Memory of Bertold Hummel
The last time we saw each other was in July in Berlin on the occasion of the meetings
of the GEMA Ratings Committee for Serious Music. When we greeted each other, I
thought his appearance had changed a bit; he was thinner in the face and more
asthenic than the year before. That may have been due to the temporary consequences
of excessive professional exertion. I didn't give it any more thought because
his participation in our conversations during the initial days of the extensive
and nerve-racking assessment work was as lively and unerring as ever. It wasn't
until the third day that he complained of feeling ill and then finally returned
to Würzburg prematurely.
The liveliness of the moment suppresses the
thoughts of a possible last encounter, especially in the case of a revered, amiable
colleague and friend. So the news of his death just four weeks later took me completely
by surprise and was very painful.
We had known each other since 1971. That
year, he had invited our Gruppe Neue Musik Berlin (New Music Group of Berlin),
which had been successful in West Berlin since 1965, to a concert as the head
of the Studio for New Music in Würzburg. This later developed into a professional
friendship, which distinctly deepened in the course of time through our encounters
at the annual GEMA meetings, occasional concert performances together and the
From the very beginning, I was impressed by Bertold
Hummel's behaviour towards his fellow human beings, which I would like to call
benevolent. I have not experienced this character trait expressed in such a distinct
manner in any other educated individual. It is the ability to understand others
and therefore the gift of conveying encouragement in life - and to do so in a
manner that is not naive and uncritical. As a practising Christian, Hummel was
well balanced and discerning, but also had a mind that was always prepared for
the inevitable confrontations.
Yet, the humanitarian aspect of his character,
the understanding he had for people who thought and acted in a manner different
from his own, his sense of harmony despite contrary positions - this sounds like
the squaring of the circle - were extraordinary. At the same time, he could be
strict, especially in cases of artistic insincerity, contempt towards colleagues
or tiresome vanities.
"As a composer, I feel that I am obligated to
the community in which I live. It is my objective to make a modest contribution
towards the effort of making the world a more humane and liveable place."
This was the motto of Bertold Hummel, who was born in 1925 in the vicinity of
Donaueschingen. His ancestors in Baden, on both his father's and his mother's
side, were craftsmen, but his father became a teacher, choir director and organist.
The latter awakened his receptive and interested son to music at an early age.
Somewhat later, as the headmaster of a school close to Freiburg in Breisgau, he
gave his son piano lessons. The son's special musical talent was particularly
promoted at the secondary school through violoncello, theory of harmony and composition
classes. When the student heard Bruckner's "Third" at a symphony concert,
he decided to become a composer. His participation in the boy's choir at Parsifal
performances of the Freiburg Stadttheater (Municipal Theatre) strengthened this
intention. In Anton Bruckner and Richard Wagner, he chose two long-term role models
for his professional goals. But first, he was forced to put on the earth-brown
uniform of the National Labour Service due to the demands of the National Socialist
dictatorship for premilitary training. Then, just six months later - and now in
the olive-green Wehrmacht uniform - he had to march off to the Second World War.
He withstood this storm of steel without physical injury; even during his time
as a prisoner-of-war in France, he began to write compositions for the prison-camp
band after the German capitulation of 1945. In 1947, he returned to his homeland
and was able to continue his school education that had been interrupted shortly
before the start of the war and he completed it with the matriculation examination.
Immediately following his graduation, he began studying at the Freiburg Music
Conservatory; his courses included composition with Harald Genzmer, his violoncello
teacher was Atis Teichmanis and he studied conducting with Konrad Lechner. Hummel
remembered this post-war era of the late 1940s as a period of "euphoria
in making up lost time for the generation returning from the war."
With a group of young musicians, he began a concert tour as a cellist through
the South African Union in 1954 that lasted almost one year. This is where he
married his colleague, the violinist Inken Steffen. After their return home, Hummel
first accepted a position as cantor in Freiburg. He also continued performing
as a cellist, among other things as a permanent substitute member of the symphony
orchestra of the Südwestfunk Baden-Baden radio station. By now, his compositional
work had met with recognition through many awards, including the Cultural Prize
of the National Federation of German Industry (1956), the Composition Prize of
the City of Stuttgart (1959) and the Robert-Schumann Prize of the City of Düsseldorf
(1960). In 1963, he was appointed to the position of composition teacher at the
Bavarian State Conservatory of Music in Würzburg. For more than two-and-a-half
decades, he was intensely committed to contemporary music there.
became the director of the "Studio for New Music," he introduced the
works of numerous young composers in his concerts. In the meantime, some of these
names have become familiar to broad audiences interested in this type of music.
