Classical Music | Music for Oboe

Johann Nepomuk Hummel

Introduction, Theme, and Variations in F minor, Op. 102  Play

Alex Klein Oboe
Czech National Symphony Orchestra
Paul Freeman Conductor

Recorded on 06/17/1998, uploaded on 03/25/2009

Musician's or Publisher's Notes

Oboe Concertos of the Classical Era

notes by Andrea Lamoreaux


"All roads lead to Rome"; or so it was said in ancient days when the Roman Empire encom­passed all the lands surrounding the Mediter­ranean Sea, plus a good chunk of Western Europe and the British Isles. Rome fell from its pre-eminent position under pressures both internal and external, but the idea of "empire" persisted in European history for centuries - not dying out entirely until the end of World War I in 1918. From the early Middle Ages onward, many nations were at least nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire, founded by Charlemagne.


By the 18th century, imperial power had become consolidated in the Hapsburgs, the dynasty that ruled Austria-Hungary from the city of Vienna. And although the Vienna of the Hapsburgs was not the political colossus that Rome under the Caesars had been, it became true that virtually all roads led there, espe­cially for musicians. The emperor's court and chapel, plus the smaller but no less music-lov­ing households of the Viennese nobility, were magnets drawing composers, instrumental virtuosos, and singers from provincial capitals and remote villages to find work, sell their scores, and make a name for themselves in the most musical city on earth.


Of the great Classical-Romantic "Viennese" composers, only one, Franz Schubert, was actually born there. Haydn and Mozart came from smaller Austrian towns, Beethoven from the German city of Bonn, Brahms from Ham­burg. There were others: around the turn of the 19th century many successful composer-performers migrated to Vienna from what is now the Czech Republic, then a province of the Empire known as Bohemia. Their names - Leopold Kozeluch, Anton Reicha, Johann Van­hal, Jan Vorisek, the brothers Anton and Paul Wranitzky - are not terribly well remembered today, but they held important posts in their adopted city, made a good living, served their patrons well, and left behind a wealth of music that is worth hearing....


Johann Nepomuk Hummel was a composer, performer, and teacher who definitely achieved international stature, and though music-lovers of today are aware of much more than just his name, he still tends to be dismissed as second-rate. A few minutes actually spent listening to his music dispel this attitude right away. No, he was not another Mozart or Beethoven: very few artists in any generation are endowed with that degree of genius. Even with a lesser spark of genius, though, he left a legacy well worth reinvigorating. To judge from recent recordings, it appears that his works are indeed undergo­ing a bit of a revival.


A child-prodigy pianist, he briefly studied with Mozart, and like his master, embarked with his violinist-father (shades of Leopold Mozart!) on a youthful recital tour that took him all over Germany, and to Denmark, Scotland, and England. (The family originated in the city of Bratislava, now in the Republic of Slovakia, but like so many other ambitious musicians, his father perceived opportunities in Vienna and moved there in 1786 when the future com­poser was 8 years old.)



After his prodigy years, the young Hummel returned to Vienna, undertook studies with the city's leading musical names - including Albrechtsberger, Salieri, and Haydn - and supported himself by giving piano lessons. In 1804, he succeeded Haydn as music director for Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, at the splendid estate in rural Austria where concerts and opera productions were on a level with those in Vienna. Hummel returned to the capital seven years later; though he continued to make his reputation as a composer, he also resumed his pianistic career and made many concert tours. He became music director for the ducal court in the German city of Weimar in 1818, remain­ing there - except for tours, and frequent returns to Vienna - until his death in 1837.


The supreme musical figure of Hummel's time was Ludwig van Beethoven. The two were for the most part friendly rivals, though there were occasional conflicts. Taking the Weimar position, and continuing to appear as a pianist - a role Beethoven was forced to abandon because of his deafness - effectively removed Hummel from the other man's orbit. Writing about Hummel's student years in the Vienna of the 1790s, his biographer Joel Sacks notes, "The most momentous event of the period was Beethoven's emergence... which nearly destroyed Hummel's self-confidence." Well it might have, but he seems to have avoided any permanent inferiority complex. "Despite constant partisan warfare among their dis­ciples," Sacks writes, "the two began a long, but stormy, friendship."


