Viewpoints - Interview - Work commentaries


Bertold Hummel did not like to talk about his music. He was of the opinion that it should speak for itself. He did however in the 80s, at the request of various performers and agents, begin to write brief and pertinent commentaries on his works. You can read these - when they exist - under the relevant in the work catalogue.




"As a composer, I feel under obligation to the community in which I live.
My aspiration is to make a modest contribution to the effort to make the world more humane and more worth-while to live in.
The triangular relationship composer - performer - listener is a constant challenge for me, which I wish to respond to in the most varied ways, whether on the exacting level of a virtuoso score for orchestra or chamber ensemble or in composing for amateurs and children, a task which I take very seriously.
The attitude of "art for art's sake" has always been foreign to me".

17th May, 1995, Bertold Hummel


"I feel a relationship between my thinking and that of A. Berg and O. Messiaen. The "cantus firmus" thinking of P. Hindemith and of my teacher H. Genzmer as well their spontaneous joy in music-making have repeatedly made an impression on me. My teacher J. Weismann captivated me with his impressionistic musical fantasy as well as his rich harmonic resources and formal unity. I have never included myself amongst the avant-garde! I have indeed always followed the experimental work of my colleagues with great interest and made use of one or the other solution for my own work. I therefore see an opportunity in our present situation for a mental reprocessing of the many new discoveries - almost a kind of synthesis of the very varied impulses around us. My love for tradition and for meaningful (seen subjectively) progress has always marked my musical language. This is probably the key to the international success of my works."

12th July,1981, Bertold Hummel


"In a time of increasing secularisation, the creative and no doubt also the reproducing artist have the task of pointing out to their contemporaries the transcendental, the inexplicable and the unprovable. The language of music - most effective perhaps in reaching across world frontiers - has a specially important role in this. Representations of suffering and horror alone cannot be the inherent constituent of a work of art. A reference to comfort and hope is indispensable. Furthermore, life, nature, and, for the believer, knowledge of God give cause enough for praise and thanks.
There is absolutely no reason why these life-affirming characteristics should be attributed exclusively to the masterpieces of the past, because we stand inevitably more or less on the shoulders of our predecessors, and because in all ages human suffering was equally present, as was the longing to overcome it."

5th August, 2001
, Bertold Hummel

"A lasting impression was made on my musical language by my early experience with Gregorian chant. As the son of a church musician, I came during my youth into close contact with the organ and a range of choral music from Palestrina via Bach and the Vienna classical period to Bruckner and the music of the present. Hindemith, Bartók, Stravinsky, Schönberg, the Viennese School (Berg and Webern), Shostakovitsch, Messiaen, Petrassi, Dallapiccola, Nono, Britten, Darmstadt, Paris were very influential. Out of this wide variety of formative ideas, I was able to develop a style of my own, a style aiming at making musical thoughts graspable – as I see it – and at creating, on as high a level as possible, a triangle connecting composer, interpreter and listener. A standpoint of l'art pour l'art has always aroused suspicion in me, and I similarly accompanied very critically the music aesthetics of Theodor W. Adorno in his day. I would like to emphasise humane respect for all seekers of truth as opposed to the intolerance of a certain avantgarde."

5th August, 2001, Bertold Hummel


“The anachronism, too, sometimes has its moment”

4th October, 1995, Bertold Hummel


Hans Schmidt-Mannheim

An Interview with Bertold Hummel

in January 1998


Schmidt-Mannheim: Mr Hummel, you are a choirmaster, instrumentalist and composer. Where do you see the main emphasis in your compositional work? Do you consider yourself more as homo ludens or as homo cantans?

Hummel: You are referring to my activities up to the year 1963. Since moving to Würzburg, I have given up choirmaster work. My activity as a cellist has moved more and more into the background in favour of my work as teacher of theory and composer. Of course, I still retain today a preference for chamber music and could call myself "homo ludens".

Sch.-M.: That means that you are still - on a smaller scale - a performing musician.

H.: ... yes, quite true.

