who visited him in 1826, was amused by his command of Viennese dialect, which, in contrast to the conversation of the Weimar intellectuals, sounded like the worst German he had ever heard. Hummel's intermittent joviality seemed in keeping with his corpulence; Rellstab described his face as so arch-bourgeois that one hardly expected to find an artist behind it (fig.2). This pleasant picture was frequently spoilt, however, by the suggestion of excessive financial alertness. While there is doubtless truth in some allegations, it must be considered that they were made at a time of sensitivity created by Beethoven's and Mozart's poverty. It is beyond dispute that Hummel had an excellent business sense. He was ordinarily on good terms with his publishers C.F. Peters and Tobias Haslinger, who were helpful in managing his varied international transactions, and also kept watch on his many investments. It was Hummel who systematized multi-national publishing, led the composers' fight for uniform copyright laws in Germany and Austria, and showed composers that they could exploit the prevailing chaos in the music publishing world to their own advantage. He was always sensitive to the idea of success: on one occasion a harsh review in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung so infuriated him that he threatened to organize a boycott of it. And financial success was indeed his. Estimates of his estate vary, but it was by any reckoning very large – some 100,000 thalers (£20,000) and hundreds of rings, snuff boxes and other golden and bejewelled artefacts. He was a member of the Institut de France, the Société des Enfants d'Apollon, the Légion d’Honneur, the Société de Musique of Geneva, the Netherlands Society for the Advancement of Music, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, the Philharmonic Society of London (as one of its earliest honorary members) and the Weimar Order of the White Falcon.
6. Performing and teaching.
Since Hummel was one of Europe's most famous pianists, the brevity of his concert career may be surprising. Apart from his years as a prodigy and the short period before the appointment to Stuttgart, it was concentrated in the 1820s and early 1830s. His playing was the subject of many an enthusiastic review in which, even allowing for the usual exaggeration and self-interest of the writers (especially in journals owned by Hummel's publishers), certain features remain constant: his clarity, neatness, evenness, superb tone and delicacy, as well as an extraordinary quality of relaxation and the ability to create the illusion of speed without taking too rapid tempos. Adverse reviews – for example, by Beethoven's admirers – accused him of lacking warmth and passion. This criticism, however, must be evaluated in the light of Hummel's preference for the light-toned Viennese piano, whose evenness and transparency perfectly suited his aesthetic. Hiller warned against being misled by the absence of Lisztian passion in Hummel's playing, because, like most virtuosos at that time, he rarely performed the music of other composers and was not interested in mastering their styles. The restrained character of Hummel's classicism did not preclude audience-rousing qualities: on one occasion an audience stood on their seats to see his double trills better.
Hummel's concert programmes followed the conventions of the day: his own works – chamber music and concertos – and an improvisation were the centrepieces, while opera excerpts and, sometimes, music by local composers filled out the evening. His companions in the chamber works and the singers were the leading performers of the day; however, the orchestras he encountered on his tours were of mixed quality, and on some occasions he was forced to play his concertos with only a rudimentary accompaniment. Hummel's activity as a conductor increased in the 1820s, and it was in this sphere that he performed the music of other composers. The few surviving comments on his conducting are very general: some complain of coldness, others praise his fiery nature; all commend his precision and his ability to instil great security into an orchestra.
Whereas accounts of Hummel's interpretations often reflect the observers' prejudices, comments on his improvising show almost unanimous enthusiasm. More at ease improvising than playing formal compositions, he particularly excelled at creating four- or five-part fugal variations. The typical improvisation included a fantasy-like introduction, themes from popular operas or from the evening’s concert or party and a series of free variations, sometimes ending with a paraphrase of the finale of an opera such as Don Giovanni. In his autobiography Spohr described such an improvisation following a party for the Congress of Vienna: Hummel wove the themes of the concert into contrapuntal variations, a fugue and a bravura finale, all in waltz time to permit the last stragglers to dance.
For many years Hummel was one of the most important, and expensive, teachers in Germany. His pupils included many of the most notable musicians of the next generation: Hiller, Mendelssohn (briefly), Karl Eduard Hartknoch, Adolf Henselt, Karl Georg Mangold, Sigismond Thalberg and Giuseppe Unia. Schumann – who in the event did not study with Hummel – for several years considered taking lessons with him, feeling he should be able to list his name as an instructor, even though he considered him ten years behind the times. According to Hiller, Hummel was primarily concerned that the main voice sing, that the texture be clear and that fingering be secure. He used only his own compositions for teaching, but his pupils frequently performed the works of others. Although Hummel usually taught only the piano, Hiller found him even more gifted as a composition teacher. His teachings are summarized in his piano method, the Ausführlich theoretisch-practische Anweisung zum Piano-forte Spiel. This three-volume work, which is said to have sold thousands of copies within days of its publication in 1828, is one of the most important sources of information about the late Viennese style of performing and, in particular, ornamentation. A curious amalgam of expert knowledge and pedantry, it embraces such diverse topics as fingering exercises, improvisation, and large and small semitones. Although some of the information about ornaments seems to reflect Hummel's personal style more than the common practice, it nevertheless gives an invaluable insight into the aesthetics of his generation. Its educational intent is clearly far above that of the usual commercialized instruction books so characteristic of the 19th century, for whereas dexterity was the sole aim of most manuals, Hummel, stressing musicianship, placed the performance of Bach's music as the highest goal.
