About this Recording
8.572736 - HUMMEL, J.N.: Hummel at the Opera (Inui)
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Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778–1837)
At the Opera


Johann Nepomuk Hummel was born in 1778 in Pressburg (now Bratislava) and died in 1837 in Weimar. He was one of the most famous composers and the leading pianist of his day, and his book on playing the piano revolutionised the playing of the instrument. As a child prodigy Hummel was taught by Mozart for two years free of charge, and he became Haydn’s successor as director of the Esterházy ensemble at Eisenstadt and a fellow-mason of Goethe’s Freemasons’ Lodge in Weimar, where he was engaged as conductor of the court orchestra. His main competitor was Beethoven, and Liszt and Schumann both tried to become his pupils, without success. His technical prowess was without compare, with sensational concert tours through England, France and Russia. Hummel’s output as music dramatist was mostly conceived in his free-lance period in Vienna from 1811 to 1816, between his engagements at the courts in Eisenstadt and Stuttgart. It encompasses everything from fairy plays and ballets to grand opera. His variations and fantasias on popular operas are of interest as documents of the prevailing performance practice.

When he was eight years old, Hummel played for Mozart, then at the height of his fame, and was subsequently housed, fed and tutored by him for two years. Hummel revered Mozart throughout his life. Apart from his ‘Figaro’ Fantasia (Naxos 8.557836A), he wrote piano variations on a theme from the Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782). The duet Vivat Bacchus, Bacchus lebe, Bacchus war ein braver Mann between the harem overseer Osmin (bass) and Belmonte’s servant Pedrillo (buffo tenor), who, with his master, wants to rescue two European women captured in Turkey, comes at a culminating point: the violent Osmin is a Muslim and not used to alcohol. Now he is plied with drink, and in the duet Pedrillo’s European cunning is contrasted charmingly with ‘alla turca’ elements. In Eisenstadt in 1810 Hummel wrote twelve variations on this theme in the original key of C major, which explore the full dynamic spectrum, following the composer’s standard plan: dramatic runs and ornaments (Variations 7 and 10); humorous statements in Variation 2; a serious, almost theological discourse in Variation 9; and the obligatory furioso in the finale.

In his epic poem Gerusalemme liberata (1575), Torquato Tasso tells the story of the sorceress Armida, who is holding the crusader Rinaldo captive on an island. Lully, Handel, Cimarosa, Salieri, Haydn, Rossini, and Dvořák all wrote operas on the subject. In 1777 Gluck’s Armide had its première. Hummel’s Variations, Op. 57, take as their theme a Musette, a dance here in 2/4 time, with a drone bass. Here the Musette denotes a tricky situation: a lover thinks he is being deceived by his loved one, but it is an evil demon who has assumed her form. Hummel was most interested in the charm of Gluck’s theme, which he transposed from E flat to the easier F major. In 1815, during his time in Vienna, he devoted ten variations to it, which are not at all typical for Hummel: there are few effects, but they have a Classical grace and boast an anticipated Schubertian passage in Variation 9.

The novel Paul et Virginie (1788), by Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, portrays, following Rousseau, the growing up of two semi-orphans in the natural idyll of Mauritius, unencumbered by class barriers. Hummel based a ballet on the novel, of which only the Quintuor des Nègres (1809/10) has survived in its piano reduction. The work had its première at the Kärntnertor Theatre in Vienna, and Hummel’s effective piece delightfully plays with ethnic stereotypes (even including a yodelling motif).

Cherubini’s comédie lyrique, Les deux journées (The Two Days, or The Water Carrier) had its première in Paris in 1800, and was enormously successful. Louis Spohr was so impressed by one performance that he decided there and then to become a composer, and for Beethoven it was the inspiration for his only opera, Fidelio. In Cherubini’s rescue opera the simple Savoyard Mikéli, who delivers water to the people of Paris, finds out that his erstwhile benefactor, Count Armand, is under dire threat from the scheming Cardinal Mazarin. He smuggles him out of danger in one of his water barrels. Mikéli’s baritone aria Guide mes pas, o Providence (Guide my steps, o Providence) in Act 1, Scene 3, accompanies the decision to provide help. Hummel wrote seven variations on this aria in the original key of E flat. In 1801 Hummel had already written a variation on a march from Les deux journées, Op. 9, and used it in his Trumpet Concerto. The score heard here is undated, but must be taken as a late work: it was published by the London piano and publishing house of Jean Baptiste Cramer Addison & Beale, which was only founded in 1824. In 1831, Hummel set out on his last but one, painfully unsuccessful tour of England and published his fantasia Recollections of Paganini with the same company. After another debacle in London two years later Hummel ended his career as a travelling virtuoso. He died in 1837 in Weimar.