Sch.-M.: It is not automatically the case that a composer is also a practising musician. Sometimes a work presents problems for the player because the composer unwittingly writes something that cannot be played.

H.: For me, it has been natural since my early years to deal practically with music. My teacher Harald Genzmer attached great value to the uniting of composer and performer in one person - alone for reasons of guaranteeing survival. The situation you describe I would classify as "unprofessional".

Sch.-M.: I have been wondering about why there are many more works for vocal ensemble in your catalogue that there are for solo voice, particularly in the church music. I could only find three works for solo voice amongst the church music in your catalogue. How did this come about?

H.: My works for the human voice, during my time as a choirmaster in Freiburg and later in Würzburg, were concentrated on a large number of motets, chorales and songs for liturgical use. Here it is fitting to mention the role of personal contact with cathedral musicians Franz Stemmer (Freiburg i.Br.), Franz Fleckenstein and Siegfried Koesler (Würzburg), who commissioned works from me on many occasions for their choirs and ideas for new liturgical song. This is no doubt the reason for writing so little church music for solo voice. The secular songs were composed almost exclusively for my son Martin, the singer. I did, by the way, have plans to write songs for my friend Fritz Wunderlich, the tenor, and his wife, a harpist. His early death put an end to these plans.

Sch. -M.:Your acquaintance with the works of Paul Hindemith probably came via your teacher Harald Genzmer. From the illustrious names which appear in your biography you received many impulses for your creative work - I am thinking of René Leibowitz, Olivier Messiaen or Luigi Nono. But I see no trace of Hugo Distler, was he already "out of date" during your time at Freiburg?

H.: The music of Hugo Distler received worthy attention during my student days at the music college in Freiburg due to the ingenious choir conductor and composer Konrad Lechner and was by no means considered "out of date". We sang all the settings in the Mörike Book of Songs. I remember particularly the performance of the Christmas Story for Soloists and Chor a-cappella. The choral music was handled with similar skill by Ernst Pepping. A wonderful motet with the title "Jesus and Nicodemus" remains clearly in my memory. We felt this music to be a renewal movement in the spirit of Schütz, in which, on the same basis, the German language was presented in a new way. I have developed these impulses further in some of my motets.

Sch.-M.: A question current during the 50's and 60's was the preoccupation with jazz and related styles. Are there works of yours dedicated to or approaching this theme? What is your view on the so-called "rhythmical songs" - do they have a future as music for normal church-goers?

H.: Certainly you will find echoes of jazz in my works. Spontaneously, I can think of one passage in my Music for Saxophone and Orchestra in which a Gregorian series of notes go through a jazz-like metamorphosis. The so-called "rhythmical songs" are in my opinion a fashionable phenomenon to which one cannot attach more than temporary significance. The quality of the melodies is generally substantially below the level of the texts. One or other of the more fortunate inventions may be lucky enough to survive.

Sch.-M.: Do you think it profitable to take up experiments again with regard to works for joint performance by Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band?

H.: In the past we had a series of examples of this. The best known was probably Rolf Liebermann's experiment with "Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra" from the year 1954. I was present at the première. A genuinely convincing solution - if this is at all possible - of combining symphonic technique with jazz appears to be reserved for the Gershwin of the 21st century.

Sch.-M.: You have time and again met renowned artists. Did they give you impulses for new compositions? Whom could you name in this connection?

H.: Most of my works grew out of impulses received from artists, performers and ensembles amongst my circle of friends, who usually gave the first performance. I have prepared a list in alphabetical order showing the importance of these connections for my works. The listing of the names is very important to me, as they are part of my biography.

