About this Recording
8.572763 - HINDEMITH, P.: Nobilissima Visione (Complete Ballet) / 5 Pieces for String Orchestra (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
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Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)
Nobilissima Visione (Complete Ballet) • Five Pieces for String Orchestra


Composer, violist, violinist, conductor and teacher, Paul Hindemith was one of the twentieth century’s most versatile, all-round musicians. Born in Hanau, near Frankfurt, on 16 November 1895, he received violin lessons from an early age. In 1909 he won a free place at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where he studied composition. A series of radical, Expressionist works, the controversial one-act operas Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (Murder, Hope of Women), Das Nusch-Nuschi (The Nusch-Nuschi) and Sancta Susanna (1921), String Quartet No. 2 (1921) and the ballet Der Dämon (The Demon) (1922), established him as the leading German composer of his generation. There followed a phase of stylistic experimentation, from the jazz-influenced Suite ‘1922’ for piano to the variously scored, neo-Baroque Kammermusik series (1921–27). Other notable pieces from this period include the song cycle Das Marienleben (The Life of Mary) (1923) and the opera Cardillac (1926). In 1927 he was appointed professor of composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. A lasting interest in teaching resulted in pieces for amateur players and a musical theory textbook, Unterweisung im Tonsatz (The Craft of Musical Composition). He was also active as a performer at this time in diverse rôles, as a member of the Amar-Hindemith Quartet, leader of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra, and a celebrated soloist, notably in the 1929 première of Walton’s Viola Concerto. From 1932 to 1935 he concentrated on the opera Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter) and its related symphony. A dramatic allegory about the artist’s dilemma in a turbulent society, the opera brought him into open conflict with the National Socialist government, and in September 1938 he left Germany for Switzerland. In February 1940 he moved to the United States, later becoming an American citizen. After accepting a position at the University of Zurich in 1951, he settled permanently in Switzerland. His last major work was the opera Die Harmonie der Welt (The Harmony of the World) (1957). He died of pancreatitis in Frankfurt on 28 December 1963. Hindemith’s substantial legacy demonstrates his integrity and craftsmanship, command of many instruments, and mastery of various styles and forms.

In October 1936 Hindemith was asked by the dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine to collaborate with him on a ballet project. In the following May Hindemith visited Florence, where he was overwhelmed by the magnificent frescoes in the church of Santa Croce, in which Giotto had depicted scenes from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. He lost no time in suggesting the life of St Francis as the subject of a ballet to Massine, whose initial reaction was one of scepticism: ‘He had been deeply impressed by [the frescoes] and taking me by the arm he hurried me back to the church to see them’, Massine later recalled in his autobiography, My Life in Ballet. ‘I too was struck by their spiritual beauty, and could well understand why they had so profoundly moved Hindemith. But when he suggested that we should do a ballet together on the life of Saint Francis, I hesitated.’

While Massine was pondering the proposition, Hindemith forged ahead with work on the score. Honouring a BBC commission, he turned the material into a concert suite, entitled Symphonic Dances, which was given its première in London on 5 December 1937. Massine eventually agreed to co-operate with Hindemith on a ballet. Whilst staying at Positano on the Bay of Naples, they worked closely together and, as a consequence, the work was altered considerably before completion. It was first performed by the Ballet de Monte Carlo at London’s Drury Lane Theatre on 21 July 1938 with Massine in the rôle of the saint. The title was changed from ‘St Francis’ to Nobilissima Visione (‘The Noblest Vision’) during publication.

Subtitled Dance Legend, Hindemith’s ballet score contains several echoes of his opera Mathis der Maler, including the integration of pre-existing, quasi-folksong music and a central theme of renouncing worldly struggle in favour of a spiritual state. There are eleven musical numbers accompanying six scenes. As the curtain rises [1] we are introduced to the fashionable troubadour Francis, son of a wealthy textile merchant Bernadone, in Assisi. The imposing melody we hear is Hindemith’s own version of the thirteenth-century song Ce fut en mai (It was in May), which recurs in many guises throughout the score and provides the basis of much of the subsequent material.

After chasing away a beggar asking for alms [2], Francis suffers from remorse and gives the beggar some money. A knight, represented by a stately horn theme, kindles Francis’s sense of adventure [3]. Yet the barbarous behaviour of passing mercenaries disgusts him. This is represented in the score by a march in the form of a patrol, advancing from the distance, initially on wind and percussion alone, and then, after a sinewy fugal section evoking the soldiers brutally attacking a family, disappearing back into the distance [4].

In a vision, three women appear to Francis: the allegorical figures of Humility, Chastity and Poverty [5]. He realises that he is destined to a life of deeply human piety and devotion. This section of the score has a gently lyrical theme for strings and flute, and the elegiac atmosphere is heightened by the addition of a delicate ‘pastoral coda’ with oboe replacing flute.

Francis’s friends find him and encourage him to join in with their festivities [6], yet he shows little interest in dancing and cannot sing as heartily as before. Unable to forget Poverty, he gives food and his clothing to a group of beggars to the bewilderment of his companions [7]. A heated argument with his father signals to him that his previous life has now ended.

Francis embarks on a journey clad only in an old cloth given to him by a beggar. His fervent prayer in front of a chapel leads to an overwhelming feeling of worldly happiness [8]. Suddenly, his friends appear, running towards him in fear, escaping from a dangerous wolf [9]. Francis tames the animal by miming the playing of a violin with the aid of two wooden sticks. He is now ready to celebrate his wedding with Poverty, and his friends prepare a banquet of water and bread [10]. Hindemith scores this mystic union as an ascetic, delicate Rondo which is graced by a poignant and ethereal cadential figure.

The final scene [11] takes the form of a grand passacaglia (the Baroque structure of strict variations upon a ground bass) and is headed Incipiunt laudes creaturarum (The creatures’ songs of praise begin), the opening words of St Francis’s celebrated Canticle of the Sun. Nineteen variations on a noble six-bar ground announced by unison brass accompany symbolic images passing by in great procession, creating an ineluctably majestic ending.

On reflection Massine felt that the work was not really a ballet, but rather a dramatic and choreographic interpretation of the life of St Francis which tried to ‘create and sustain throughout a mood of mystic exaltation’. Hindemith extracted from the ballet score a twenty-minute, three-movement concert suite, which was given its première in Venice on 13 September 1938. In this more concentrated form, Nobilissima Visione soon emerged as one of the composer’s most successful works.

In 1927, shortly before Hindemith began teaching at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, he composed a set of four pieces of progressively increasing difficulty which he referred to as Schulwerk für Instrumental-Zusammenspiel (Educational Music for Instrumental Ensembles). These pieces were written with the intention of introducing young players to a contemporary musical idiom.

The last of the set, Five Pieces in the First Position for String Orchestra, is more commonly referred to simply as Fünf Stücke (Five Pieces). Even though the music’s declared purpose is pedagogical, it has a broad appeal and has been programmed widely by both professional and student ensembles.

After a measured, tightly knit introduction, the second movement also begins slowly but leads into swifter material with deft shifts between major and minor key. The brief central section’s contrapuntal gaiety is offset by the following movement’s air of sombre introspection. A spirited finale is characterized by ebullient unison writing and an impulsive, fiercely independent solo violin.

Paul Conway

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