Pianists in Transition – Part 1

There are four very important pianists prior to the arrival of the romantic pianists: John Field, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Friedrich Kalkbrenner and Ignaz Moscheles. Kalkbrenner was a virtuoso with the most superficial brilliance. Field was the most poetic pianist and the one who came closest to Chopin’s style; Hummel was a classicist; Ignaz Moscheles was a bravura pianist who developed into a classicist and was the best musician of the four.

John Field (1782 – 1837)

Field was born in Dublin, Ireland to the son of a violinist at the Theatre Royal. His first teacher was his father. At the age of six, he was giving concerts. He was sent to work with Clementi. Field was a morose boy who suffered all his life from an inferiority complex, the menial treatment he received from Clementi did not help his confidence either. Sphor in his autobiography commented on Clementi’s poor treatment of the boy:

‘In the warehouse, Field played for hours to display his instruments to the best advantage of the purchasers. I still have a recollection the figure of this pale, overgrown youth… When Field, who had outgrown his clothes, placed himself on the piano, stretched out his arm over the keyboard so that the sleeves shrunk up nearly to his elbow, his whole figure appeared awkward and stiff in the highest degree. They laughed when he sat down at the piano. But as soon as he touched the keys there was technical perfection’.

John Field

Sphor referred to it as ‘dreamy melancholy’; what the nocturne Field created was the pre-cursor of Chopin’s Nocturnes. He worked hard and would slave over difficult passages hundreds of times in succession until he got it the way he wanted it.

He grew up as a secretive and uncommunicative person, but developed into a powerful pianist who expressed at the keyboard. In 1802, Clementi brought him to Paris and let him give a few concerts. Field made an overwhelming impression. He played Handel and Bach’s fugues with ‘high precision and taste’ and called fourth the most enthusiastic applause from Paris. He derived his tastes in Bach from Cramer. Bach was forgotten after his death.

After Paris, Field summed up the courage to break from his master and visited Vienna and then Russia. After Clementi returned to St. Petersburg, he found Field to be a successful pianist, teacher and composer who became a highly priced musician following his fame. He demanded Champagne when he gave lessons and would sip while instructing the aristocracy. He never bothered or troubled himself to explain such things as phrasing, shading and shaping the music to his pupils, except concentrated on fingerings, which took up the entire lessons time. He would only illustrate on the piano if he did come across a talented pupil. He instructed that the pedal should never be used as it is the task for the fingers to solve pianistic problems.

Ignaz Mocheles did not admire Field’s playing which he thought was lacking in spirit, accent, shading and depth. Liszt had pointed out that in his review that most pianists and critics respected Field in his prime. Clementi regarded Field as his favourite pupil because he has correct and irreproachable execution. He brought the singing, legato style to its highest peak in the pre-romantic days. The English pianist Charles Salaman called Field:

‘a really great player…romantic and poetic, as if interpreting some beautiful dream, while in the singing quality of his touch, the indefinite grace and delicacy of his execution, his emotional expression unrivaled in his days’.

Glinka described Field’s fingers, ‘like great drops of rain, poured over the keys as pearls on velvet’.

Field anticipated Chopin in many directions. This is evident in his series of eight Nocturnes, with arpeggiated left-hand figurations and Bellini-like melodies directly inspired by Chopin’s Nocturnes. Field was jealous of Chopin as Chopin’s Nocturnes grew popularity against his own. As a pianist, Field, like Chopin, featured tone and delicate dynamics. There was no doubt that Field anticipated Chopin’s type of fingers, with substitutions of fingerings on a single key to achieve a perfect legato. Field was recognized as a master of delicate pedal effects.

Field, a Clementi-trained pianist who advocated with coin on the back of his hands, who triumphed over his training as a much more significant innovator than the flashy Kalkbrenner or Hummel.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 – 1837)

Johann Nepomuk Hummel

Chopin did not usually issue idle compliments to other pianists but it is interesting that he did pay complete acceptance to Hummel as one of the greatest classic masters. Hummel was the pupil of Haydn and Mozart. The boy was brought to Europe on a four-year tour by his father and to London where Haydn taught him for a while in 1793. After ten-years, Hummel succeeded Haydn. From 1804-1811, Hummel served as a Kappellmeister to Prince Eszterházy. Hummel did do some concertizing but for the most part, he taught and composed.

