A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Neukomm, Sigismund

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NEUKOMM, Sigismund, Chevalier, born at Salzburg, July 10, 1778, first learned music from Weissauer and from Michael Haydn, who in 1798 sent him to his brother at Vienna. He studied music with Joseph Haydn for some years, and was treated by him more as a son than a pupil. His first compositions appeared in 1808, and in 1806 he went viâ Sweden to St. Petersburg, where he became Capellmeister, and director of the Emperor's German theatre. He returned to Vienna just in time to close the eyes of Haydn, and shortly after took up his residence in Paris, and there lived on terms of intimacy with Grétry, Cherubini, Cuvier, and other eminent men, and especially with Talleyrand, in whose establishment he succeeded Dussek as pianist. Their friendship survived the downfall of the Empire, and he accompanied Talleyrand to the Congress of Vienna. There he composed a Requiem for Louis XVI, which was performed at St. Stephen's before a crowd of the greatest notabilities, and for which in 1815 Louis XVIII made him Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, with letters of nobility. In 1816 he went in the suite of the Duke of Luxemburg to Rio Janeiro, and remained there as maître de chapelle to Dom Pedro till the revolution of 1821 drove that monarch, and Neukomm with him, back to Lisbon. Having resigned his pension, he returned to Talleyrand, whom he accompanied on several of his grand tours. He came to London in the same year with Mendelssohn (1829), and they met at the house of Moscheles, with whom Neukomm remained on terms of great friendship and mutual esteem. The last 20 years of his life he divided between England and France, and died in Paris April 3, 1858. In England his intelligence and cultivation gave him a high position. His Symphony in E♭ was played by the Philharmonic, March 21, 1831, and many other pieces at various times. His oratorio 'Mount Sinai,' was repeatedly performed in London, and at Worcester, Derby, etc., and he wrote his oratorio 'David' specially for the Birmingham Festival of 1834, where so highly was he prized as to be familiarly called 'the King of [1]Brummagem.' In fact his two songs 'Napoleon's Midnight Review' and 'The Sea,' both to Barry Cornwall's words, may be said to have made him for some months the most popular person in England. But there were no lasting qualities in his longer pieces, and Mendelssohn's arrival at Birmingham in 1837 eclipsed Neukomm's fame, and even caused him to be as unjustly depreciated as he had before been unduly extolled. This reverse he bore with a philosophy which elicited Mendelssohn's warmest expressions.[2]

Neukomm was a man of remarkable diligence and method, which nothing interrupted. The number of his compositions is prodigious. They embrace about 1000 church works, including 5 oratorios, an opera, 'Alexander,' and music for Schiller's 'Braut von Messina,' in which he endeavoured to resuscitate the ancient Greek chorus. He had a great predilection for Palestrina, and attempted to revive his style. He also wrote for several musical periodicals, especially the 'Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris.' He was destitute of genius, and therefore produced nothing that will live; indeed he was more a highly cultivated amateur than an artist, in the strict sense of the term. But he was above all a man of great refinement and of an extraordinarily fine and sincere character, to which the strong attachment of friends like the Bunsens and Mendelssohn is in itself the most convincing testimony.

[ F. G. ]

  1. Mendelssohn's Letters, ii. 124.
  2. Ib. ii. 124, 132.