The following artists inspired me to compositions:

Julius Berger Op. 80 and 97a

Günter Jena Op. 40 and 54

Werner Berndsen Op. 41a

Thomas Keems Op. 88d

Eberhard Buschmann Op. 27b and Op. 51

Armin Kircher Op. 97f

Caspar Cassado Op. 11

Bemd Kremling Op. 81b, 82a and 82b

Norman Des Chenes Op. 68b, 81e, 88f and 95f

Mark Lutz Op. 86 and 88a

Stefan Eblenkamp Op. 99a

Hans Musch Op. 42

Joshua Epstein Op. 78

Hugo Noth Op. 85a

Siegfried Fink Op. 38, 57a, 58 and 70

Papillon-Trio Op. 95c

Ernst Flackus Op. 26a, 27a and 28

Ney Rosauro Op. 95d

Boris Goldstein Op. 63

Andrej Rzymkowski Op. 96b

Hermann Gschwendtner Op. 53a

Peter Sadlo Op. 92

Kurt Hausmann Op. 26b, 29, 45, 48 and 60

Karl-Heinz Schickhaus Op. 88e and 101b

Giselle Herbert Op. 97b

Willi Stech Op. 1 3a-g, 15 and 49

Erwin Hom Op. 91a and 91b

Storck-Duo Op. 33

Dieter Weiss Op. 4,12, 21, 25 and 44

Sch.-M.: Which "great" composers have you met?

H.: Personally, I have met Benjamin Britten, Luigi Dallapiccola, Alois Hába, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Paul Hindemith, Olivier Messiaen, Carl Orff, Goffredo Petrassi und Igor Strawinsky. The list cannot of course be exhaustive.

The deepest impression was my meeting with Luigi Dallapiccola. During a concert tour in Italy, I resolved spontaneously to look up Dallapiccola in Florence. (It must have been around the beginning of the 1950's.) Although he was not expecting me, he received me in a most friendly way and at the same time asked to be excused for only having time until six (that meant around three hours). I showed him my Piano Trio Op. 9, which he read intensely and then played it through with me four hands from beginning to end. At the end, there followed a discussion of great importance for me over compositional and cultural-political problems - with a good cup of coffee, needless to say. After this I met him at a number of music festivals and performances of his works. On these occasions I was repeatedly impressed by his fine and hearty manner.

Sch.-M.: How would you describe your own compositional style, Mr Hummel?

H.: That is a difficult question. I would say it is a style of metamorphoses applied to all which has left a particular impression on me from our world musical repertoire of the past and present, combined with a strong personal will to find expression.

Sch. -M.: In this context, do you still find Hector Berlioz' ideas on instrumentation relevant?

H.: It is certainly worthwhile to look occasionally at Berlioz' ideas on instrumentation as developed further by Richard Strauss; the same applies to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Principles of Instrumentation". For the last five decades, the most comprehensive information is probably offered by Casella-Mortari in "Technique of the modern Orchestra".

I was fortunate enough to meet the composer Virgilio Mortari personally and to be involved in a friendly exchange of experiences and thoughts. During my time freelancing in radio with Südwestfunk Baden-Baden and in the course of orchestrating my music for stage, radio-plays and film, I could gather a lot of experience in this field, working with groups of instruments and orchestras. The Casella-Mortari book on instrumentation is interestingly dedicated in its German version to Paul Hindemith. I have always used this in teaching.

Sch. -M.: Are there compositions from your pen which have not been performed?

H.: There are very few pieces in my catalogue which have not been performed, for example the Fragment for large Orchestra, Op. 55c from the Ballet "The Last Flower". My basic view is that the sociology of the composer should aim at establishing a "triangular relationship" between composer, performer and listener. When this works, he always has a partner facing him. I have always sought to communicate this to my students, although I have not always been successful in this.

Sch.-M.: Do you suffer intensely under - they can never be ruled out - wrong interpretations of your works? How do you react in such a situation?

H.: Of course I suffer, as does every composer, in the situation you mention. Generally I try to remedy the problem during rehearsal work.

Sch. -M.: You have travelled abroad as a performer, including tours of the then Union of South Africa and Namibia with its strong influences taken from German cultural life. How did you feel about the political and cultural situation? Did this land, which was new to you, leave special traces in the works which you composed there?

