South Dakota State University's David Reynolds trying to solve a musical mystery

SDSU Marketing & Communications
Posted 5/16/23

BROOKINGS — History remembers Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as two of the greatest classical composers of all time — and rightfully so. However, another composer from their time period was equally regarded, and many scholars believe his name — Johann Nepomuk Hummel — should hold the same historical weight as Beethoven and Mozart.

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South Dakota State University's David Reynolds trying to solve a musical mystery


BROOKINGS — History remembers Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as two of the greatest classical composers of all time — and rightfully so. However, another composer from their time period was equally regarded, and many scholars believe his name — Johann Nepomuk Hummel — should hold the same historical weight as Beethoven and Mozart.

David Reynolds, director of South Dakota State University’s School of Performing Arts and a scholar of music history, spent the better part of the last year studying Hummel and arguably his most famous piece of music, the Concerto a Trumpet principale in E major.

Hummel’s work — particularly his Trumpet Concerto — is highly influential and taught to students around the world. The piece, however, does have a cloud of mystery over it. As Reynolds explains, the original Hummel manuscript shows signs of significant changes, making it difficult for modern day performers to interpret Hummel’s original intent.

“It’s a very big mystery that not a lot of people talk about,” Reynolds said. “When you’re teaching Hummel to high school or college students, you just want them to get through the notes and make beautiful music. But for me, knowing what notes Hummel truly intended is important. I’m a truth seeker.”

Reynold’s fascination with Hummel’s work began during his graduate studies at Florida State University. While working toward a Master of Music in the trumpet, he saw a microfilm of Hummel’s concerto that “looked different than what I had ever seen in print.” From that moment, a seed was planted to find the truth on this important piece of music.

“At this very moment, there are hundreds of students around the world learning this piece,” Reynolds said. “It certainly isn’t the most difficult piece ever written, and some say it’s not the most beautiful piece ever written — some think Haydn’s is more beautiful than Hummel’s — but it certainly is a piece that has found its way into my heart.”

Years later, Reynolds finally got the opportunity to investigate all of Hummel’s manuscripts in person after receiving funding from the Griffith Foundation. He traveled in the summer of 2022 to the British Library in London, where he spent three full days analyzing and studying Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto.

“I can’t say enough about the importance of having resources like the Griffith Foundation available for performing arts faculty to do what we do,” Reynolds said.

A new instrument

To fully understand the importance of Hummel’s work, an understanding of the context of his career is required. In the early 1800s, a man by the name of Joseph Haydn, who was one of the last great composers to be employed full time by the Esterhazy family—a Hungarian noble family that originated from the Middle Ages, was living in Vienna, where Hummel was also living.

In the Esterhazy Orchestra was a trumpet player and innovator named Anton Weidinger, who invented the keyed trumpet by drilling holes in the bell of the instrument. This new trumpet could play chromatically in the lower notes of the register, which impressed Haydn. He wrote a concerto specifically for Weidinger to play with the orchestra.

“To this day, if you read some of great books from the great scholars about chamber music and concert music, many people think Hadyn’s Trumpet Concerto is one of his greatest achievements,” Reynolds explained. “If not his most beautiful, certainly his most popular.”

Shortly after Haydn’s piece was written, Hummel — Haydn’s right hand in the Esterhazy Orchestra — also wrote a trumpet concerto. Haydn soon became too sick to remain in the orchestra, and Hummel replaced him and debuted his Trumpet Concerto during his first performance in 1804.

“You have to realize that Hummel probably heard Haydn’s piece and at the same time, Weidinger was more than likely egging Hummel on to write a piece for him, too,” Reynolds said.

The two concertos are important to scholars and music historians because they are the first pieces of music written specifically for the keyed trumpet.

“This is the second piece written by a major composer for a trumpet that can play chromatically in the lower register,” Reynolds said. “As such, Hummel’s piece is one of the most important pieces of music for the trumpet.”

As Reynolds explains, Haydn’s manuscript is very clean and there isn’t “a lot of question” surrounding the notes. Hummel’s is a very different story.

