Composer and pianist Jan (Johann) Nepomuk Hummel, born in Bratislava (Pressburg) on November 14, 1778, was the son of Josef Hummel, Director of the Imperial School of Military Music and Conductor of the Theatre Orchestra. Josef selected the violin as Jan's first musical instrument, but this led to failure. The boy then chose the pianoforte.
Jan immediately displayed a most remarkable ability and at age 7 when his father moved to Vienna, Mozart was so impressed with the child's playing that he offered to give him music lessons. Hummel then lived with Mozart for 2 years and in spite of informal and irregular lessons, he made immense progress, and Mozart predicted a brilliant future for him.
At age 9, Hummel made his first appearance at a concert given by Mozart. So successful was this performance that his father decided to take the boy on a European tour a year later through Bohemia, Germany and Denmark which continued to progress through the British Isles and ended in London where the boy received instruction from Clementi. At age 10, he gave a concert at Oxford which included an original piano quartet. Hummel remained in London until the age of 14 and toured his way home to Vienna in 1793.
When he was 15 years of age, he devoted himself to study composition under the senior master Albrechtsberger and with the suggestion of Haydn sought dramatic compositional advice from Salieri. His performance tours took him into Russia.
At age 26, he accepted the revered post of Kappelmeister to Prince Esterhazy at Eisenstadt, formerly famed by Haydn. Hummel remained here until 1811. It was during this time that an unusual estrangement came between him and Beethoven. This circumstance remained throughout Beethoven's lifetime, and it was not until Beethoven's last days that the old misunderstanding faded away.
Hummel was dismissed from this post because of neglect of duties and then moved back to Vienna. His career then embraced a great deal of touring as a performer and also conductor through-out all of Europe and Russia. From 1819, he lived in Weimar where he was a close friend of Goethe and often performed at the poet's house.
In appearance, Hummel was a large man and rather ungainly. His face was that of a healthy business man with an abundance of common sense and savoir-faire. He married Elisabeth Röckel, an opera singer, in 1813.
Hummel was considered a brilliant virtuoso and wherever he appeared, he achieved very distinct success. He had the gift of improvisation, rivaling that of Beethoven, and was highly respected not so much for the performance of his own compositions, but rather for the interpretation of other composers. It is interesting to note that the symphonies of Beethoven became known to many people through the medium of Hummel's piano duet arrangements of his colleague.
It was this element of intrepretation that altered the system of musical ornamentation. Prior to Hummel, trill notes began upon the auxiliary note, a style attributed to C. P. E. Bach. Hummel's suggestion was to start the ornamentation upon the principle note and that has remained with us to this day.
It should also be noted that Czerny was a pupil of both Beethoven and Hummel and that the playing of Hummel was a "revelation to him," and that he, in turn, was a teacher of Liszt. Therefore, much indebtness to our modern piano school was born out of Hummel's activities. Not only pianists, but composers felt Hummel's influence which is clearly evident in the early works of Chopin and Schumann. He was considered in his time to be one of Europe's greatest composers and perhaps its greatest pianist.
Grove's Dictionary of Music lists over 175 compositions, stage works, church music, orchestral works, piano and orchestral works, chamber music, a host of solo instruments with piano, and a very impressive repertoire of piano solos. Clearly he is to be considered one of the world's most influential musicians.
In 1827, the Hummels and his student Ferdinand Hiller hastily made their way to Vienna to visit the dying Beethoven. Their meeting saw a final reconciliation. Hummel was a pall-bearer at the funeral, and at the memorial concert, following Beethoven's wishes, improvised on themes from the dead composer's works. During this stay Hummel met Schubert and delighted him with improvisations on Schubert's compositions. Schubert dedicated his three last piano sonatas to Hummel, presumably hoping he would perform them, but because they were not published until after the death of both men, the publisher changed the dedication to Schumann.
In the remaining three years of Hummel's life, illness reduced his activity to almost nothing. His death was regarded as the passing of an era and was appropiately marked in Vienna by a performance of Mozart's Requiem.
"The Octet in Eb" is evident of the Vienese style of composition that was birthed out of Hummel's studies with Mozart, Haydn, Salieri, Clementi, Albrechtsberger and colleagues such as Beethoven, Hiller, and Czerny. It is a work reflecting the charm, energy and clarity of this very talented virtuoso.