Hummel – His Early Life and Mozart

Johann Nepomuk Hummel was born on 14 November, 1778 in Pressburg, 80 kms east of Vienna in Hungary – now Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. He was – unusually for that period – an only child, the son of Johannes and Margarethe Hummel who married just four months beforehand. Johannes was an excellent violinist and orchestral director at the Neues Theatre at the age of 24. His own father, Caspar, was a successful businessman – inn–keeping and farming – and an all–round musician who sent Johannes to Vienna to study. Margarethe, a widow, was three years older than her second husband.

A year after Johann’s birth the family moved to Prague but, unable to find a good position, after a year Johannes took up the position of music director in Wartburg, close to Pressburg. They soon discovered that their young son had an exceptional aptitude for music and by the age of four Johann was learning the violin. A year later he commenced lessons on a miniature piano – he kept it for many years – and took singing lessons from his father as well. A prodigious learner, by his seventh year Johann was a remarkable pianist.

In 1786 his father was given the opportunity to join Schikaneder’s Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna, capital of the Austro–Hungarian Empire, as music director. Recognising that Johann was a child prodigy and outstripping his ability to teach him, Johannes Hummel jumped at the chance and the family moved to Vienna and an extraordinary musical milieu where Mozart was then at his peak. Inevitably, Johannes’ and Mozart’s paths soon crossed and Johannes told Mozart about his extraordinary son. Father and son were invited to Mozart’s apartment, and in spite of Mozart’s normal reluctance to take on young students, he was so impressed by the playing of the seven–year–old that he insisted that Johann must come and live with the Mozart family, where he would be given free lessons.

Lessons with Mozart meant more than instruction, more like osmosis. The boy became a little assistant to Mozart (so like Mozart himself a generation beforehand), playing Mozart’s piano music, playing four–hands with him, and experiencing the maelstrom of musical activity that went on in Mozart’s house at a time when he was composing Don Giovanni and many other masterpieces. Many formidable musicians will have passed through those rooms. Mozart’s teaching had to fit in with his life–style and it is well documented that he used to give instructions while playing billiards or bowls. Music–making of the highest order would also take place as new works were tried out.

Hummel stayed with Mozart for two years, until he was nine, an unparalleled education for the youngster. It was a turbulent time for Mozart, he had to move for financial reasons, and he lost both his father, Leopold, and son, Thomas, during 1787. In 1788, influenced by Mozart’s success in touring Europe 25 years earlier, Johannes decided the time was right to embark on a similar venture with his son, and the two commenced a European tour that was to last over four years.

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