"As a composer, Hummel stands on the bor­derline between epochs," in Sacks's view. "His reputation now is that of a virtuoso specialist in piano music - something of a 19th-cen­tury trait. This view of him, however, is grossly incorrect. When his little-known unpublished works and the bulk of his printed ones are placed beside his better-known compositions, it becomes clear that his work embraced virtu­ally all the genres and performing media com­mon at the turn of the century: operas, Sing­spiels, symphonic masses and other sacred works, occasional pieces, chamber music, songs, and of course, concertos and solo piano music, as well as many arrangements. Only the symphony is conspicuously absent (and this fact alone testifies to his deeply-felt rivalry with Beethoven)."


The list of Hummel's works for solo instru­ment with orchestra encompasses, naturally, many piano concertos, plus works for trumpet, mandolin, bassoon, and the unusual pairing of viola and guitar. His 1820s Variations for oboe and orchestra are arranged from a Nocturne he originally composed for piano duet.


Although the work's Adagio introduction is in F Minor, the sprightly main theme and its variations are in the major mode. Few better examples could be found of Hummel's position on the cusp of the Classical and Romantic eras. The Adagio is darkly dramatic and very expres­sive, but after a suspenseful chord the curtains are drawn open and we are in a brighter world, where a tuneful, eminently cheerful theme is ingeniously elaborated with many changes of harmony, pace, and figuration. Not a profound piece, perhaps, but a miniature gem of musi­cal craftsmanship to charm both players and listeners.


The performances on this CD deliberate­ly seek to replicate the bright, open, high-volume sound that Classical-era composers desired, according to Mr. Klein. It is a mistake, he believes, to produce a delicate tone-color in music from this time. With Baroque music, the sound ideal for the oboe is a mellow, softer tone, but that is because the instrument known to Bach and Handel had a different type of bore, and thus a much different timbre. "The Baroque oboe is analogous to the viola," Mr. Klein says, "the Classical oboe, to the violin: brighter and higher. All three works on this CD provide excellent examples of Classical oboe writing."


Mr. Klein also comments on the ornamentation practices appropriate to concertos from the Classical period. "Ornaments, and ornamen­tation opportunities, come less frequently in Classical compositions than in Baroque ones, but the practice was still favored," he tells us. "Ornamentation is especially appropriate when motives and phrases are repeated, in the varia­tion passages of the finale of the first Krommer Concerto, for example. This movement pro­vides a perfect opportunity for the performer to add something new." In the Baroque period, ornamentation was a regular feature of slow movements, which were notated very spar­ingly by Bach and his contemporaries, in the expectation that the artist would create his own elaborations. By the Classical era, Mr. Klein points out, composers were expressing their own thoughts in slow movements, and performers were not expected to add much ornamentation.


Mr. Klein has added cadenzas to the first Krom­mer concerto and to the Hummel Variations, neither of which included cadenzas in their original versions. His ornaments and additions present a couple of notes, including a high G and a low A, that were not common or even possible on oboes of the early 19th century. Mr. Klein believes that if those notes had been available to performers of the time, they would have used them in their own interpolations of the basic scores. "Ornaments must fit the style of the music," he says, "but as long as an artist keeps the style of the composer's time in mind, he should feel free to play the music in the way he thinks it sounds best."


Andrea Lamoreaux is Programming Executive at Fine Arts Station WFMT-FM in Chicago.


Listeners' Comments        (You have to be logged in to leave comments)

Simply breathtaking. Both the oboe playing and Hummel's music. Thank you for sharing such great music.


Submitted by roszharkov on Mon, 06/21/2010 - 17:50. Report abuse