HANS SOMMER (1837 - 1922)
Hans Sommer’s music, which is notable for its Romantic exuberance, distinctive style and technical accomplishment, gives no inkling that, like his contemporary Borodin, he was also a successful scientist. A stepson of the pioneering photographer Wilhelm Friedrich Voigtländer, he studied mathematics in Göttingen in the 1850s with Gustav Lejeune Dirichlet, a brother-in-law of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and on returning to his home town of Braunschweig (Brunswick) was soon himself appointed professor of mathematics. He went on to become director of the city’s renowned Technical University for several years and was a leading figure in his specialist field of dioptrics. Sommer’s true passion, however, was for music, although in his youth the prerequisites for a future career in the field were modest at best. His primary interest was in composition, so much so that while a student in Göttingen he asked the local chorus director Julius Otto Grimm for tuition. Grimm had been trained in Leipzig and belonged to the circle containing Schumann, Brahms and Joseph Joachim; he gave Sommer his initial grounding in composition. Sommer went on to pursue further education in Braunschweig and became a musical promoter; he wrote reviews, was heavily involved in musicological source research, one of the early supporters of Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival from 1874, and took the opportunity to compose whenever he could. Following his one-act opera Der Nachtwächter (‘The Nightwatchman’), first performed at the Hoftheater in Braunschweig in 1865, and various performances of chamber music and songs, largely in private houses, his Opus 1 was published in 1876—a collection of songs in five volumes that already reveals a skilled songwriter of considerable maturity. In the early 1880s, after he had decided to retire altogether from academic life, he released a series of further song collections, with the songbooks Op. 2 to Op. 6 appearing in quick succession. These were received with a great deal more interest. ‘Several books of songs by Hans Sommer have been published by Henry Litolff in Braunschweig, which seem sure to draw the attention of the musical world to a major new talent’, was the enthused reaction of Otto Leßmann, editor of the influential Allgemeine deutsche Musikzeitung in Berlin.
English translation: Saul Lipetz