As a composer Hummel stands on the borderline between epochs. For more than a century his reputation has been that of a typical 19th-century virtuoso specializing in piano music. This view of him, however, is grossly incorrect. When his little-known unpublished works and the bulk of his printed ones are placed beside his better-known compositions, it becomes clear that his work embraced virtually all the genres and performing media common at the turn of the century: operas, Singspiele, symphonic masses and other sacred works, occasional pieces, chamber music, songs and, of course, concertos and solo piano music, as well as many arrangements. Only the symphony is conspicuously absent (and this fact alone testifies to his deeply felt rivalry with Beethoven). He was, furthermore, a curious combination of the old composer-craftsman and the new composer-entrepreneur. Enormous quantities of music were written as part of his employment, but he was also a freelance who rarely lacked commissions and who could not satisfy all the demands of his publishers. His extraordinary ability to respond to the needs of the musical market-place is illustrated by his relationship with George Thomson, the Edinburgh folksong collector. The arrangements done by Beethoven for Thomson were too difficult and did not sell, but those by Hummel were just right. Yet Hummel, like Beethoven, was a composer whose music normally demanded the highest virtuosity.
Stylistically, Hummel's music is among the finest of the last years of Classicism, with basically homophonic textures, well-spun, ornate italianate melodies, and virtuoso embroidery supported by modernized Alberti accompaniments. His style, which is most modern in works employing the piano, followed a straight path of development throughout his lifetime, although after his return to the concert stage in 1814 his compositions expanded considerably in expressive range, harmonic and melodic variety, and brilliance. Despite these proto-Romantic elements, however, this new style is still clearly Classical in essence, and the consistency of mood within large sections is quite the opposite of the emotional contrasts exploited by the younger generation. Clarity of transitions between phrases and between sections is still of primary importance, and the relatively slow harmonic rhythm that generally prevails ensures that the listener is not swept away by the harmonic flux, as the young Romantics so often seem to have intended. The presence in his manuscripts of such formulae as figured bass indications suggests that Hummel conceived of music as the decoration of harmonic progressions. This seemingly archaic procedure did not, however, preclude a modern and imaginative harmonic vocabulary. Particularly after 1814, he was very fond of 3rd-relationships, secondary and tertiary dominants, and chromatic passing notes. (Good examples of these appear in the Piano Trio op.83 and the Sonata op.81.)
In spite of his orientation towards harmonically conceived structures, Hummel excelled in melodic writing, particularly in his mature works, where the lines became less predictable and symmetrical, and the finely wrought ornamentation and new harmonic variety resulted in long phrases that stand at the highest level of the era (Beethoven excepted). Because his melodies are supported by a thoroughly accompanimental texture, and because the accompaniment is so rarely placed anywhere but below the melody, his music can easily be described as a pianist would experience it physically – ‘right-handed’. But in fact, because of his Viennese piano's clarity of sound (which influenced all his music), the effect produced by his note-blackened pages was delicate and transparent, permitting extensive counterpoint even in virtuoso sections. This counterpoint is of two types, one strictly decorative (such as the multi-level filigree prominent in the later compositions, which became an important part of Schumann's repertory of pianistic techniques), the other more truly structural (as in the inevitable fugato that rescues so many flagging development sections).
Like so many composers of his generation, Hummel's undoing often came in the construction of large musical units. Because of this, his variation sets are frequently the most successful of his longer works in this regard, even when the ideas are weak. In ‘sonata-allegro’ movements and in rondos – Hummel's two favourite large forms – one often has the impression that the structure is a mosaic of melodies and textures. (There is actually a strong resemblance to the methods of Domenico Scarlatti, given the difference in style and scope.) While the charm of Hummel's ideas generally lies in their freely unfolding melodiousness, this very gift for melodic writing was treacherous. Unlike Beethoven's ideas, which could organically generate structures of monumental proportions as they gradually revealed their potential, Hummel's, being long and self-contained, offered little scope for true development and, because of their diffuseness, tended to generate movements that were excessively long. This was particularly true in chamber music, where the sympathetic Hummel often further weakened the overall shape by giving each player a turn at the long melodies. He attempted to overcome this weakness by contrasting songlike and virtuoso passages, but the continual domination of the topmost part often caused success to elude him. He did, however, achieve a lyricism and brilliance that paralleled Rossini's accomplishments for the voice.
Even with his shortcomings, Hummel's generally superb craftsmanship made him one of the most important composers of the European mainstream. His studies with Mozart and his style – called classical even during his lifetime – made him an elder statesman of Viennese Classicism. When Classicism came to be regarded as old-fashioned, however, he began a rapid descent in public esteem. Suddenly he was an anachronism. His own virtuosity had helped to create a new class of spectator-audience that, far more than the old one of cultivated amateurs, demanded titillation by ever more spectacular virtuosity. As a teacher, too, he was considered passé: Czerny's simple exercises were far more accessible than Hummel's counterpoint; his use of the metronome to teach exactness of tempo was more readily grasped than Hummel's insistence on developing the impalpable quality of ‘musicianship’. It is possible that Hummel's decline in productivity in his last years resulted not from his comfortable life at Weimar (as Liszt thought), but from his recognition that his time was over. There is perhaps a parallel to be found in Rossini.
Hummel's music reached the highest level accessible to one who lacks ultimate genius. Yet while his compositions have not fulfilled the promise of immortality, they and his style of performing had a lasting importance. As perhaps the finest and, in his time, the most renowned representative of late Classicism, he clearly linked the styles of Clementi and Mozart, in a line that bypassed Beethoven, with those of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, early Liszt and Schumann, some of whom came to rebel against the very man whose music did so much to form their own. Hummel's essential conservatism brought the Viennese style to its ultimate fruition and decay, for in completing the work of the 18th century he prepared the way for the violent reaction of his juniors. His final significance, however, depends not on the fame of those who followed him, but on his own position as the true representative of his age. Through Hummel, not Beethoven, may be seen the crucial phase in which the Classical style outlived its usefulness, as the old virtues of clarity, symmetry, elegance and ‘learnedness’ yielded to the new ‘inspiration’, emotionalism, commercialism and bombast.