Saturday, February 8, 2014

Hummel - Piano Sonata No. 5 In F-sharp Minor

Beethoven and Hummel were friends for many years until they had a falling out around 1810. Hummel had been a student of Mozart and Clementi and was known for his delicacy and fluidity on the piano, while Beethoven was better known for snapped strings and broken pianos he left in his wake. Beethoven's playing was thundering, while Hummel's was singing. Beethoven's playing by contemporary accounts could be sloppy and he pounded, while Hummel's was precise and flexible. Both men were virtuosos of the first order in the Vienna of the early 19th century, but they were at opposite ends of the piano playing spectrum. Beethoven was a notoriously difficult person to get along with, and his life is littered with squabbles large and small that caused estrangement from many of his friends.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven also didn't much care for Hummel's compositions, but Beethoven was very sparse with his acceptance of most other composers' music. Perhaps what set Beethoven off the most was that Hummel made arrangements of Beethoven's music, probably on artistic grounds as well as monetary. Copyright didn't exist and Beethoven didn't get any payment for the use of his composition as basis for an arrangement and certainly had no say-so in the arrangement itself.

All of this competition and bickering (as well as the huge difference in their piano playing) caused two camps to form in Vienna. Carl Czerny, student of Beethoven and Hummel and teacher of Liszt, had the opportunity to hear many of the virtuosos in Vienna including Beethoven and Hummel. Czerny wrote about the two opposing camps:
Carl Czerny
Beethoven's style could be characterized as tremendously forceful, full of bravura and fluency, while Hummel's was the epitome of the highest purity and clarity, full of graceful delicacy and elegance. Hummel's playing united Mozart's style with the style of Clementi, so it was natural that some would prefer Hummel's playing to Beethoven's, thus two parties formed which were hostile and vengeful to each other. Hummel's supporters accused Beethoven of mistreating the piano mangling clarity and purity, he brought forth only confusing noise through the overuse of the pedal and his compositions were full of unnatural melodies and vulgarities. In contrast, the Beethoven supporters accused Hummel of stifling all true imagination, his playing monotonous as a hurdy-gurdy, his fingers like spiders and his compositions pale imitations of Mozart and Haydn. 
The historical edge as far as influencing later generations of composers must go to Beethoven, who was such a Titan of music that like his music or not, composers had to come to terms with it. But Hummel was not without his influence. It has not lasted directly lasted as long as Beethoven's but the leading composers of the Early Romantic Age certainly knew and learned from his music. Chopin had a Hummel piano concerto in his repertoire, Schumann struggled to learn the 5th piano sonata and Hummel taught Thalberg and Mendelssohn. Hummel's Piano sonata No. 5 In F-sharp Minor was written in 1819 and is in three movements:

I. Allegro - Hummel begins the movement with a decidedly different opening motif of grace notes attached to octaves in each hand. The music is restless and disjointed as it stops, starts, slows down and resumes tempo. There are many short motifs that run through the exposition, but the listener must pay attention as there is no choice for the performer to repeat the exposition as Hummel writes a double bar line and goes directly to the development. The development goes afield with certain motifs modulating to different keys, and Hummel eventually makes hisway back to the recapitulation. Motifs reappear with changes of key, and the movement ends in F-sharp major. The music bristles with thirds and fourths, especially in the right hand, as well as rapid runs and rhythmic combinations. Hummel manages to write a first movement that sounds more like a fantasy than sonata form.

II. Largo con molto espressione - What appears to be the slow movement of the sonata starts with a surprise; a motif played in double forte.  After the initial surprise, the music assumes the demeanor of a slow movement that is a foretaste of things to come with Chopin and Schumann. The movement is punctuated by loud outbursts and quick runs up and down the keyboard. The movement is full of tempo designations and directions as well as dynamic markings.

III. Finale:Vivace - The preceding two movements were only a warm up to what Hummel has in store in the finale. The music has a relentless push forward in the two main themes, the first of which is hammered out in the high treble and the other in octaves in the right hand played against running notes in the left. There is a fugal episode that appears twice as the music keeps pushing to the final chord. Again the music is full of thirds and fourths, especially a two-bar run for thirds in both hands that is played twice. The first theme returns to round off the movement and leads to octave F's in both hands.

Some say Beethoven was a Classical Era composer, some say he was one of the first Romantics, but Beethoven defies categorization as one thing or the other. His music has elements of both, but he is a composer unto himself. With the writing of this sonata Hummel led the way for the full onset of the Romantic Era. Beethoven wrote some amazing music for the piano, but he never wrote a sonata like this sonata of Hummel's.  

When Hummel learned that Beethoven was on his deathbed, he traveled to Vienna, visited Beethoven three times, the last only three days before Beethoven died.  He promised to take Beethoven's place in a charity concert, and secured Beethoven's signature on a document supporting Hummel's attempt at getting copyright laws passed. Hummel was one of eight musicians that accompanied Beethoven's coffin to his grave.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating sonata! It becomes clear, especially from the quality of this work, why Schubert dedicated his last piano sonatas to Hummel. The langorous melody of the second movement certainly anticipates the Bellini-like endless melodies of Chopin's slow movements, and Hummel's innate capacity for unpredictable modulations is also evinced throughout. A sonata of which it's impossible to get bored, I'll be listening again and again!