Gerald Humel, Composer, 1931–2005


Gerald Humel spent most of his creative career in Berlin, Germany, where he was known alternately as “the American Berliner” and “the Czech Berliner.” Born in Cleveland of Czech immigrant parents on November 7, 1931, he took his first music lessons at age 13 at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. There, he studied flute with Maurice Sharp, principal flute of the Cleveland Orchestra, and composition with 1963 Cleveland Arts Prize winner Howard Whittaker.

After graduating from John Adams High School, he continued his composition studies with Cleveland Arts Prize winners Herbert Elwell (1961) and Walter Aschaffenburg (1980) as well as Richard Hoffmann at Oberlin College. He later studied with composers Elie Siegmeister at Hofstra University, Herbert Howells at the Royal College of Music in London and Ross Lee Finney and Roberto Gerhard at the University of Michigan.

In 1960, Humel received a Fulbright fellowship that enabled him to study composition with Boris Blacher in Berlin. Four years later, he collaborated with fellow students at the Hochschule für Musik to found the Gruppe Neue Musik Berlin. Established to perform the founders’ compositions, the ensemble became renowned for advocating new music of diverse styles. For 40 years, Humel was affiliated with the group not only as composer but also as conductor and impresario.

“Contemporary music should be presented in a way to win an audience, not to lose one,” he said. “This had nothing to do with compromise. We simply wanted to show different aspects of the new music scene.”

Humel’s own music stems from a dramatic impulse. Although he composed chamber music, instrumental solos and large-scale orchestral pieces, he is best known for theatrical works, including the full-length ballet, Othello und Desdemona, winner of the 1988 Carl Maria von Weber Prize. Humel wrote six other ballets and two operas, and he won numerous awards, including Guggenheim, German Critics’ and Berlin Arts prizes.

“I’ve been described as a narrative composer, and I guess that’s what I’ve been all my life,” he told an interviewer. “I don’t do this consciously but in my subconscious I like my music to always tell a story. This is what for me music is all about: the emotional content of drama and the narrative quality which is inherent in music and can be conveyed to an audience.”

Dramatic tension and intense emotion also permeate Humel’s abstract music. Universe, a monumental piano sonata, explores the nature of fire, earth, water and air with relentless dissonance and agitated textures. Andeutung (Allusion), an impassioned work for wordless soprano and seven instruments, progresses through dark moods with angular melodic lines and distinctive tone colors. Lepini, a large-scale work commissioned by music director Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra, expresses fearful feelings through whirling figurations, chromatic melodies, dense textures and electrifying sonorities. Most of Humel’s works speak a complex musical language that Berlin critic Norbert Ely described as “calculated chaos.” But the composer characterized his style more simply as “lyrical and rhythmic, a reflection of my Czech blood tempered by the Michigan fight song.”

Humel returned to Cleveland in January 1978, for the premiere of Lepini. Later that year, a quintet commissioned by the Cleveland Chamber Music Society was also premiered.

On May 13, 2005, Humel suffered a heart attack and died on a flight from Milan to Berlin. His final work, commissioned for the 450th anniversary of the Augsburger Friedensfest, was completed by a German colleague. His lifetime achievement was posthumously honored with the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung Award, known internationally as “the Nobel Prize of Music.”

—Wilma Salisbury

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 •