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Ferdinand (von) Hiller (24 October 1811 – 11 May 1885) was a German composer, conductor, writer and music-director.

Biography

Ferdinand Hiller was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Frankfurt am Mainmarker, where his father Justus (originally Isaac Hildesheim) was a merchant in English textiles – a business eventually continued by Ferdinand’s brother Joseph. Hiller’s talent was discovered early and he was taught by the leading Frankfurt musician Alois Schmitt; at 10 he performed a Mozart concerto in public.

In 1822 the 13-year old Felix Mendelssohn entered his life. The Mendelssohn family was at that time staying briefly in Frankfurt and the young Hiller visited them where he was immensely impressed by the playing of Felix, (and even more so by that of his sister Fanny Mendelssohn). When their acquaintance was renewed in 1825 the two boys found an immediate close friendship, which was to last until 1843. Hiller tactfully describes their demarche as arising from "social, and not from personal susceptibilities." But in fact it seems to have been more to do with Hiller’s succession to Mendelssohn as director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1843.

From 1825 to 1827 Hiller was a pupil of Johann Nepomuk Hummel in Weimarmarker; while he was with Hummel at Beethoven’s deathbed, Hiller secured a lock of Beethoven's hair. This lock is now at the San Jose State Universitymarker, after having been sold at Sotheby’s in 1994.

From 1828 to 1835 Hiller based himself in Parismarker, and after that spent time in Italy, hoping that this would assist him to write a successful opera (a hope which was never fulfilled). Nevertheless a succession of musical appointments in major German provincial centres — Leipzigmarker, Düsseldorfmarker, Dresdenmarker and eventually Cologne, where he founded Conservatorium der Musik in Coeln in 1850 and remained as Kapellmeister from 1850 to 1884 — meant that he played a leading part in the country's musical life. During this time he was twelve times festival director of the Lower Rhenish Music Festival.

During Hiller’s long reign in Cologne, which earned him a ‘von’ to precede his surname, his star pupil was Max Bruch, the composer of the cello elegy Kol Nidrei, based on the synagogue hymn sung at Yom Kippur. Bruch incidentally was of solid German descent, although he has often been claimed as Jewish; his knowledge of the theme of Kol Nidrei however came through Hiller, who introduced him to the Berlinmarker chazan, Lichtenstein. Hiller’s regime at Cologne was strongly marked by his conservative tastes, which he attempted to prolong by recommending, as his successor in 1884, either Brahms or Bruch. The appointment went however to a "modernist", Franz Wüllner, who, according to Grove "initiated his term [...] with concerts of works by Wagner, Liszt and Richard Strauss, all of whom Hiller had avoided."

Personality

Hiller’s affability was one of his strongest assets; he made innumerable friends and his very extensive correspondence with all the leading musicians in Europe, still only partly published, is an important source for the musical history of his era. Yet another asset was his very beautiful wife Antonka, by profession a singer, whom he married in Italy in 1840, and who made their home a magnet for the intelligentsia wherever they settled.

Hiller and Wagner

Hiller’s time in Dresden marked his initial encounters with Richard Wagner, who had become deputy Kapellmeister there in 1843, following the success of the premiere of his Rienzi (staged in Dresden the previous year). In his autobiography, written during 1865-70 when he was settling scores, real and imaginary, following the death of Giacomo Meyerbeer, Wagner is typically patronising about Hiller at this period, who, we are told, "behaved in a particularly charming and agreeable manner during those days." Antonka is described as "an extraordinary Polish Jewess who had caused herself to be baptised a Protestant together with her husband"; she is later shown as "enlist[ing] the support of a large number of her compatriots [...] for the opera of her husband." (The opera was Hiller’s Konradin).

Wagner’s dismissive remarks on Hiller throughout his autobiography Mein Leben and in his later review of Hiller’s autobiography are not however representative of his relationship with Hiller as revealed through other documents. Wagner features quite frequently in Hiller’s diary for the period. Amongst such notes are:

and so forth. Hiller assisted with the staging of Tannhäuser in Dresden in October 1845. In November 1846 Hiller went to see Tannhäuser and notes "Mendelssohn is sitting in front of us" (but presumably no conversation took place). In 1847 he discusses his draft of Konradin with Wagner.

The discussion about Wagner’s "affairs" and religion in 1845 must have been interesting; we know from correspondence that in the same month, Wagner attempted to borrow 2,000 thalers from Hiller; Hiller’s apparent demurral did not however prevent Wagner recommending Hiller in June to the Dresden Court official Klemm as a potential composer to a libretto.

Work

Hiller’s vast musical output is now more or less forgotten. It contained works in virtually every genre, vocal, choral, chamber and orchestral. Musically he is perhaps best remembered as the dedicatee of Schumann’s Piano Concerto. He is also the dedicatee of the three Nocturnes, Op. 15, by Chopin.

He composed among other works six operas between 1839 and 1865, and a violin concerto.

His large output of chamber music includes several quartets for strings with and without piano beginning with his piano quartet opus 1 in B minor, published by Haslinger of Vienna in the 1830s, and at least three string quartets, a string trio his opus 207 published in 1886 as (Nachgelassenes Werk No. 2) by Rieter-Biedermann of Leipzig, sonatas for solo piano (opus 47, published in 1852 by Schuberth of Hamburg) and opus 59 and for piano with cello (at least two - opus 22, published by Simrock and opus 174, published by Cranz ), and a piano quintet (opus 156), among other works. The fourth of his piano trios has been recorded along with the early piano trio of Max Bruch.

Hiller's three piano concertos have been recorded by Hyperion with Howard Shelley as pianist/conductor and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

Hiller wrote at least two symphonies;Im Freien in G major, given in London in 1852, and one in E minor published by Schott as his opus 67 in Mainz in 1865.

Hiller published a number of books about music, including an account of his friendship with Mendelssohn (1874). Part of his vast correspondence with other musicians and artists of his period, which is in itself an important historical archive, has been published in seven volumes.

Footnotes

References



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