Hummel was no song-composer, but his setting of this Freemason’s text (both Goethe and he visited the Amalia lodge in Weimar) has the nobility that we hear in his best music for piano and orchestra. This virtuoso pianist has been re-evaluated in fairly recent years as a composer of considerable importance, particularly after his piano concertos found a worthy advocate in Stephen Hough. He was appointed Kapellmeister in Weimar in 1819. He set so little of Goethe’s poetry, almost none, that we imagine that neither man was convinced of the greatness of the other. Goethe was polite, Hummel was even more polite, all the niceties of their respective positions in Weimar were observed, but they never became friends; the overbearing figure of Zelter in the background, and Goethe’s tendency to allow Zelter to arbitrate on all musical matters, must have been considerably irritating to a performer, as well as a composer, who was more famous than Zelter. Hummel was also a close friend of Beethoven, a composer whose name had scarcely passed Goethe’s lips since the strained meeting of the two titans in Teplitz in 1812. Hummel hurried from Weimar to Vienna in 1827 to visit the dying Beethoven (just as Neukomm, eighteen years earlier, had arrived to bid Haydn farewell). During this visit Hummel improvised in the most remarkable manner on the slow movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. Schubert and Hummel met at the home of Katherina von Laczny. (By this time Schubert had long given up both setting Goethe and trying to contact him.) Schubert and Vogl performed song after song for Hummel and his student Ferdinand Hiller. Tears rolled down the older composer’s eyes at hearing this music, as well as this new kind of singing and accompanying. Spaun attests that Hummel then improvised on Schubert’s song Der blinde Knabe
, thus paying Schubert the greatest of compliments. It is very tempting to conjecture that Hummel’s new-found enthusiasm for Schubert’s songs may have played a part (if so, ignored by Schindler’s memoirs of course) in bringing this music to the attention of the dying Beethoven.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2006