Friday 2 December 2016

Hummel got the girl; Beethoven . . . immortality

Published 21/08/2010 | 05:00

Johann Nepomuk Hummel has one of the great names of classical music. For a start, there are the little Hummels, the porcelain figurines that have been an ornamental staple over the last 70 years or so. Then there's that middle handle.

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It's a reference to the patron saint of Bohemia, John, who was born in the small town of Nepomuk in what is now the Czech Republic. Johann Hummel, or Jan as he was known, came from what is now Bratislava, on the other side of the dividing line that split Czechoslovakia.

Back in his day, it was all the one, and if music was your thing, you had to get yourself to Vienna. The Hummel family did. The father had a his own career in military music. He saw the potential in his son.

He got him lessons on the violin, but the boy wouldn't have it. The fledgling piano was what attracted him. He was so good at it, that Mozart -- lord of all he surveyed in Vienna at the time -- took an interest. Just a lad of seven, Jan Hummel moved into Mozart's house, and his education developed under the guidance of the great man.

He was clearly a prodigy, not unlike Mozart himself, and Jan's dad sought to exploit this, by taking him on a European tour. Back in Vienna, the boy furthered his studies with, among others, Haydn. He was in the front rank of coming men.

By now, Beethoven was on the scene. Given the way their paths have diverged since -- the one revered as the king of classical music, the other hardly heard of any more -- it takes a leap of the imagination to credit that the contemporary public held them in equal esteem, and they were great rivals. In more ways than one.

They both had their eye on a soprano, Elisabeth Röckel. Hummel got the girl. Beethoven was left to ponder what might have been as he composed one of the enduring piano classics, a Bagatelle in A minor, that has come to be remembered for its dedication, Für Elise. A musical ode to the one who got away!

Hummel's reputation rests now on a trumpet concerto he wrote in 1803, though that may be more to do with the fact that there's little that's good enough in the trumpet repertoire, so his masterpiece has plenty of space to shine.

Hummel, though, was a piano man, and, by all accounts, he played quite brilliantly. He wrote seven concertos with which he would have thrilled the audiences of the time.

You'll search long and hard to find them now, but they're worth the effort. Anybody who could rival Beethoven in his day had to be something special.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning. ghamilton@independent.ie

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