Businessman, Family-Man, Musician: Johann Nepomuk Hummel

Businessman, Family-Man, Musician: Johann Nepomuk Hummel

Although virtually unknown today, Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) was one of Europe’s greatest pianists, composers, conductors, and teachers during the transition from the Classical to the Romantic period. Hummel was born in Pressburg, today known as Bratislava, Slovakia, into a musical family. Hummel was a child prodigy and could read music by age four, and by age five play on a miniature piano. In 1786, the Hummel family moved to Vienna after his father, Johannes, was appointed music director of the Theater auf der Wieden. That same year, the gifted young Hummel began to study piano with Mozart, receiving free lessons and living with the Mozart family for two years. During Hummel’s time in the household Mozart wrote Don Giovanni, and the student had a chance to meet Haydn and Lorenzo da Ponte.

In 1787, at the age of nine, Hummel performed for the first time in public. Just a year later, Mozart suggested that Hummel go on a grand debut tour of Europe, just as he had done in his youth. So Johannes and Johann Hummel, father and son, set out on a tour that would last five years, and include stops in Prague, Berlin, the British Isles, and the Netherlands among many others.


Upon his return to Vienna, Hummel dedicated himself to learning, teaching, and writing music in addition to performing. He studied with Johann Albrechtsberger and Antonio Salieri. Hummel’s first published work, Three Sets of Variations, was released in 1791.


When Beethoven arrived in Vienna, the city was split into two parties: “ group praised the sweetness of Hummel’s touch and decried Beethoven’s aggressive approach to the instrument; Beethoven partisans said Hummel’s playing was ‘as monotonous as a barrel organ.” Hummel did not want to be compared with the genius of Beethoven, and therefore wrote no symphonies. Hummel said, “It was a serious moment for me when Beethoven appeared. Should I have tried to walk in the footsteps of such a genius? For a while I didn’t know who I was, and I finally said to myself: ‘It is best that you remain true to yourself and your nature.” Despite this rivalry, the two struck up a friendship, although tumultuous, that would last until Beethoven’s death in 1827.


In 1804, Hummel was appointed Konzertmeister to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy at Eisenstadt, successor to the aging Haydn. Despite his musical talents, Hummel was fired twice, once in 1808 and again in 1811, “...for neglecting his duties and becoming increasingly engrossed in composing music for Vienna.”

Two years later, Hummel’s life changed dramatically. He married Elisabeth Röckel in 1813, a life event “that saw a more mature and selfless Hummel emerge, but ended his life as a dedicated composer at a time when he was reaching the highest levels of his art.” In search of a more stable income, Hummel applied to be and was appointed Hofkapellmeister in Stuttgart in 1816. However, conditions were less than ideal, and just two years later he had changed posts again. Hummel was appointed grand-ducal Kapellmeister at Weimar, a role he would have until his death in 1837.

At this time, Weimar was the intellectual capital of Germany. Hummel met Goethe at court, and the latter introduced him to all of the important intellectuals. In this stimulating environment, Hummel experience one of his most productive periods. His performing career was booming, and he had an “exceptionally happy and productive artistic and family life at Weimar, settling down to a comfortable domestic life, with an imposing house and garden.” A great businessman and dedicated father, Hummel loved gardening and taking walks.

In 1823, on one of his tours to Holland, he discovered that many of his compositions had been pirated. From that moment on Hummel worked “ achieve copyright protection for composers’ works, as he knew how much money he lost by unscrupulous publishers pirating his own and other composers’ music.” In 1827, Hummel visited Beethoven on his deathbed. The two reconciled their disputes and Beethoven wrote a personal letter in favor of “...Hummel’s efforts to establish copyright protection for composers.”

In addition to his strong sense of justice, Hummel was a family man, a kind teacher, and a successful businessman. Unlike Beethoven’s thirst for posterity in his music, Hummel wrote music to entertain: “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…” Hummel once said 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.”

Hummel’s death in 1837 marked the end of the Classical era. In many ways Hummel bridged the gap between Mozart and Beethoven, helping to bring one musical era to a close and opening the door to the Romantic era. Hummel’s rich life has been mostly forgotten today, and although his music is sometimes recorded, it is little appreciated.

Musicians of the Old Post Road has championed Hummel’s music for years, including a CD of his Trios and Scottish Song Settings. In 1998, the group won the Noah Greenberg Award from the American Musicological Society for this recording. MOPR is credited with the premier of the rediscovery of the original version of Hummel’s Scottish song settings. The recording was made on a fortepiano from the Frederick Historic Piano Collection that is believed to have been played by Hummel himself at the Esterhazy palace!

Listen to an excerpt.


In their 2015-2016 season, MOPR will also be featuring an early sonata for flute and piano.


In addition, Ian Christians has dedicated an entire website to The Hummel Project, an initiative to put Hummel’s music back on the radar, including an extensive biography of the composer, and interesting video interviews with musicians who have performed his music.

Watch this incredibly informative conversation between Ian Christians and Howard Shelley, an accomplished British pianist and conductor:


Written by Fiona Boyd, Research and Marketing Intern