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Septet in C Major Op.114,`The Military'

Johann Nepomuk Hummel - Septet in C major Op.114 (The Military)

The Septet is a form explored by relatively few composers, but it seems always to bring out the best in those that essay it. Of household names in the world of composition only Beethoven is noted for the production of a septet yet other far less popular names have enhanced their art by their contribution to this medium. Even so remote an early nineteenth century figure as Alexander Fesca wrote two septets, the first of which still receives some attention. The ghost of Friedrich Witt, after basking briefly in the sunlight of the discovery that he was really the composer of Beethovenís "Jena" Symphony now finds that, shorn of the spurious attribution of the great composerís name, his admirable if derivative work is now ignored; however Witt is at least remembered nowadays by his admirable, classically moulded septet. The Septet is one of the most magnificent of nineteenth century works in that form .

Johann Nepomuk Hummel has certainly achieved a measure of acceptance and his two septets are quite often performed. His "Military" Septet uses clarinet and trumpet where the D minor has employed oboe and horn so the reason for the nomenclature of the C major is easy enough to understand. The D minor dated from about 1816: round about the time that the 38 year old composer took up his short-lived appointment at Stuttgart. This proved to be a tremendous success and was played no less frequently than Beethovenís work in the same form. Contemporary reports suggest that Hummelís return to Septet form some fourteen years later was prompted by the success of the earlier work. Without question the music is full of highly original elements and Hummelís use of the trumpet (an extraordinary instrument to employ in such a context, although Saint-SaŽns used it in his septet fifty years later), is most carefully calculated. The subtlety of Hummelís creation is typified by his sparing use of martial tones. The trumpetís first solo phrase after 47 bars is startlingly reminiscent of the same composerís trumpet concerto. Could it be that work was sufficiently familiar for Hummelís audience to appreciate the brief shaft of wit whereby after this first thematic reference, the trumpet has no further leading statement allotted it until the minuet?

Hummelís piano part is commendably modest throughout the work. Frequently it is used as a warm, flowing background to the timbres of the companion instruments, particularly so in the Adagio where in turn each instrument, other than double bass and trumpet plays a sonata-like passage to keyboard accompaniment. It seems not impossible that in writing this eloquent but generally unassertive piano part for Madame Adolphe de Lanneau, the dedicatee, Hummel had in mind Lisztís performance of the piano part of his D minor Septet at a Philharmonic Society concert in London where that virtuoso embellished the music beyond recognition. The more subsidiary rŰle of the piano in the C major work would make virtuosic interpolation much more difficult. Hummel sometimes employs the keyboard also in a style which in earlier years might have merited the description basso continuo. With the exception of the cheerful finale, Hummelís strange, almost Stravinskian combination of instruments is used in a symphonic way, especially the rich, throughtful Adagio. The finale is very individual in style combining the jollity one normally attributes to a concluding rondo with earnest fugal writing. The thematic material is so unpretentious as to be simplistic yet Hummel waves all manner of contrapuntal webs around relatively few fragments. Fugues need not always be solemn affairs and Hummel proves this with no little degree of triumph.

Antony Hodgson

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