He was remarkable for his clarity, evenness of tone and steady rhythm. His style was akin to that of Cramer and Moscheles. When he visited London in 1830, he lacked the courage to appear in the London concert scene. Moscheles said:

‘England, proud of Cramer, discovered that this legato was equal to Hummels and preferred the native to foreign talent. Hummel, possibly annoyed at seeing this view adopted by many, refused when asked by Cramer to play a duet with him at his concerts. The refusal created a backfire against him.’

Nonetheless, Hummel received great acceptance in Vienna where he was an important resident. Czerny wrote:

‘Never before, have I heard such novel and dazzling difficulties, such clarity and elegance in performance, or such intimate and tender expression. Or even such good taste in improvisation.’

Czerny who was a pupil of Beethoven, rushed to take lessons from Hummel. This conflicted with Beethoven’s teaching and as Hummel’s admirer claimed that Beethoven’s playing was noisy, unnatural, over-pedaled, erratic and muddy tone and confusing. Critics said Beethoven’s playing lacked imagination and was ‘monotonous as hurdy-gurdy’ and the position of his fingers reminded them of spiders.

Both did not enjoy an easy friendship as Beethoven tore up Hummels’ found-hand arrangement of his Fedelio Overture and gave that arrangement to Moscheles instead. Their friendship reconciled at Beethoven’s deathbed and Hummel was one of pallbearers at Beethoven’s funeral.

Hummel was by appearance coarse, slovenly and his face was pitted by smallpox. Czerny called him ‘a very striking young man, with an unpleasant, common looking face that constantly twitched’. Added to the comment, Czerny commented that his clothing was utterly tasteless where he wore valuable diamond rings on almost all his fingers. He however was the finest musician of his time aside from Beethoven. Many even thought of him more superior than Beethoven.

Sphor’s recollected Hummel with great pleasure when he heard him improvising one evening in a splendid manner. The company was about to break up but some ladies thought it was rather early to retreat for the evening and invited Hummel to play a few more waltzes for them. Hummel obliged with the requests and seated himself to play some waltzes. Young folks in the adjacent room began to dance. A few other artists had their hats off and listened attentively. Hummel soon converted his waltzes into free improvisation-fantasy while preserving the waltzes rhythms so dancers were not disturbed.

No one who heard Hummel’s improvisations can ever forget that it was graceful, spontaneous and fantastic. He demonstrated self-control of his style as a player that would never ramble away with chaos.

Hummel brought Vienna school to its height – Mozart’s style of piano playing was about to end but Hummel renewed the style. He was much more brilliant and a more powerful technician. He had an easy, natural way of playing and from Clementi, he adopted octaves and double notes i.e. double thirds and sixths. Like Clementi, Hummel advocated for the fingers to be close to the keys. In line with the classic practice, Hummel used pedal very sparingly and never lost strict tempo, a virtue that is not practiced much anymore.

Hummel in his book, The Complete Theoretical and Practical Course of Instructions on the Art of Playing the Pianoforte wrote that playing with the foot constantly on the pedal is ‘a cloak to an impure and indistinct method of playing’. Pedal was recommended primarily for slow movement and for where the harmony changes at distant intervals. All other pedal effects are ‘of no value’ to both the performance and the instrument.

Hummel systemized the technique, solving every aspects of known problems; he and Czerny both dominated for a century in that respect. Hummel was responsible for confusing future generations in the use of trill. Trill use started above the principal notes in almost all cases up until Beethoven’s time.  In his Complete Theoretical and Practical Course, Hummel decided that the new generation deserved a new idea:

‘……we have followed the ancient masters and always begun it with subsidiary note above…but each instrument has its peculiarities as to touch and position of the hand, so likewise has the pianoforte; and no reason why the same rules would not apply for the management of trill. Two principal reasons determine me to lay down the rule: that in general every trill should begin with the note itself, over which stands, and not with the subsidiary note above, unless the contrary be expressly indicated.’ Hummel was a highly regarded composer in his day and perhaps overrated but underrated now. His most celebrated work was the Septet, created in Vienna around 1820, for which its novelty and brilliance that passersby would stop each other on the street to talk about, as it would be a national event. His music also anticipated some Chopin notably in his opening of his Piano Concert in A minor and Chopin’s E minor. His B minor Concerto has a type of brilliant, florid figuration, which suggested the Polish influence. The two men had known each other and had met in Warsaw in 1828 and later Chopin visited Hummel in Vienna. For many years, Hummel had long been forgotten and his music only appeared as a single piano piece. His work such as piano concerto in A and B Minor and the Trumpet Concerto are sporadically played in concert halls. On records, it would be a great idea to reference his chamber music especially the famous Septet.

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