Hummel – The Person

Hummel was physically not attractive, he was short, increasingly fat from late teenage years and his face had a slightly twisted look. He was, unusually for the time, an only child, furthermore one who had a peripatetic childhood with little formal education and absent from his mother for some years. It took him time – and the love of a good woman – to mature into the person described as "a person of the most gracious and kind nature... he never neglected his family... and invited friends to his dinner table happily and often." He had an unusually happy family life with two talented sons. His ambition then was not, like Beethoven’s, to be the greatest composer, but to have a happy, comfortable and successful life, and bring pleasure to others with his playing and his compositions. In this he totally succeeded, to his enormous credit.

His upbringing, however, left him somewhat selfish and arrogant in his early years, and his behaviour at Esterháza could be boorish and often rude to his aristocratic employer. Also, he was not above some shady dealings to his own advantage, no doubt thinking his talents justified them, as did Beethoven in selling individual works to several publishers! Even in late life his desire to make money was noticed and criticised, perhaps out of envy, but he was certainly an astute businessman. He also strove to improve the lot of his musicians at Weimar and had a sense of justice that was more progressive than that generally prevailing at the time. His work in Weimar to create a widows and orphans fund is one example, his ground–breaking work to seek intellectual property rights for composers is another.

He was profoundly aware of Beethoven’s greater genius, but also the sacrifices that Beethoven made for his genius. I find Beethoven’s influence on Hummel’s music much less than Haydn and Mozart, but like many others he was intimidated by his elder colleague. He did not take up the challenge of competing because he felt he could not win and the sacrifices he would have to make would be too great. Many would call that sensible, although there is the question of what more he might have achieved with his great talent if he had been more ambitious as a composer, or had he not married. Time will judge his pre–marriage vs. post–marriage works, but listening to the choral music of the 1800s, the opera Mathilde von Guise of 1810 and the ballet commission of Sappho von Mitilene from 1812 I find a particular joie–de–vivre, melodic inventiveness and orchestrating brilliance. Remember too that in 1813 Beethoven was about to enter a five–year period of deep crisis emotionally and musically, leaving an opportunity to be rivalled – even overtaken – when works such as Wellington’s Victory were his output.

Before Hummel married he was a dedicated composer who taught, was prolific and expert in most genres. After marriage he was a family man, a virtuoso, a teacher, increasingly a conductor of other composers’ music and a business man, and a composer largely for his own performing career and writing for his current market and not posterity.

Hummel’s philosophy in his later years was given to his pupil Ferdinand Hiller. "Your purpose is to touch the heart, to instil joy, to delight the ear. Model yourself after great masters in form and plan, although don’t copy their style, which must be your own. Be diligent but not too hasty, everything good comes with reflection. Enjoy the world, while you attempt to provide it enjoyment... never forget this watchword: Moderation."