The Grand Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 116 ‘L’Enchantement d’Obéron’ (Oberon’s Magic), in the dramatic key of E minor, is a late masterpiece, given its première in Weimar in December 1829. Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon was on the programme of the Weimar Court Theatre at the time. Today the opera about the knight Huon of Bordeaux, who kidnaps the daughter of Harun al Rashid with the help of the magic horn given to him by the fairy king Oberon, is not often performed, owing to the weakness of the libretto. The title by which Hummel’s fantasia is usually known today, Oberons Zauberhorn (Oberon’s Magic Horn), was the later invention of the Viennese publisher Tobias Haslinger. Hummel only made minimal use of Weber’s opera and instead created an autonomous masterpiece of high Romanticism, full of fairy music, thunderstorms and pastoral folklore. Oberon’s horn signal, made up of three ascending whole tones and the following dance (transposed to E major from the original D major) is Weber’s only direct contribution. The through-composed Fantasia is arranged in five sections: Allegro energico-Larghetto-Tempo di marcia-L’Orage (the storm)-Allegro con moto. Hummel himself also adapted the piece for piano solo.

The fairy tale Cinderella has been used by Rossini, Massenet, Johann Strauss the Younger and Prokofiev, among others. The first Cinderella opera of note was written by Nicolò Isouard (1773–1818), who was born in Malta, and based on the story by Charles Perrault. The work had a very successful première in Paris in 1810, and in 1812 reached Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. During the previous year, towards the end of his time at Eisenstadt, Hummel had already written eight variations in the original key of C major on a lilting celebratory march, sung by a children’s choir to Cinderella, who has just been declared a princess. In the imaginative variations we can occasionally glimpse Hummel’s genius between conventional passages. It is as if one were hearing fragments of Schubert (Variation 3), Chopin (Variation 5) or Schumann (in the bizarre Variation 4)—all three of whom were still young children at the time. The last variation is a gigue (a fast Baroque dance in 6/8 time) with Hummel’s typical euphoric heightening into virtuosity at the end.

This recording concludes with the complete Potpourri de l’Opéra Eselshaut, Op. 58:

1) Entr’acte from Act 1 (Largoin C minor)
2) Solo from Act 1, danced by Mademoiselle Gritti (Un poco Allegretto in F major)
3) Procession of the sacrificing priests to the temple of the Golden Ass Aliborum (Andante sostenuto in D flat)
4) March from Act 1, where the Golden Ass is led away for sacrifice (A major)
5) Mirror scene from Act 3 (quasi Tempo di Menuetto, F major)
6) Bacchanalia, dance from Act 1 (Presto assai in D flat, evidently the key chosen for rituals).

The folk-tale Eselshaut (Donkey Skin), collected by Charles Perrault, is an example of the inherent cruelty of the genre, which can be psychoanalytically interpreted. After the death of his wife, a king thinks that only his daughter is worthy of marrying him. A fairy advises the desperate princess to delay the decision by making one new demand after another of the king, who even accedes to her wish that the Golden Ass, which brings much needed money to the kingdom, be slaughtered. Cloaked in the donkey’s skin, the princess flees.

At the time when Hummel’s work had its première operas were disposable products. There were dozens of new operas and the genre of the Viennese fairy play was more renowned for its expensive stage machinery than for its improvised plots. Die Eselshaut was first staged on 10 March 1814 at the Theater an der Wien. Hummel had left the service of Prince Esterházy and was now trying to establish himself in Vienna as a freelance composer and pianist. The German composer and violin virtuoso Louis Spohr was in Vienna at the time and was present at the première: the bad libretto by Franz Xaver Gewey provoked a scandal, the piece was supposed to be dropped, but several participants in other productions had fallen ill, so Die Eselshaut had to be kept in the repertoire. The public loved the scandal and came in great numbers, the music was even praised, and Hummel made good money from three arrangements for piano (Opp. 58, 59, 60). This is all that has remained from the score.

Op. 58 can be heard on this recording. The events surrounding the Golden Ass Aliborum are especially effective: the solemn procession of the priests who are supposed to kill him—a slightly weird variant on the priests’ march in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) (No. 3); the removal of the animal, which is pitifully hopping towards its death, and the heart-rending lament on its fate (No. 4); and finally the orgy of slaughter (No. 6). The mirror scene (No. 5) could refer to a passage in the fairy tale in which the princess lays aside the donkey skin and sees her real reflection again in a pool of water.

Heinz Sichrovsky
English translation: Bernd Mueller

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