About this Recording
8.572165 - HINDEMITH, P.: String Quartets, Vol. 3 (Amar Quartet) - Nos. 1 and 4
English  German 

Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)
String Quartets • 3


Like Louis Spohr (1784–1859), Paul Hindemith was a composer who was also an outstanding violinist and viola player who could have had a career as a soloist should he have aspired to it and who turned his attention anew to the medium of the string quartet. He was born in 1895 in humble circumstances in the small town of Hanau, just outside Frankfurt am Main and in 1908 started to study the violin at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. As early as 1915, as a nineteen-year-old, and having previously given a scintillating performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Hindemith joined the prestigious Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra and the following year was appointed its leader. In spite of initial resistance from his father, he took up the study of composition, to see if he had any aptitude for it.

In 1921 Hindemith achieved his compositional breakthrough with three Expressionist one-act operas and the String Quartet No. 3, Op. 16 [Naxos 8.572163], following which he left the opera orchestra and founded the Amar Quartet, named after its first violinist, and in which Hindemith moved over to the viola. As a driving force on the programming committee of the Donaueschingen Chamber Music Performances, whose fame and reputation he established, Hindemith exerted a decisive influence on the music of the Weimar Republic. In 1927 he was appointed to the Musikhochschule in Berlin but as early as 1933 his teaching activities were severely hampered by the Nazis. They forced him to take voluntary leave of absence from the Hochschule and first imposed a ban on radio broadcasts of his music followed later by a ban on performances.

In one of his most important works from this period, the opera Mathis der Maler, to his own libretto, he created a work in which he addressed the, for him, pressing issues of producing independent works of art in a totalitarian age. When Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels vilified Hindemith publicly as a “charlatan” and “atonal noise-maker” he was, to all intents and purposes, able only to give concerts abroad. In response to an invitation from the Turkish government Hindemith spent many months there as an adviser on the organization of Turkey’s musical life based on middle-European models. At the Nazis’ notorious Exhibition of Degenerate Music in 1938 Hindemith, as one of the few so-called “Aryan” composers, was derided as a “standard-bearer of musical decay”, so he emigrated, first to Switzerland, and in 1940 to the United States. He became an American citizen in 1946 and in 1955, as a token of appreciation for his work, he was awarded honorary citizenship. Hindemith took one of the most prestigious composition classes at Yale University, even though he himself regarded composition as unteachable. From 1953 he taught also at Zurich University and moved permanently to Switzerland, settling in Blonay, a small municipality on Lake Geneva. Hindemith worked as a guest conductor of the most important orchestras in both the new and old worlds and also produced a cornucopia of further works, among them arguably his masterpiece, the opera Die Harmonie der Welt (The Harmony of the World). He died suddenly in 1963 in Frankfurt am Main.

Hindemith’s seven string quartets were produced in different phases of his rich compositional development, but without reflecting this growth in every detail. All these works testify not only to his inner familiarity with the way each instrument functions, but to the special requirements of public music-making and its uncertainties, or possibly the intervention of his routine as a performer tackling the challenges of soloist virtuosity.

With the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 2 (1914/15), which was an impressive confirmation of his hoped-for compositional promise, Hindemith showed himself to be an inventive composition student of the rich chamber music tradition. With the String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10 (1918) [Naxos 8.572163], Hindemith’s music became more unified, tighter, more straightforward, and was driven by a playful impulse which came across as spontaneous and direct. In the following three quartets, which were written between 1920 and 1923, Hindemith cultivated the style of the New Objectivity. This music is severely contrapuntal, simple and unadorned and it expands tonal relationships almost to breaking-point, unleashing a fury of music-making in readily-comprehensible forms.

 The String Quartet No. 6 “in E flat” [Naxos 8.572164], written twenty years later, looks back, so to speak, at the moderating element from about 1930, which he himself developed fundamentally and described in his treatise The Craft of Musical Composition. The music becomes more manageable from a harmonic and tonal aspect and is developed subtly through every contrapuntal device and with the greatest refinement. This compositional mastery, which has remained without parallel in twentieth-century music, comes to the fore in the late works and is almost anticipated with possibly more obvious features in the String Quartet No. 7, also in E flat [Naxos 8.572164], but without lapsing into academic, dry scholarliness or becoming mired in the esoteric.

