Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Hummel: Piano Concertos Opp 89 & 85

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)

portrait of Johann Nepomuk Hummel as a young man
Hummel as a young man

Hummel was born in Pressburg – what is now Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia – on November 14, 1778. He died in Weimar, in what today is central Germany, on October 17, 1837, where he held the position of Kapellmeister for eighteen years. 

Hummel was a spectacular child prodigy as both a pianist and as a violinist. His father, Johannes, was a string player, conductor, and the director of the Imperial School of Military Music in Vienna, a position that gave his amazing young son access to the highest levels of Viennese musical culture. 

In 1785, at the age of seven, Hummel played for Mozart. Mozart was so impressed that not only did he insist on giving Hummel daily piano lessons for free, but, as was standard procedure for the best students back then, Hummel moved into Mozart’s place on the Grosse Schulenstrasse, where he lived for two years. The two became (and remained) close friends, and it was through Mozart that Hummel met and performed for the cream of Viennese aristocracy. Further piano lessons with Muzio Clementi, organ lessons with Joseph Haydn, vocal composition lessons with Antonio Salieri, and even a few piano lessons with Beethoven followed. There’s no doubt about it: Johann Nepomuk Hummel had among the most extraordinary educational creds in the history of Western music.

Hummel’s style of piano playing and improvising descended directly from Mozart’s: a pianistic style based on clarity, elegant melody, and artistic restraint. To this “Mozartean ideal” Hummel added a substantial degree of virtuosity for its own sake. As a pianist, he was an even greater technician than Mozart, and in the increasingly virtuoso-conscience environment of the early nineteenth century, Hummel was happy to put his technique on full display. Having said that, Hummel was the last of the great “Viennese” pianists in that he preferred to play the light, not terribly resonant Viennese pianos, as opposed to the bigger and more sonorous English and French pianos that were favored by Liszt and Chopin and the pianists that followed.

Hummel was Beethoven’s only real pianistic rival during the first decade of the nineteenth century, and he became a favorite for those listeners who found Beethoven’s playing to be:

“noisy, unnatural, overpedaled, dirty, [and] confused.”

As we would expect from such arch-competitors, Beethoven and Hummel had an often stormy, on-again/off-again friendship. They were reconciled as Beethoven lay dying, and Hummel was one of the pallbearers at Beethoven’s funeral. 

An idealized portrait of Johann Nepomuk Hummel in his later years
An idealized portrait of Hummel in his later years

Harold Schonberg describes Hummel “the man”:

“In person Hummel was anything but elegant. He was coarse, ungainly, slovenly, and his face was pitted by smallpox. [Carl] Czerny called him ‘a very striking man, with an unpleasant, common-looking face that constantly twitched. He wore utterly tasteless clothing and valuable diamond rings on almost all his fingers.’ In later life, Hummel grew monstrously stout, and a place had to be cut into his dining room table, both at home and a court. When he played he puffed, blew, and perspired.” 

Gross. Okay, we don’t have to sleep with the guy, just listen to his music. And an excellent composer he was; highly underrated today. As a composer, he was particularly notable for his concerti. All together, he composed eight piano concerti, one mandolin concerto, a double concerto for violin and piano, and a trumpet concerto. The Trumpet Concerto is the most frequently performed of Hummel’s works today. It was composed for Anton Weidinger, the same trumpet player for whom Haydn composed his Trumpet Concerto in 1796, and it’s often paired today with the Haydn Trumpet Concerto on recordings. The Trumpet Concerto will have to wait, as we will turn our attention to Hummel’s Piano Concerto in B Minor, Op. 89 of 1819, which is today the best know and most-likely-to-be-performed of his piano concerti.

Structurally, Hummel’s B Minor Concerto is a fastball down the Classical era plate: cast in three movements, with a first movement, Double Exposition Form; a slow, lyric second movement; and concluding with a third movement Rondo. 

The writing in the first two movements is excellent: in turns dramatic and lyric. Okay; it’s not Mozart or Beethoven, but then again, who else is? But for my ear, the spectacular, super-exciting, virtuosically over-the-top movement is the third movement finale, a stunning example of Hummel at his best. …

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