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ClassicsOnline Home » HUMMEL: Oberons Zauberhorn / Variations on Das Fest der Handwerker / Le retour de Londres
Hummel’s long career as one of Europe’s most celebrated virtuosi owed as much to his resourcefulness as a composer as it did to his exceptional technique as a pianist. The four works on this recording illustrate the vitality of Hummel’s musical imagination at the height of his career. Oberons Zauberhorn (Oberon’s Magic Horn) is a strikingly original fantasy based loosely on Weber’s opera Oberon. Le retour de Londres, a large-scale rondo composed in 1833, opens with a slow introduction remarkable for its beauty and expressive power which leads into the inventive and brilliantly virtuosic Rondeau.
By David Denton
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778–1837): Works for Piano and Orchestra
Oberon's Magic Horn • Grand Rondeau brillant • Variations and Finale
Unlike Beethoven, whose deafness drove him from the concert platform relatively early in his career, Johann Nepomuk Hummel remained one of Europe's most celebrated virtuosi until the early 1830s. There were lengthy periods, however, when he did not perform in public and it was really his return to the concert platform in 1814 that laid the foundations for his immense popularity during the next ten to fifteen years of his life. His longevity as a performer owed as much to his vigour and resourcefulness as a composer as it did to his formidable technique as a pianist. Hummel's receptiveness to new musical trends and his ability to develop and exploit them was fundamental to his success as an artist. The four works on this recording, composed between 1820 and 1833, illustrate the vitality of Hummel's musical imagination at the height of his career.
Hummel's improvisatory powers were exceptional and improvisations formed an important component in his concerts. A typical improvisation included a fantasy-like introduction, themes from popular operas or from the evening's concert and a series of free variations, sometimes ending with a paraphrase of the finale of an opera. Louis Spohr describes just such an improvisation in his autobiography. Following a party for the Congress of Vienna "Hummel wove themes of the concert into contrapuntal variations, a fugue and a bravura finale, all in waltz time to permit the last stragglers to dance".
These improvisatory techniques – the fantasy-like introduction, the choice of operatic tunes as the basis for sets of variations and the bravura finale – are to be found in many of Hummel's published works for solo piano. They also find their way into a number of works for piano and orchestra. The Variations in F, Op. 97, of 1820, for example, consists of a theme and set of variations whose structural regularity is destabilised by the orchestral links between variations, the inclusion of a lengthy free variation at a slower tempo and an interpolated cadenza prior to the final variation. The Variations and Finale in B flat, Op. 115, composed ten years later, reveals another approach. The work is introduced by a lovely 6/8 Larghetto which is unrelated to the ensuing theme and variations. The theme itself, a perky little tune from the Berlin Local-Singspiel Das Fest der Handwerker, is a simple, symmetrical binary construction in 3/4 with repeats. Hummel's variations are far more fluid in their construction, eschewing the obvious binary structure of the theme in order to allow a more extensive exploration of its elaborations. Some variations are linked; others are separated by brief orchestral interludes. As in the F major set there is a lengthy variation in a slower tempo – in this instance with a change of metre to 9/8 – but instead of returning to the original tempo and metre the Larghetto variation is followed by a bravura finale in 2/4 which is based loosely on the theme. In both these works Hummel displays a flexible approach to the writing of variations that owes a good deal to his improvisatory practices. They do not attempt a systematic exploration of their themes nor do they seek to develop the thematic material in what we might loosely term a 'classical manner'. Their appeal lies in their fluidity of structure, the scintillating writing for the piano and Hummel's subtle and effective treatment of the orchestra. Of the two works, the Variations and Finale, Op. 115, is arguably the more interesting, not because the variations themselves are intrinsically better but rather in the way in which Hummel treats the music of another composer in one of his own works.
