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Gerald Humel

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Gerald Humel

Biography

Gerald Humel (7 November 193, Cleveland, Ohio – 13 May 2005) was an American-born composer who worked primarily in Germany.

Born of Czech immigrant parents, Humel 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. Humel spent most of his creative career in Berlin, Germany, where he was known alternately as “the American Berliner” and “the Czech Berliner.” 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.

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.”

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.”


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