H.: I was in South Africa in 1954/55. The situation of art in Namibia was very different from that in the Union of South Africa. While in Cape Town and Johannesburg, for example, there were concerts and artistic activities comparable with those in Europe, while Namibia and also the smaller places in the Union of South Africa were entirely under-developed countries in musical terms. The political situation under apartheid was something I could not understand, and has now, thank heavens, been overcome. At that time, the African Suite came into being - a kind of travel diary in sound - with movements titled Ali Baba, Kalahari, Boer Dance, Basuto Elegy and Heia Safari, which Willi Stech recorded with the small orchestra of the Südwestfunk Baden-Baden after my return. Besides this, I composed my opera, "The Emperor's New Clothes." My wife gave the first performance of the Violin Sonata Op. 6, which was dedicated to her, in 1955 in the Hidding Hall in Cape Town. I wrote a Sonata Brevis for Cello and Piano Op. 11 exactly to suit my own capacities, and this was performed for the first time in the same concert.

Sch.-M.: Paul Hindemith is said to have written something for every instrument, even for the Trautonium (as indeed did Harald Genzmer). Can you show us a similarly "complete catalogue"?

H.: I have written Sonatinas or solo pieces for almost every orchestral instrument, keeping my aim above all on "the young player". Music for amateurs possesses for me a great pedagogical value. These are the listeners of tomorrow. Here I follow the tradition of Hindemith and Genzmer.

Sch. -M.: Your catalogue contains a relatively large proportion of works for percussion. I take that you have a particular leaning towards this group of instruments. Is there a special reason for this, perhaps the situation in Würzburg?

H: Of course! It was partly my doing that Mr Fink came here. My later friendship with Siegfried Fink and his students did of course inspire many works. I became something of an expert, had many pieces played to me and could thus develop a sound style of my own.

Sch. -M.: Ms Lotte Kliebert, the "grand Lady" of the musical world in Würzburg, gave you a commission to direct the concerts of the "Studio for New Music" in Würzburg. You presented above all works of the immediate avant-garde in these programmes.. What was the reaction of the audience?

H: Ms Lotte Kliebert was a perfect example of an idealist and was for many years president of the Association of Musical Artists. I had the pleasure of sharing the directing of the Studio for New Music in Würzburg from 1963 to 1988. It was my intention to present and inform about as a wide a spectrum as possible of contemporary music. From modest beginnings, we succeeded with persistence in gaining a substantial and faithful audience who attended the events with open-minded interest. The response was of course always dependent on the quality of the performers as well as of the compositions. The work put into developing this has born fruit. The concert series is now continued by Dr. Klaus Hinrich Stahmer and has gained a good reputation and recognition in the new music scene in Germany.

Sch.-M.: How necessary do you consider the work of the music associations to be?

H.: I consider the work of the associations to be important and necessary, because in our mass society the voice of the individual is completely lost and without political effect. I consider it absolutely essential that personalities of profile and influence are prepared to get involved on an honorary basis in the work of professional associations.

Sch.-M.: A very personal question: how do you feel in your heart about the various honours you have received? There are people who claim to be completely indifferent to such things.

H.: ... I don't think that I overvalue honours, but I have always been very happy to receive them.

Sch. -M.: To come to your youthful works: the title and contents of your chamber opera "The Emperor's New Clothes" Op. 10 appear to me to continue to be relevant today. Some works have received great critical acclaim, only to disappear from view. What do you feel about "première pieces", which are created in an ivory tower and seek to be "new" at any price - how do you rate the response to such allegedly modern pieces, which constantly turn out to be "soap bubbles". The parable of the emperor's new clothes seems to me to offer a starting point in looking at this.

H.: It is one of the privileges of age to be able to observe from a distance the "battles" of the avant-garde. It is my view that, at the end of this millenium, after a century in which the experiment has played a great role, the longing to find a new language is gaining ground all over the world. Against the orthodoxy of the "direction of the moment", a new aesthetic of plural possibilities will emerge as victor. Generally, I see this development positively. On the one hand the composer has almost the entire world at his finger-tips - this has never before been the case - and on the other hand he has - in contrast to earlier centuries - to compete constantly with this repertoire. The narrow eye of the needle leading to the public has to be rediscovered time and again, each has to decide individually where his path lies.

