J.N. Hummel: An Appreciation

Dr Alan C. Clifford

Mozart’s most famous pupil, Haydn’s successor at the Esterhazy court, a friend (and rival) of Beethoven, a ‘father-figure’ to Chopin and teacher of several other young romantic virtuosi including Mendelssohn, Johann Nepomuk Hummel was born in Bratislava in 1778 and died in Weimar in 1837.  A child prodigy, he became one of the most brilliant virtuoso pianist-composers of the early nineteenth century.  Schubert wished to dedicate his last three sonatas to Hummel whose music links the classical and romantic periods. 

A dazzling performer, Hummel was regarded by Chopin – whose style he influenced – as the equal of Mozart and Beethoven.  Despite being taught by the latter, Czerny rushed to get lessons from Hummel after hearing him play. Greatly admired by Berlioz and Liszt (who succeeded him at Weimar), Spohr considered him to be the greatest improviser of the time.  Together with his friend, the famous Goethe, he became Weimar’s star attraction.

Besides the well-known Trumpet Concerto in E, S. 49, and the Septet in D Minor, Opus 74, more of Hummel’s music is currently enjoying a long-overdue revival.  His little-known piano concertos – ten in all including the Double Concerto for piano and violin, Opus 17 and the Concertino, Opus 73 – are now attracting the attention they deserve.  Recordings of these by Stephen Hough and Howard Shelley (Chandos) reveal to the modern listener the combination of brilliance and beauty that made them once so popular. 

Contrary to his image as a conventional, end-of-era classicist, Hough’s recent recording of Hummel’s F sharp minor Sonata, Opus 81 (Hyperion) reveals a composer of striking individuality.  Shelley’s exquisite rendering of his Rondo Brillant in B flat, Opus 98 shows Hummel’s genius as a proto-romantic composer of unique emotionality and virtuosity.  The seven piano trios played by the Trio Parnassus (Dabringhaus und Grimm) and Triangulus (Meridian) well repay renewed attention, especially the mature Opus 83The idea that Hummel’s creativity was declining by the 1830s may be dismissed on hearing Danielle Laval’s performance of his 24 Etudes, Opus 125 (Naïve).

If Hummel’s keyboard skills are very evident in the concertos in A minor, Opus 85 and B minor, Op 89, and the F sharp minor Sonata, Opus 81 (described by Schumann as ‘an epic, titanic work’), his choral accomplishments are of no mean order.  The five symphonic Masses date from 1804 when Hummel succeeded Haydn at the Esterhazy court.  Owing much to Mozart and Haydn, Hummel remains his own man.  His part writing reveals a rare poetic sensitivity and his stylistic individuality is soon apparent.  His lyricism anticipates the melodic flow of Schubert.  Currently being rescued from unjust oblivion, his refreshing works deserve a more prominent place in the classical repertoire. 

Hummel uses the traditional Mass text of biblical and credal material set by other composers of the period.  This form of concert oratorio mass actually followed the Protestant treatment inaugurated by J. S. Bach, a practice that was eventually forbidden to Roman Catholic composers by Pope Pius X in 1903.  This Protestant text omits the unbiblical prayer for the dead used in the requiem mass (‘dona eis requiem’) in favour of a prayer for the living (‘dona nobis pacem’).

 Chandos are engaged on the Hummel mass series with Richard Hickox and Collegium Musicum 90.  The D major, Opus 111, B flat major, Opus 77 and E flat major, Opus 80 works have already been released.  The D minor Mass, S. 67 has been recently issued.  Two years ago Naxos issued the Missa Solemnis in C major, S. 74 and the Te Deum in D major, S. 70, works calculated to arouse further interest in this long-neglected composer. Doubtless influenced by Handel’s ‘Israel in Egypt’, Hummel’s dramatic oratorio ‘Der Durchzug Durchs Rote Meer’ (Deutschlandfunk) is a wonderfully-crafted instance of the composer’s skill.


A recent CD from Weimar makes further fascinating listening. ‘Hummel Variationen & Fantasien’ (Deutsche Schallplatten) includes the Fantasie für Klavier und Orchester, Opus 116, ‘Oberons Zauberhorn’.  This striking yet charming five-movement work includes a vivid musical depiction of a storm at sea.  Naxos and Chandos have also issued a recording of this. For drama and tension – one might say tsunami-like hysteria – Hummel more than matches Beethoven here!  Clearly the composer had the ability to be highly unconventional despite his ill-deserved reputation for superficial salon music.

While the recently-recorded opera ‘Mathilde von Guise’ (Brilliant Opera Collection), deserves a good hearing, the Overture provides another specimen of Hummel’s purely orchestral compositions, all the more interesting in view of the absence of the symphony from his works. The same may be said of the ballet music ‘Sappho von Mitilene’ (Chandos). This splendid work provides more than a clue of what a Hummel symphony might have sounded like.Yet Hummel’s reputation is chiefly maintained by his works for piano and orchestra.  Not to forget the brilliant and charming final Concerto in F, Opus post 1, performed superbly by Maestro Shelley (Chandos), the final example in this genre published in Hummel’s lifetime is the Rondo Brillant in F minor, ‘Le Retour à Londres’, Opus 127.  Shelley’s recent premiere recording of this delightful and scintillating work is as ‘brillant’ as the piece demands.  Along with the early A major ‘Florentine’ concerto, it surely merits a place in a ‘prom’ concert at the earliest opportunity! 

Naxos are to be thanked for Madoka Inui’s superb rendition of Hummel’s fantastic fantasies.  This CD irrefutably justifies the status Hummel achieved during his lifetime as improviser ‘par excellence’.  The recording conveys the very sense of immediacy that Hummel’s sensational playing must have regularly produced.  Here we have dynamism and delicacy, poetry and power, ravishing sensitivity and rich sonority in perfect proportions.  The early Fantasy in E flat, Opus 18 looks way beyond classicism and, in some passages, even romanticism.  It is no wonder that Chopin placed Hummel next to Mozart and that Liszt placed him among the immortals.  While comparisons can be odious, now we can understand why Beethoven felt threatened by Hummel. 

Surely, the Hummel resurgence of recent decades has now reached its peak.  Madoka Inui’s wonderful Bösendorfer aids her in disposing of the myth that Hummel was lulled into mediocrity during his last Weimar years.  The late G minor and C major fantasies are a revelation.  If Messrs Hough and Shelley are occupied elsewhere these days, let us hope Madoka Inui is working on the amazing Rondo Brillant in B minor, Opus 109 and the magnificent Etudes, Opus 125.  Now aided by Mark Kroll’s brilliant biography (Scarecrow Press, 2007), may the Hummel revival long continue!


One response to “J.N. Hummel: An Appreciation

  1. ” let us hope Madoka Inui is working on the amazing Rondo Brillant in B minor, Opus 109 and the magnificent Etudes, Opus 125″

    I absolutely agree, and would only add La Bella Cappricciosa Op. 55 and the 2-hand version of the Sonata Op. 92.