In the String Quartet No. 1 in C major, Op. 2, Hindemith, who was only nineteen years old, was trying to stand firm against the most highly challenging requirements of chamber music composition. Both musically and stylistically the music is based on a Brahmsian late-Romanticism, which would have been imparted to him by his second composition teacher at the Hoch Conservatory, Bernhard Sekles. Hindemith was concerned with extending and reshaping the traditional forms, which he favoured, but without rendering them unrecognizable. In this work this results in an almost rampant, fit to burst musical prodigality, which Hindemith organizes through sophisticated compositional endeavour and which he makes easily comprehensible. The first movement is in traditional sonata form, but one whose formal components Hindemith elaborates in an unusually artful way. He leads the first subject through various forms, while he presents the second subject, which is closely related rhythmically to the first subject, in two different forms which are like variations of each other. In the development section he combines the motifs and themes by the use of strict techniques through both motivic and thematic treatment, as well as through counterpoint. Following the conventional recapitulation the coda is an ongoing continuation of the development.

So the constituents of the form are distinguished from each other not only through their melodic and motivic material but also through their respective compositional structures. Moreover Hindemith colours these formal constituents by means of a subtly differentiated harmonic and tonal conception; the first subject remains firmly in the basic tonality of C major (the tonic), the transition to the next section is in D flat major (Neapolitan), the second subject in its first version is in E major (the mediant), its second version is in G major (the dominant), while the transition to the development section touches on A minor (the relative minor) as well as F major (the subdominant). By adopting such a well-planned compositional approach the nineteen-year-old composer certainly also demonstrates great skill, a skill which he would originally have learned and applied from Sekles’s compositional methods, yet he is truly able to breathe new life into them through the freshness and originality of his musical invention.

Hindemith imbues the second movement with the character of a three-part funeral march—unusual enough in string quartet music—while the scherzo which follows, in complete contrast to the robust diatonicism of the first movement, is chromatic. Furthermore, in a lavish display of inventive abundance, he even gives this scherzo two trio sections, of which the first in particular exploits the tonal possibilities of the string instruments. Hindemith writes the final movement in rondo form, in which—clearly modelled on the example of Brahms’s Third Symphony—he refers back thematically to the funeral march of the second movement, in the manner of a cyclical rounding off.

Hindemith completed the first movement of the quartet in the summer of 1914 immediately before the outbreak of the First World War and because of the war he at first stopped work on the piece. It was not until March and April 1915 that he continued work on it with the funeral march, a movement clearly relevant to that war when, to Hindemith’s surprise, his composition teacher programmed the as yet unfinished work in an evening concert at the Hoch Conservatory. Under the greatest time pressure, which obviously acted as a stimulant, Hindemith duly completed the quartet and, as scheduled, it was given its première on 26 April 1915 in Frankfurt am Main by an ensemble of teachers and students, with Hindemith himself taking the first violin part. The quartet remained unpublished during the composer’s lifetime; it was not performed again until 6 February 1986 and was finally published in 1994.

If Hindemith, with an unusually no-nonsense sense of reality, wanted to try out a possible gift for composition with the String Quartet No. 1—he was later of the opinion that the inclination to be creatively active would, in most cases, be mistaken for talent—he composed the String Quartet No. 4, Op. 22, in November and December of 1921 in the fullest awareness of his own ability, following his first great, spectacular successes. In the meantime his composing had developed considerably.

If the String Quartet No. 1 followed a tendency which was described as the “intensification of the traditional”, so Hindemith declared of the String Quartet No. 4 that: “It sounds well and is quite easy to listen to and to play, of which I am especially proud” and he confessed: “I declare with satisfaction that my works will be better and simpler (and about time too)”. The String Quartet No. 4 is also in the form of a suite, which Hindemith orders in a varied and free manner. The brusque form of expression is conspicuous. The first movement starts straightaway with a fugato, to be played “very tenderly and intimately”, which intensifies into a tumultuous outburst. The rhythmically brilliant movement which follows works up to the climax which even bears the playing instruction “wild”, while the third movement, full of unsentimental melancholy and one of the most beautiful movements which Hindemith ever wrote, is to be performed “with little expression”. A brief, toccata-like, highly-virtuosic movement leads into the finale, which represents one of the earliest examples of “linear counterpoint”: each part is highly personalised but is nonetheless inextricably linked with the others. The work had its première on 4 November 1922 in Donaueschingen, performed by the original Amar Quartet, with Hindemith himself playing the viola. It has since proved itself to be the most successful of all Hindemith’s seven string quartets.

Giselher Schubert
English translation: David Stevens

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