About this Recording
8.223335 - HINDEMITH: Piano Works, Vol. 1
English  German 

Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)
Piano Works, Vol. 1


Paul Hindemith was born at Hanau, near Frankfurt, in 1895, the son of a house-painter. He had violin lessons as a child, from 1908 as a pupil of Adolf Rebner, whose quartet he later joined as second violin, and after the war as a viola-player. His other musical studies were at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, followed in 1915 by appointment as leader of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra. He made a name for himself as a composer in the years immediately after the war, particularly through the Donaueschingen Festival. He established with the violinist Licco Amar the Amar-Hindemith Quartet, which won a reputation for its performances of contemporary music, later forming a string trio with colleagues at the Berlin Musikhochschule, where, in 1927, he was appointed professor of composition.

After 1933 Hindemith found himself increasingly out of sympathy with the newly established National Socialist regime in Germany and in 1934 his work was banned, leading to a strong protest from Furtwängler, who had conducted the symphony Mathis der Maler in the same year, and was now, for his temerity, deprived of his position at the Berlin Opera. Hindemith moved in 1936 to Turkey, where he was invited to establish a national system of musical education, in accordance with the cultural policy initiated by Kemal Atatürk. After a brief stay in Switzerland, he moved in 1937 to the United States, with a teaching appointment at Yale, which he held until 1953. He spent his final years in Switzerland.

As a composer Hindemith was enormously prolific and versatile. His name is associated particularly with Gebrauchsmusik, music of immediate practical use, whether for professional or amateur performer. This was in contrast to the notion of music as essentially the self-expression of a composer, a self-indulgence he abjured. As a performer he was above all a string-player. He was an excellent violinist, but also one of the most outstanding viola-players of his time. He taught himself to play a number of other instruments, although denying proficiency on the harp, including the piano, presumably a required element in his studies. Biographies of Hindemith give no information about his piano-teacher. Perhaps it was just for this reason that he used this instrument on which he was unburdened by academic virtuoso training, to launch his heaviest attack against convention and “solemnity” in art. In an early biographical notice he admitted that he had cultivated new musical territory—chamber music of all kinds, cinema, coffee-house, dance-music, operetta, jazz, and military band. In his own music he seized on elements of almost all these kinds of music and associated them with a new demonstration of vitality that also included a secret delight in opposing antiquated traditions.

The Op. 19 Tanzstücke come principally from two sources, from music actually used for dances, the characteristics of which he freely borrowed and spiced with frequent dissonance, and from his early interest in the expression of movement and the translation of it from music to a general aesthetic experience, as he later demonstrated in his ballets. This last aspect is particularly evident in the fourth of the pieces of Opus 19, Pantomime.

A provocative delight in dissonance and the borrowing of vulgar contemporary dance-forms not yet sanctified by academic acceptance, such as the fox-trot, appears also in the cycle “In einer Nacht”, Opus 15, written in 1919. Facetious references and quotations from opera reflect his employment as leader of the Frankfurt Opera orchestra from 1915. In this way he makes ironical use of a reference to the cuckoo-call in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, in Boser Traum (“Nightmare”) he allows a melody from Rigoletto to make its melancholy appearance in an inner part and a final double fugue gives an air of contrapuntal parody. There is more here than an attempt to shock. There is too an element of stillness and introversion. Many pieces in the cycle do not disclaim their origin in impressionism and the first of the miniatures in particular show, years before Bartók’s night-sounds and the eerie depiction of the pool in Berg’s Wozzeck, a new possibility in bringing into music experience of nature Müdigkeiten (“Tiredness”), Phantastisches Duett zweier Bäume vor dem Fenster (“Fantastic Duet of Two Trees at the Window”), Rufe in der horchenden Nacht (“Calls in the Listening Night).

The instructions with which Hindemith prefaced Ragtime in his Suite “1922” are well-known:

Mode d’emploi—Direction for use!!
Forget everything you have learned in your piano lessons.
Don’t worry whether you should play D sharp with the fourth or the sixth finger.
Play this piece ferociously, but always very strict in rhythm, like a machine.
Consider the piano here as an interesting kind of percussion instrument and treat it accordingly.

Hindemith composed this work by analogy with the Baroque suite, as, for example, of Bach, replacing traditional Baroque dances such as the Allemande, Courante and Sarabande with stylised forms of modern dances. There is deliberate provocation in the use of frequent dissonance. A robust March opens with a shrill fanfare, followed by a Shimmy. The fourth and fifth pieces are a waltz-like Boston and the percussive Ragtime. At the heart of the Suite is a night-piece equivalent of the baroque Sarabande in a gentle triple rhythm.

In later years Hindemith reacted against his earlier work, including, understandably, the Suite, referring to it once in conversation as “dieser alte Wurm”. Nevertheless it seems that one should defend this work, which soon after its appearance caused a sensation and was often played, against the subsequent harsh judgement of its composer. As time goes on, the mysteriousness of the Nachtstück and the exciting swing of the outer movements must seem increasingly impressive. Three other small pieces are in the nature of by-products. In the sketch-book from 1919 to 1923 is a Lied of quietly meditative character, in the tonality of G, written in 1921 in Barcelona.

A short piano-piece (Kleines Klavierstück), also in G, was written in Prague in 1929 for Frau Josefine Grosz. The third piece has the ironic title of Berceuse. Its accented repeated chords show it to be the exact opposite of a gentle lullaby. It was intended as a light-hearted piece for the chamber music festival at Donaueschingen in 1921, which brought Hindemith fame with the first performance of his String Quartet, Opus 16. After the particular effort involved, he played the fool among his friends. On the manuscript of the Berceuse is written“Not more than one tablespoonful to be taken hourly.—New, improved and absolutely acceptable product. (Not dangerous !!!!)”

English version by Keith Anderson

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