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Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Classical Romantic Virtuoso Pianist Composer

Johann Nepomuk Hummel was a virtuoso pianist and composer. His music is attributed as a bridge between the classical and the romantic eras of music.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel

Early life

Johann was born on the 14th of November 1778 in Pressburg (now Bratislava) in the Kingdom of Hungary to Johannes and Margarethe Hummel. They named him after saint “John of Nepomuk,” a Czech patron.  Johann’s talents shone at an early age. He took music lessons from the legendary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the mere age of eight. Mozart was so impressed with his ability and eagerness to learn, he continued teaching him for two years for free. Hummel made his concert debut at his teacher’s concert.

Johannes took his son out on a European tour to enrich his knowledge and skill. Hummel studied under Muzio Clementi in London for four years. In 1789, the sudden outbreak of the French Revolution forced the Hummels to cancel their tour of France and Spain. They instead returned to Vienna, with Johann performing in concerts along the way. In 1791, another legendary composer, Joseph Haydn, composed a sonata for Johann around the same time. Johann performed it at the “Hanover Square Rooms,” in the very presence of Haydn, who was impressed and gave him a guinea as a token of appreciation. He also had the opportunity to learn under Italian classical composer Antonio Salieri and fellow Austrian pianist and theorist Johann Georg Albrechtsberger.

The Beethoven Connection

After Hummel’s journey to Vienna, another young prodigy, Ludwig van Beethoven arrived in the city to learn from Albrechtsberger and Haydn. The two budding students became friends. However, experts suggested that Beethoven's arrival had a detrimental effect on Hummel's self-confidence. The sheer aura and gulf in talent that Beethoven possessed created unnecessary intimidation on a young Johann. Their friendship blew hot and cold, and eventually boggled down into mutual reconciliation and respect. Hummel visited Vienna several times to meet Ludwig, even accompanied by his wife and pupils. He even improvised at a memorial concert on Ludwig’s insistence. At the event, he became friends with Franz Schubert, who later dedicated his final three “piano sonatas” to Johann Hummel. However, the dedication was eventually changed to Robert Schumann by the publishers, who also passed away around the same time as Hummel.

Musical Journey

Manuscript by Johann Nepomuk Hummel

In 1804, Hummel became the concert-master to “Nikolaus II, Prince Esterházy” of the Eisenstadt family. He had already taken over as the “Kapellmeister” when Haydn's health deteriorated. But in public, he attributed himself as the “Konzertmeister” out of sheer respect towards Haydn. In 1809, when his teacher finally passed away, he was officially attributed as the music director or “Kapellmeister” of the Eisenstadt court. He served the Eisenstadt family for seven years but was eventually sacked in 1811 for “neglection of duties.” He again returned to Vienna and started composing. In 1813, he tied the knot with Elisabeth Röckel, an opera singer. At Elisabeth’s request, the couple started touring the rest of Europe and Russia.

In 1816, Hummel was again appointed as a Kapellmeister, this time in Stuttgart. He left the job in 1818 and joined a similar position in Weimar in 1819. He held the position till 1837, and in between, became close friends with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet and novelist. Soon, Weimar became the unofficial musical capital of Europe, as Hummel invited the best musicians of that time to perform and play their art there. He also introduced a musician pension scheme, even offering concert tours for the musicians once the fund ran low. He was also one of the first artists to raise his voice against intellectual piracy and campaign about musical copyright.

In 1825, Hummel sold the French publishing rights of all his future works to Aristide Farrenc, the owner of a Parisian music-publishing company. In 1830, he performed in three concerts in Paris. In 1832, Hummel’s health began to deteriorate. Approaching his sixties, the composer started to devote less time to the musical upliftment of Weimar. The year also coincided with Goethe's death, which further restricted his involvement with local theatrical circles. In 1828, Hummel introduced a brand new style of playing and fingering ornaments through his book titled, “A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course of Instruction on the Art of Playing the Piano Forte.”

Hummel had adopted a different direction when compared to his friend and contemporary, Beethoven. He was forward-thinking and opted for modernity. His pieces - “Fantasy, Op. 18, for piano,” and “Sonata in F-sharp minor” are a testament to that. Johann successfully challenged the classical sonata form as well as the traditional harmonic structures. His strength was the piano, and he is still considered one of the greatest virtuoso of his time. He had crafted eight piano trios, ten piano sonatas, a double concerto for piano and violin, eight piano concertos, and numerous quartets for cello, viola, violin, and clarinet.

Hummel was also heavily interested in guitar and was highly talented with it. He was equally prolific in his guitar writing, starting with “opus 7,” and ending with “opus 93.” Hummel's compositions are marked by a noticeable lack of a symphony. Also, there is a visible influence of Mozart in his early piano concertos, while the last six were considered as opus numbers.

A Link Between Musical Behemoths 

Hummel had guided a new school of young musicians, at a time when his own music slowly fizzled out. His influence is further evident in the early works of both Robert Schumann and Frédéric Chopin. Chopin's concertos, especially, offered elements of Hummel’s Piano Concerto in “B minor.” Schumann also considered learning under him while Adolf von Henselt, Sigismond Thalberg, Friedrich Silcher, and Carl Czerny became his prominent students. Felix Mendelssohn also joined the list, albeit briefly. He cleaned and disciplined the “Clementi-style” technique and maintained his very own balanced “musical classicism.” Johann Hummel passed away peacefully on the 17th of October, 1837. His grave rests in the Historical Cemetery in Weimar, Germany.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel remains an active link between arguably two of the greatest composers of all time - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. He was no match for his teacher, Mozart, and was overshadowed by his contemporary Beethoven, but still garnered high admiration and respect from both individuals. Yes, his music was forgotten for a while after his demise, especially in the Romantic era, but there remains a secure posthumous reputation. He had a touch of Mozart in him and successfully mediated between his mentor and his audience. He incorporated ornamentation to relevant themes and further reinforced his closing passages. His contributions in the classical repertoire remain notable, and his students are further proof of his contributions towards both classical and modern music.


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