by Jack Bryce
Carleton College Professor Emeritus
click below to listen to a 1981 recording by the Nash Ensemble:
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (Pressburg, now Bratislava, 1778 – Weimar, 1837), Austrian pianist, composer, teacher, and conductor, was regarded in his lifetime as one of the greatest composers in Europe, and likely its greatest pianist. His father Johannes moved the family to Vienna in 1786 when Johann was eight, and he immediately became a pupil of Mozart, who taught him for nothing. Soon he was living with the Mozarts and became acquainted with distinguished guests of theirs like Lorenzo da Ponte and Josef Haydn. Mozart recommended that Hummel and his father go on a world tour, just as Mozart had done, and they set out in 1788 when our boy was ten for Czechoslovakia, Germany, Denmark, Odense, the British Isles, and the Netherlands. In Edinburgh they both were able to teach, and so stabilize their finances; later in London they met Haydn. By 1793 the family was reunited in Vienna, where Hummel studied, composed, and taught. In 1803 he began to work for Prince Nikolaus Esterházy at Eisenstadt, in effect succeeding Haydn, but his relationship with the Prince became strained and he left for good in 1811. He married a well known singer, Elisabeth Röckel, in 1813, and developed a stormy relationship with Beethoven. He began to play more, and was spectacularly successful. Eventually in 1818 he became the grand-ducal Kapellmeister at Weimar, and entered upon a productive and happy life, composing, writing treatises, and touring as a performer to Russia, Poland, France, and the Netherlands. He became totally reconciled with the dying Beethoven in 1827, and got to know Schubert as well, who modeled his “Trout” Quintet (D677) on Hummel’s quintet version of the Septet, op. 74, which we hear tonight. Hummel is finally making a comeback in our time as a vastly important late Classical composer.
The Septet #1 in D minor, op. 74 (Vienna, c. 1816), is really a stunning work, clearly a masterpiece. It is for a curious combination of instruments, but one with a logic to it: the strings and horn belong to the bottom and the middle of the pitch range, while flute and oboe cover the top. The piano of course ranges all over, and what a brilliant piano part! It is a showpiece for one of the greatest pianists of all time, who also happened to be a splendid composer. There are four movements, Allegro con Spirito; Menuetto o Scherzo—Alternativo; Andante con Variazioni; Finale: Vivace. The second half of the first movement, where the development begins, moves to F# major, very far indeed from the home key of D minor, and spends some time in C major before returning to D minor; and then there’s a lengthy episode in D major before the D minor conclusion. The second movement really is rather fast for a minuet, and so Hummel’s alternative designation of Scherzo makes sense; the fast minuet, far too fast to dance to, is a ploy such as Beethoven also uses, and typical of late classical composition. This movement violates older classical norms by remaining in the home key to start with, but then switches to D major at the spot marked with the quite unconventional designation Alternativo; and though it goes back to D minor for a while, it ends once again in D major. The third movement starts in F major, which is the closest relative to the home key of D minor; there’s a section in F minor, but that’s normal in variations, and the movement ends conventionally in F major. The finale, starting and finishing in D minor, has a mid section in A major, and, like the first movement, a section in D major before finishing in the home key. This flexibility with key changes has a decidedly late character, and yet the music feels very much in the classical mode. A commentator on YouTube says this is “one of the most amazing works of all time, sounds like Beethoven and Schubert and anticipates Mendelssohn and even Mahler in the Scherzo.” What do you think?