Hummel's worldliness allowed him to bring together apparently irreconcilable aesthetic
schools in his programmes, provoking public discussion on the spectrum of compositional
creativity during the last quarter of the 20th century. He also knew how to demonstrate
his flexibility in understanding stylistic contrasts through his psychological
awareness to the students in order to awaken their mental agility and the receptivity
of their senses, therefore stimulating their imaginations.
Our own ideals
set our standards, and it was always Hummel's objective to expand the horizon
of his musical perception without becoming untrue to himself. This means that
he succeeded in finding his own recognisable style of composing. It originally
had its roots in the neo-classicism of his teacher Harald Genzmer - and, in turn,
the latter's teacher Paul Hindemith. But Hummel had long become independent of
it and found his own musical message through the influence of the French schools
of the early 20th century, as well as an indirect influence by the new Viennese
school. The French composer Oliver Messiaen, whose concepts of tonal colours are
given their own translation in Hummel's compositions, clearly contributed to Hummel's
Of course, the composer Hummel always had also to exercise
his role as the academy teacher. In 1973, the Bavarian State Conservatory of Würzburg
was converted into the second Bavarian Music Academy and Bertold Hummel was appointed
to full professorship. He was ultimately elected to the position of president
of this academy in 1979, and then became its honorary president after his retirement
in 1988. Previous to this, in 1982, he had been elected as a member of the Bavarian
Academy of Fine Arts. In 1985, he was honoure with the Officer's Cross of the
Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and the City of Würzburg
also honoured him with its Cultural Prize in 1988.
Freed from the burden of
15 years of time-consuming academy work, Hummel composed untiringly and with much
inspiration, always searching for new possibilities of expression, which he then
integrated into his very own personal style of music. "In my opinion,
now, at the end of this millennium, after a century in which experimentation has
played a large role, the longing to discover a new language will increasingly
spread throughout the world. I believe that a new aesthetic of the plural possibilities
will assert itself against the orthodoxy of the respective 'school'."
In order to participate in the numerous international performances of his works
as a listener, in recent years Hummel travelled to many countries including as
the USA, Russia, Australia, France, Austria, Switzerland, Poland and the Czech
Republik. An interesting selection of his compositions was released on the label
His compositional honesty was equal to his diligence. His
works, numbering more than 200, did not prevent him from participating in the
copyright society for us composers, GEMA, on an honorary basis. For over 25 years,
he belonged to the exceptionally important Ratings Committee as one of its most
responsible members. He also taught his students about the vital importance of
copyright for composers, encouraged them to attend the GEMA General Meeting and
was always there when the discussion involved the concerns of classical music.
Yet, he always remained reserved throughout his lifetime, never tried to capture
the spotlight and presented himself only when there was no other choice. His inner
sense of poise did not require the superiority complex that some composers have
as a compensation for the genius cult that blossomed during the 19th century and
that was increasingly lost during the 20th century.
His family, the lifelong
union with his wife, the six married sons - five of whom became professional musicians,
as an four of the daughters-in-law, as well as the 17 grandchildren, all of this
apparently gave him the stability and the serenity that he radiated up to the
end, even during difficult "discussions" such as those concerning GEMA
problems. His life's work as a composer has left its mark on almost all of the
musical genres and types of instrumentation. He analysed the new compositional
techniques of the 20th century, those of 12-tone music, as well as those of the
serial techniques, jazz or the possibilities of the electro-acoustic music. He
was as successful in using the discovery of percussion for our evening music as
he was in using the harmonic colour of the saxophone. In particular, he was one
of the most important, secularised representatives of contemporary sacral music.
In response to the question about a characterisation of his compositional style,
he said: "I would call it a style of metamorphosis, which includes everything
that especially impressed me from the musical world repertoire of the past and
present; coupled with a strong personal will to express myself - more or less as a creative eclecticism."
We equally mourn the composer and the educator, but above all the amiable colleague
and the human being, Bertold Hummel.
GEMA Nachrichten NR: 166 3/2002, Berlin)