Sch. -M.: After this serious subject, let us take a glance at humour in your work. Under the Opus number 81f there is a composition titled "Three Hummel Figurines".

H.: ... which was to a certain extent forced on me. In 1978 I was in Oregon, USA on the occasion of the world première of my Symphony for large Wind Orchestra, Op. 67, which I had written as a commission for the conductor Max McKee. I took the opportunity of making a present to the conductor and his wife of short compositions for wind orchestra. The question was raised of whether the pieces could be named "Hummel Figurines". These Hummel Figurines were so popular in the USA at the time that I was often asked if I was a relative of their inventor, Berta Hummel. I had to say no, but I agreed to the name out of curiosity. The pieces, I am told, have often been performed in the USA, where they are also published.

Sch. -M.: Let's get back to Germany. You were teacher of composition in Würzburg for many years. What were your main aims in teaching?

H.: I applied a lot of time and energy to the task of teaching composition. It was my concern to teach student composers craftsmanship, to develop their individual capacities, to give them the opportunity to have their pieces performed and to accompany them on their way with as much mental freedom as possible.

Sch.-M.: Peter Jona Korn died at the beginning of January, 1998. As far as I know, he was a close friend of yours. What impressed you about him?

H.: He was, like me, something of a lone warrior and resisted with firm words all forms of pressure put on him, which didn't win him only friends. Controversial discussion has become significantly poorer with his death.

Sch.-M.: Composers, particularly French composers, often put a literary motto above their works. To what extent have you been influenced in your creative work by themes of literature and visual art? The chamber opera is no doubt an example of this.

H.: Besides the vocal works based on a text, there are for example also the "Visions" for large orchestra, Op. 73 after the Apocalypse of St. John. Then the "Poem" for Violoncello and Strings, Op. 80 on the "Stufengedicht" by Hermann Hesse and the Symphony No. 3, Op. 100 after the novel "Jeremias" by Franz Werfel. I could also mention the ballet "The Last Flower" after an illustrated parable by James Thurber. The painting by Hans Thoma, "The Calm before the Storm" served as a starting point for the Symphonic Poem, Op. 49 of the same title. Finally, the "8 Pictures in Sound", Op. 99a for Percussion solo, taking inspiration from pictures by Andreas Felger, amongst them the geometrical figures triangle, square and circle. I wrote a piece with the title "Mobiles". Here I played with a musical series from which new constellations and figures were constantly generated from the same unchanged material.

Sch.-M.: A perhaps indiscrete question: What hobbies do you have? The answer will of course tell us something about the person Bertold Hummel ...

H.: ... here I have to say: the first hobby is composing. Then comes listening to music as well as reading, travel, family and here above all taking an interest in my grandchildren.

Sch.-M.: You have a large family. How many children do you have and how many of them have become musicians?

H.: I have six sons, of whom five have become professional musicians. One is a theologian, but he is also an amateur musician. Of six daughters-in-law, four have this profession, so we can get a substantial ensemble together. I play cello of course when we make music at home. Amongst the grandchildren, one or other is already showing signs of talent, so that I am very much looking forward to seeing how they develop.

Sch.-M.: May I also ask what music besides "Hummel" is played at home?

H.: We don't "Hummel" all that much. We play a lot of the standard chamber music from Bach via the Vienna classics and Romanticism to modern music, above all for large ensembles.

Sch.-M.: How do your compositional plans for the near future look?

H.: I have of course very many plans, but generally do not talk about them. There are a lot of ideas for new pieces waiting to be taken up. At the moment, I am working an a piece for Saxophone Orchestra, suggested by the American Saxophonist Linda Bangs. I have just completed a piece for the International Organ Week in Nuremberg, which is to be played by the competitors, a "Benedicamus Domino" for Organ. It will be played in the final round, and I will have the task, along with the the jury, of selecting the best interpretation.

Sch. -M.: This conversation with you, mr Hummel, has been very instructive, and I would like to wish you continued full creativity and productive energy.

... from Bertold Hummel, edited by A.L. Suder, Tutzing 1998 (=Komponisten in Bayern 31)



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