“It’s has a lot of extra marks,” Reynolds said. “The trumpet part especially.”

A discovery and some choices

The Hummel manuscript for his concerto sat in the British Library, relatively untouched and completely unpublished, for years. It wasn’t until the 1950s that an American music historian named Mary Rasmussen created a modern edition of the work.

“In one version, she reduced all the orchestral parts into a reduction that could be played on a piano,” Reynolds said.

The “modern” premiere of Hummel’s work occurred in the late 1950s by Armando Ghitalla, a trumpeter with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“After that, the work takes off,” Reynolds said. “Everybody starts using it.”

Because the British Library doesn’t allow for pictures, Rasmussen’s version (and her interpretation) of the piece was widely accepted and used to teach students throughout the world. The printed editions that were published followed Rasmussen’s interpretation and often refer back to her editorial choices.

“Some people may have created a slightly different piano part, but for the most part, the notes on the page are the ones that Mary Rasmussen chose to put in her edition,” Reynolds said. “The problem with that is that there are many places in the score where someone scratched out the original melody and wrote a new one over the top of it.”

As Reynolds explains, Rasmussen’s interpretation isn’t necessarily wrong, but it is clear — after examining the original score in the British Library — that “choices” were made.

Looking at the concerto, one will see four layers of markings: black ink, tan ink, lead pencil and red markings, the latter of which Reynolds says “almost looks like crayon.” It’s entirely possible that some of the marks on the piece do not represent Hummel’s original intent.

“I didn’t realize that pencils existed at the time, but apparently they were in use in the early 1800s,” Reynolds said.

The red, which Reynold’s describes as “thick and not ink or quill,” is what he really homed in on during his analysis. This marking is responsible for a lot of changes, particularly in the second movement where Reynolds sees even some cuts to the music — something that Rasmussen did not include in her edition.

“The question is, why did Mary decide to use the notes she did?” Reynolds said. “The next question you have to ask yourself — do I play the original notes or what was written in? Which one is it?”

When Reynolds first analyzed the manuscript in person, he was shocked by what he saw in terms of the markings. In fact, the markings can create interpretations that are far different than what is “normally” played.

“One hypothesis could be that Hummel wrote the black notes and wrote the red markings after he heard what the (new) trumpet could do,” Reynolds said. “Or Hummel wrote the black and Weidinger wrote the red—but then where does the pencil come in?”

As Reynolds explains, the backbone of this mystery comes from the piece’s past. The manuscript was written in 1803 and performed at the start of 1804, but it wasn’t acquired by the British Library until the late 1800s. The manuscript was “out in the wild” for 75 years before finally being secured.

The lack of information surrounding the piece’s whereabouts for those 75 years adds to the mystery. Was it Hummel who revised the piece with extra marks? Was it Weidinger? Was it someone else completely? These are the questions that Reynolds wanted answers to.

“This is my take — my best effort to capture what is in that manuscript,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds believes the mysterious red markings likely come from the Hummel era, particularly because Hummel was a conductor, and the red markings are very much in line with how a conductor would mark a score for performance during that time period.

“I was seeing that red color in many of Hummel’s other scores held in the British Library,” Reynolds said.

Disseminating the knowledge

Reynolds has been holding Zoom meetings with other universities, often during their trumpet masterclasses, to share what he has learned with other scholars. To exemplify his findings, he will send along the “red notes” version of Hummel’s work and the “black notes” version. When someone on the other end plays them live for the students, the differences become clear immediately.

“I’ve extracted about seven or eight examples of how the melody would change if you used the red notes instead of the black notes,” Reynolds said.

Along with his Zoom meetings, Reynolds is also hoping to present his findings at some significant music conferences. There, he will have a chance to discuss his work with other trumpet scholars. Previously, Reynolds has presented original research at several state, regional and national conferences on wind band history.

Last year, he also held a performance in which Hummel’s work, including his “Military” Septet, was performed. Reynolds is hopeful that more performances of Hummel’s work, including some pieces that were discovered during his research at the British Library, will occur in the future.