Walter Morse Rummel came from a long line of musicians. His great-grandfather, Christian (1787– 1849) was from Bavaria and a conductor of the court orchestra of the Duke of Nassau. Walter’s grandfather was August Rummel (1824–1886) who settled in London, whilst his father Franz (1853– 1901) studied piano with Louis Brassin in Brussels, and after a career which took him through Europe and the United States, taught at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin.
Rummel studied first with his father, but when he was only fourteen his father died. His mother was Cornelia Livingston Morse, daughter of American inventor and painter Samuel F.B. Morse. At the death of his father, his mother decided to move to be near her brother in Washington DC. Rummel continued his piano studies in Washington with Samuel Monroe Fabian, a pupil of Liszt and Moszkowski. He returned to Berlin in 1904 to study with Leopold Godowsky for four years and also studied composition with Hugo Kaun.
In 1906 Rummel visited Grieg in Norway and two years later (after gaining US citizenship) at the age of twenty-one, made his debut in Berlin playing his own Sonata in E minor for violin and piano with his violinist brother William, a pupil of Ysaÿe. Rummel was greatly affected by the ‘new’ music of Debussy. In 1909 he moved to Paris where he befriended the composer, and gave the first performance of five of the préludes and four of the études, as well as of the Six Épigraphes antiques and En blanc et noir with his wife Thérèse Chaigneau. During the last eight years of Debussy’s life, Rummel constantly performed his works and kept in close contact with the composer. Whilst in Paris he also became a friend of American poet Ezra Pound and collaborated on several works with him. Pound and Rummel dedicated several songs to pianist Margaret Cravens who, when she learned of Rummel’s engagement to her teacher Thérèse Chaigneau, shot herself.
Although Rummel played in Paris with his wife in 1909, his official debut in that city was in 1913 when he played the Fantasie in C major Op. 17 by Schumann, both books of Debussy’s Images and the Sonata in F minor Op. 5 by Brahms. During World War I Rummel and his wife performed for a charity that supported the children of French musicians killed in action, but in 1918 Thérèse went insane and was committed to an asylum. At around the same time Rummel and dancer Isadora Duncan became lovers. In her 1927 autobiography she refers to him as ‘…the most hallowed and ethereal love of my life’. They toured together throughout Europe and North Africa giving joint recitals.
During the 1920s and 1930s Rummel had a highly successful career throughout Europe, North Africa and South America. In 1925 he married an Englishwoman, Sarah Hetherington, but two years later had fallen in love with a Russian poetess, Francesca Erik, whom he married in 1932. During the 1920s Rummel would give five or six concerts each year in London and Paris, and in 1930 he made a very successful tour of South America. The early 1930s were Rummel’s most successful period: in one season he gave sixteen concerts in Paris alone. In 1935 Rummel and Francesca moved to Belgium at the invitation of their friend King Leopold III. During the 1937–1938 season Rummel observed the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Franz Liszt by giving a series of three recitals of the composer’s music in many capital cities of Europe.
When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1940, Rummel and his wife fled to Portugal; but he returned to Belgium and requested US protection of his property. His American passport was renewed for two years, yet he was able to tour in occupied Europe playing in France and Germany and by 1944 was living in Berlin, although three years earlier he had given twelve recitals in Paris. When Rummel’s American passport expired he applied for a German one in August 1944; but after the war he and his wife returned to France. In 1950 Rummel wrote his Credo d’un Artiste which was influenced by his fascination with the writings and ideas of Rudolf Steiner (he was a member of Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society). Rummel was also a composer of many songs and piano pieces, including twenty-five transcriptions of works by Bach, some of which became very popular.
Rummel was undoubtedly one of the great pianists of the twentieth century. Contemporary reviews amply demonstrate this. Of a French recital in 1913 one critic wrote, ‘M. Rummel, first and foremost an artist, aims to put us directly in contact with the composers, as if we were hearing them express themselves.’ Of another in 1928, ‘The playing of this great pianist is brilliant, robust, marvellously articulated, sensitive, and of such flexibility that it gives the impression of a ceaseless and ardent improvisation.’
His name is not generally known today, because he left so few recordings. His published recordings come from sessions in Paris for French HMV in 1930 and 1931, a few sides for the French label Salabert, and some for Deutsche Grammophon in Germany in 1942 and 1943. From the French sessions come two of his own transcriptions of Bach chorales, works which were very popular at the time. His greatest recordings are those of Liszt from the 1940s. Rummel’s disc of Liebestraum No. 3 is quite extraordinary in capturing the ecstatic sweep of the music, where at times his heated passion almost causes him to lose control. Equally impressive, although for different reasons, is his recording of Liszt’s Ave Maria based on a chanson by Jacob Arcadelt (1514–1575). Many of the other recordings are of waltzes and mazurkas by Chopin and are not as distinguished as the Liszt recordings. However, Rummel did make quite a few discs that were never published. Between October and December 1925 he visited Columbia’s studios in London at least five times. The acoustically-recorded repertoire included Chopin’s Étude in C sharp minor Op. 25 No. 7, a Schubert impromptu, and the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde arranged by Liszt. Unpublished sides from the French HMV sessions in November 1930 and March 1931 included similar repertoire, as well as two of Rummel’s own compositions, Cocos, and Tango de la Murt. Some test pressings have survived and have been published, with some surviving radio broadcasts, accompanying a biography of Rummel (Prince of Virtuosos: a life of Walter Rummel, American pianist) by Charles Timbrell, published in 2005.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).