Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Name the Composer/Pianist

Name the Composer/Pianist: he was a student of Wolfgang Mozart, Antonio Salieri, Muzio Clementi, and Joseph Haydn; friend to Franz Schubert and a friend (and rival!) of Ludwig van Beethoven; and teacher of – among many others – Carl Czerny, Ferdinand Hiller, Sigismond Thalberg, and Felix Mendelssohn; in his lifetime considered one of the greats and in ours almost entirely forgotten?

With a title like that, the subject of this post better be good.

And good he was!

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) in 1820, by Joseph Karl Stieler
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) in 1820, by Joseph Karl Stieler

We mark the death on October 17, 1837 – 185 years ago today – of the composer and pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel in the Thuringian city Weimar.  Born in Pressburg (today Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia) on November 14, 1778, Hummel was 59 years old at the time of his death.

A Preliminary: What’s in a Name?

Listen, the last thing in the world I want to be accused of (okay, maybe not the last thing . . .) is name shaming: making fun of someone’s name.  But let’s be serious: what sort of middle name is “Nepomuk”?  And it’s not just Hummel: “Nepomuk”, a name that most certainly does not ring beatific for native English speakers, was a fairly common middle and surname among central Europeans, particularly those in Czech lands.  

John of Nepomuk (circa 1345-1393), painted in Augsburg, Germany, during the late eighteenth Century
John of Nepomuk (circa 1345-1393), painted in Augsburg, Germany, during the late eighteenth Century

The name comes from the town of Nepomuk, in the Plzeň Region of the Czech Republic, some 60 miles southwest of Prague.  The town’s claim-to-fame is as the birthplace of Saint John of Nepomuk, who was born there around 1345.  John of Nepomuk earned his sainthood by defending the sanctity of the Confessional.  As the story goes, he was the confessor of Queen Sophia of Bohemia, the wife of King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia (1361-1419).  King Wenceslas suspected his queen of indulging in extra-marital hanky-panky and demanded that John of Nepomuk – as her confessor – spill the beans.  But John refused, even under torture.  On March 20, 1393, he was – we are told – thrown off the newly completed Charles Bridge (in Prague) into the Vltava River.  Whether he died under torture or was drowned is unknown.  Whatever; John of Nepomuk’s martyrdom in defending the sanctity of the confessional eventually earned him his sainthood (although not until March 19, 1729, when he was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII).

o the name Nepomuk became an honorable – and common – name in Czech lands.  

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)

Hummel’s birthplace in Klobučnícka Street in Bratislava, today a Hummel Museum
Hummel’s birthplace in Klobučnícka Street in Bratislava, today a Hummel Museum

Again: Hummel was born in Pressburg – as previously observed, 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 himself a string player, conductor, and music educator, and like Leopold Mozart before him, he observed his son’s musical development with slack-jawed amazement. According to Johannes Hummel, young Johann could read music at four, play the piano and violin like a seasoned pro at five, and sing with perfect intonation.  Hummel’s parents realized that Pressburg (Bratislava) could not offer their prodigious son anywhere near the musical education and experience that he required, so in 1786, when Johann was eight years old, they pulled up stakes and moved to Vienna.

It took the 8-year-old Johann Nepomuk Hummel but a few weeks to make his mark in Vienna.  Soon after arriving there, he played piano for Wolfgang Mozart who, no exaggeration, flipped his gourd.  Writes musicologists Joel Sachs and Mark Kroll in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians:

“Mozart was so impressed by the young prodigy that he taught him free of charge; and as was often the arrangement at the time, Hummel lived with the Mozarts and became a de facto member of the family. He played billiards with Mozart and tried out his teacher’s newest compositions, and the pair were often seen together on the streets of Vienna. While living at the Mozarts,’ Hummel also had the opportunity to meet, or at least observe, the distinguished guests who frequently visited the Mozart household during this period. These included Lorenzo da Ponte and none other than Haydn, who would sometimes come over to read through string quartets, with Mozart playing viola, Vanhal the cello and von Dittersdorf the second violin.”

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