In November 1829 Hummel completed a new work for piano and orchestra which he headed L'Enchantement d'Oberon. Fantasie caracteristique on the first page of the autograph score. The work received its première in Weimar in December 1829. The Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung (AMZ) noted that: "Kapellmeister Hummel played a movement from Beethoven's Septet in E flat, his Quintet in E flat minor, a new Septet of his own composition for pianoforte, flute, clarinet, violin, violoncello and trumpet, his new Fantasie "Oberons Horn" accompanied by the full orchestra and a free fantasia. Of the orchestral works played, there was Hummel's Overture in B flat, 6/8, (published) and his as yet unpublished Overture in D, 4/4, in which "God save the King" is interwoven in the middle section". [Issue No. 7, February 1830]
Weber's opera Oberon was given in Weimar on at least two occasions in the second half of 1829 and it is these performances that doubtless inspired Hummel to compose a work based on the opera. It is interesting to note that neither the AMZ review nor the first edition of the work (published in Vienna in 1831 by Tobias Haslinger) used Hummel's original title: the AMZ refers to the work as Oberons Horn and Haslinger styles it Oberons Zauberhorn. Both titles more accurately reflect the relationship of the Fantasie to the opera. Unlike Weber's earlier operas which employ a number of unifying musical devices such as tonality and characterisation through orchestral colouring, Oberon, owing to the peculiarity of its structure, employs just one: the use of Oberon's horn call which opens the overture and appears as a motif at various points throughout the opera. It is this device, along with the use of the famous horn theme from the opera's finale, that provides the most obvious musical links between the two works although the horn motif itself is completely transformed. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Hummel's Oberon is how little material is taken directly from the opera. The only literal quotation indeed is the horn theme which forms the basis of the finales of both works. Even in terms of a depiction of the opera's dramatic action Hummel's Oberon differs considerably from its model. The Tempo di marcia which is analogous to the march in the opera's finale (No. 23) precedes the storm scene (No. 13) which in turn leads into a 'new' finale based around the horn theme (No. 22). It is evident from this approach and Hummel's extensive use of newly-composed material that his primary concern was to achieve a satisfactory musical structure for his own composition rather than present a paraphrase of Weber's work. The newly-composed material is attractive, highly effective and characteristic of Hummel's mature style. Most impressive is his ability to achieve a sense of continuous musical action through the use of ingenious links between disparate thematic elements. Thus, the work unfolds as a long, continuous single movement but it contains five distinctive phases: Allegro energico – Larghetto – Tempo di marcia – L'Orage (Storm) – Allegro con moto. The horn call opens the work and is used extensively within the orchestral accompaniment throughout the first phase of the work; it also serves as an introduction to the horn theme in the finale (and it is at this point that Hummel's decision to compose a new horn call rather than quote Weber's becomes self-evident, since the new call is derived from the opening of the horn theme and thus serves to unify the work most effectively) and makes a final appearance in the last bars of the work.
As his annual leave had been cancelled in 1829 Hummel took six months off in 1830 for an extended trip to Paris and London. Although he was at the height of his career it appears as though his star was beginning to wane. The Paris correspondent of the AMZ paid scant attention to Hummel's concerts merely noting: "In March the long-recognised composer and pianist Hummel gave some concerts here which were moderately well attended. Some newly-composed works were performed for the most part to lively applause." [Issue No. 18, May 1830]. In London, however, he triumphed in his first visit there for forty years and on the strength of his success made two further visits. The first of these, in 1831, was virtually ruined by competition from Paganini and in 1833 he functioned largely as director of the German opera season although he did present at least two new works, Le retour de Londres. Grand Rondeau brillant in F, Op. 127, and his last piano concerto. The audience showed its approval of the more spectacular passages "with hands, feet and canes as if the lightly built auditorium were celebrating its own destruction". Although the Grand Rondeau brillant was published in Vienna in 1835 by Haslinger with the title 'Le retour de Londres', it is fascinating to note that in a letter to Ignaz Moscheles in London, dated 25th March 1835, Hummel refers to the work as "le retour à Lourdes".
As is customary for Hummel, Le retour de Londres opens with an extended slow introduction remarkable for both its beauty and expressiveness. The Rondeau that follows reveals Hummel's great mastery of the form. The theme is quirky and full of musical invention; the episodic material, at turns simple and expressive or brilliantly virtuosic. In this medium Hummel was peerless and this late work shows that he had lost none of his old fire.
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HUMMEL: Oberons Zauberhorn / Variations on Das Fes...