Hummel’s only oratorio, The Passing Through the Red Sea (Der Durchzug durchs Rote Meer) is a work of many mysteries. It had sat forgotten in the London British Library since the late 1800’s, apparently never performed until the early 2000’s, when it caught the interest of a conductor and was given its first performance, in Germany. Its date of composition and librettist are unknown, as is the impetus for Hummel to write it. The oratorio is in the sparkling Viennese Classical tradition and clearly pays homage to Haydn’s The Creation, but it is extraordinary in for its day in several ways.
Guitar and bass drum are striking additions to the orchestra for the time. The work even includes the first known orchestral bass drum role, an innovation previously attributed to Liszt. Performance requires highly skilled soloists. The coloratura soprano fireworks surpass those in famous roles such as Mozart’s Queen of the Night. The work concludes with a flashing trumpet fanfare. Why it apparently was never performed in Hummel’s lifetime is one of the mysteries surrounding this recently unburied masterwork.
The oratorio’s libretto, based on Exodus and Psalm 130, recounts the story of Moses, the ten plagues on Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea for the Israelites, and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army. Hummel’s expertise in opera and theatre come to bear as he engages vivid text painting to musically describe the continually progressing drama, drawing on chromaticism, sequence, vigorous rhythms, imaginative motifs, occasions of fioratura, instrumentation, and quite an expansive vocal range. His exceptionally inventive modulations and surprising innovations with the fugue form are distinguishing compositional features. Yet amid all of the color and variety, the work has a central keystone, a plan that gives it a satisfying cohesion. At the center of it all sits the Würgeengel, the Angel of Death, with his oboe and bass drum companions.
Johann Nepomuk Hummel was born of Austrian lineage in 1778. A prominent part of the Viennese and European musical scenes, Hummel knew and worked with many of the musicians and artists of his time. Conductor, virtuoso concert pianist, composer, traveller, businessman, entrepreneur, family man – all of these describe Hummel.
Going beyond the musical achievements expected of a fine musician, Hummel made major and lasting contributions to the advancement of the music profession itself. He developed the professional models for concert touring and for orchestra management that are essentially still used today. He supported benefits for full-time musicians, and ardently advocated for copyright law to protect composers’ rights. Through his efforts and struggles, Hummel led reforms that gave artists greater control of their lives, work, and pay.
As the Romantic style replaced the Classical, Hummel’s work fell into a relative state of neglect. Interest and admiration revived in the second half of the 20th century, and continues to grow today. Musica Tevere’s performance of Der Durchzug durchs Rote Meer marks an important milestone in bringing Hummel’s choral legacy to life.
Musical Scores: Hummel holograph manuscript, Public Domain. Der Durchzug durchs Rote Meer excerpt, Rebecca Ostermann.
Photograph of Hummel bust, René & Peter van der Krogt
Painting, Premier at the Academy (detail), oil, Charles Cushing
Painting, Piazza San Marco (detail), Canelletto, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Open Access