Dancing into spring with Hummel’s piano trio

Freshness. © Charles Thibo

Talented, successful, rich and forgotten – the life of the composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel was marked by a steep rise to the upper echelons of society, while after his death the music world quickly forgot him and never truly came around to acknowledge his creative spirit. For almost a year, poor Hummel has been languishing for another appearance on this blog and his Piano Trio in E flat Major, Op. 96 seems to be the right kind of music to accompany you and me through the first true days of spring.

Hummel ist the last major representative of the Vienna classic era, He was born in 1778 in Bratislava and moved with his family to Vienna in 1786. Mozart taught him for free and he became a celebrated pianst and teacher. By 1820 he was one of the most expensive piano teachers and his the royalties he earned through his compositions made him a rich man and certainly the richest composer of his time. His celebrity did not last beyond his death – he died in 1837 – but luckily the Trio Parnassus has recorded his complete piano trios and their recording of the Piano Trio in E flat major is a lovely piece of chamber music, echoing Mozart and Mozart’s eagerness to give the audience what it expected.

Creativity vs. commercial success

This leads me to a question that has been haunting me since I became so deeply interested in composers’ biographies: Did they compose to express theire feelings, ideas, not overly caring about the taste of the time? This would speak for sincerity and true creativity. Or did they rather compose pieces which they could expect to be successful and thus guarantee a steady income? Would such a market-orientated approach diminish the music’s value?

How about today composers? If those I met personally or read about stand for the majority, commercial success is not their objective. They often rely on grants, subsidies just as past composers like Beethoven and Mozart to name but a few did. At the same time it is clear that they cannot survive without additional sources of income as instrumental performers or music teachers. So why do they not embark on the composition of pleasing and commercially viable pieces instead of writing pieces that the vast majority of the music rejects as unintelligible, dissonant, atonal etc.?

What kind of message?

“We do not need to repeat what previous generations of composers have already said so many times”, Cécile Marti, a young Swiss composer, once told me. That would not be very original, I grant that, but what if then audience wants to hear the message of the past and today’s composers’ message is of no interest to the contemporary audience or if today’s message is too complicated and thus lost even if a contemporary work makes it into the program of a concert hall? Those are tough questions, and I have no answers, but I find it striking that times and again I come across past composers that have written beautiful music and managed to be successful in terms of income. If it was possible in the past, it must be possible today.

Hummel wrote this piano trio in 1822, it was his last. The 1820s were busy years for the composer and pianist. In 1822 he traveled to Russia, where he met John Field, in 1825 to France, in 1828 to Poland where he met Chopin to amaze the audience with his pianistic brilliance. According to Oxford Music Online, Hummel’s concert programmes “followed the conventions of the day: his own works – chamber music and concertos – and an improvisation were the centrepieces, while opera excerpts and, sometimes, music by local composers filled out the evening.” I have no doubt that the rondo of the trio exhilarated the audience then as much as it stirs me up today. Let’s dance!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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