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FECD-0022 - HINDEMITH: Kammermusik No. 2 / Concert Music for Viola / Piano Concerto

Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith


A story that periodically circulates at conservatories worldwide concerns Yale University music professor Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). According to the tale, he had just returned graded homework papers, the assignment having been to harmonize a melody provided at the previous class meeting. After distributing the papers, Hindemith asked those students who had received an “A” to write their widely divergent solutions on the blackboard. Then, he posed a probing question: “What musical truths underlie each of these successful settings?”


Being a believer that the deepest truths, whether musical or otherwise, encompass, embrace, and reconcile diverse viewpoints, this vignette has for many years enchanted me, and instructed my thoughts and actions. It matters little whether the story is true; rather, its import lies both in the question per se, and in its implications about the nature of wide-ranging, inclusive approaches to music making.


Unlike such composers as Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who was linked solely with Classicism; and Richard Wagner (1813-1883), whose association was only with Romanticism, Hindemith’s approach, like Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971), was decidedly synoptic.


Some audiences, desiring musical conservatism, find Hindemith’s work overly radical; others, seeking radicalism, find him too conservative. But, the truth is inclusive: Hindemith’s compositions are simultaneously conservative and radical, and are best appreciated as such. Inclusiveness is evident both when we consider Hindemith’s large oeuvre, and when we listen to such single compositions as his 1939 Sonata in F, for horn and piano, which is both neo-Baroque and neo-Classical, with Romantic rhythmic displacement, reminiscent of Johannes Brahms (1833-97), included for good measure.


In Hindemith, we find: (1) A craftsman who composed at astonishing speed, perhaps guided by his experiences as a performing violinist, violist, pianist, and percussionist: (2) An artist fascinated by counterpoint, cadences, rhythm (often, of the Baroque “motoric” variety), meter, and melody; (3) “Tonal atonality,” wherein atonality prevails amid everpresent tonality, reversing Frank Martin’s (1890-1974) “atonal tonal” efforts, in which tonality prevails within atonality; (4) A harmonic language based on movement between consonance and dissonance, rather than on Baroque and Classical “harmonic progression.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians divides Hindemith’s work into three periods: 1918-23, 1924-33, and 1933-63, the first period being primarily a time of experimentation with Romanticism.


The second period demonstrated a synthesis of neo-Baroque and neo-Classical styles, with neo-Baroque aspects prevailing. Kammermusik No. 2, Op. 36, No. 1 (1924), and Concert Music for Solo Viola and Large Chamber Orchestra, Op. 48 (1930) represent this period. In the opening movement of Kammermusik, Hindemith offers such Baroque devices as a recurring orchestral ground bass, and a driving rhythmic impulse unabashedly combined with decidedly non-Baroque fluttertongued trumpet passages. In the second movement, tension between strings and woodwinds is reconciled with the composer’s typical grace, while the evanescent third movement reveals metric differences of opinion, again gracefully resolved. The finale provides a neo-Baroque fugato. The Concert Music for Solo Viola and Large Chamber Orchestra features contrapuntal techniques and abrupt dynamic changes (reminiscent of Baroque “terraced dynamics”), combined with such Classical features as increased lyricism and focus on instrumental timbres. These Baroque and Classical aspects co-exist comfortably within a sunny, scherzo-like setting.


The 1945 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra exemplifies Hindemith’s third period, with its preponderance of the neo-Classical tonality that was earlier iterated in his 1933-4

Symphony Mathis der Maler, and 1943 Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber. Beside vestiges of Baroque techniques, the concerto’s three movements reveal, for instance, neo-Classical thematic development, and the presence of codas.

Throughout, the composer’s inclusive, consonant nature shines through; and each movement closes with a Hindemithian “signature” major chord.


- David M. Kaslow



Kammermusik No. 2, Op. 36, No. 1


The following is reprinted from the original First Edition Records LP release.


The energetic quality of Hindemith’s music is quite well known but still the listener is apt to be taken a little aback at the manner in which the opening of this first of his Chamber Concertos explodes into precipitous and unrelenting action. For four pages the orchestra sustains a pedal G while the piano soloist weaves a complex web that brings back to life the keyboard style of J. S. Bach himself. The resemblance does not end there; remaining true to his Baroque persuasions Hindemith spins out a continuous melody, never relaxing the driving rhythm throughout the movement, even as the tension builds. The two hands of the soloist break apart treating the running patterns in a canonic dialogue, but soon the small orchestra starts in with a unison passage of its own.


From here to the end these two forces battle in ever-thickening textures until a series of stark, widely spaced and dissonant chords bring the movement to an end in Eb minor; a new key heard for the first time only in these final pages. It might seem odd to consider such a vigorous and uncompromising music humorous, yet the composer probably intended to offer a sense of intrigue to the listener who waits in vain for a gentler, more lyrical contrast to ease the tension for example, or tries to puzzle out a meter which changes constantly in no predictable pattern and a tonality which abandons each new key center as quickly as it is found.


The slow movement, a more serious affair, spans a wide variety of musical colors. The antagonism between a dissonant chorale idea in the winds and the unison strings forms the core of the musical argument. Hindemith loves to create problematical juxtapositions like this one and then repeat them many times with slight variations as if to see whether some fusion of the two might result. To this end the piano applies a florid and brilliant commentary dancing around the more severe elements of the musical frame while luring them into cooperation. A broader, more tuneful section launched by the soloist still does not succeed entirely in bridging the gap between the contending groups; with a violent downward rush the opening returns even more bitter than before. But that which cannot be accomplished by direct means may occasionally be won by guile. The second episode, a quasi-Scherzo, features the soloist in yet another chattering obbligato. At the same time, the original ideas in the winds and strings are varied in rhythmic structure and made to fit together complementing one another in the same key. This brightens up the landscape for a while so that even the brief concluding reminiscence of the original confrontation is softened somewhat by the quiet giggles issuing from the piano.


The tiny third movement (titled Kleines Potpourri) is a silly affair lasting but a minute and some seconds. After the slightly hysterical beginning coupling members of the winds and brass an octave apart, the piano spins off in a time signature that it keeps to itself 4/4, while the brisk accompaniment continues in 3/8. Piquant interruptions from the brass comment on an extension of the piano material but in the course of this passage the soloist convinces the trumpet to follow the metric lead of the keyboard thus gaining an ally for a second encounter with the mixed meters. Suddenly the music trails off on the same fragments with which it began.


The leaping fourths that are so much a Hindemith fingerprint push the concertante material of the Finale off at a dizzy pace. Once the piano part is under way, the orchestra retires to the wings except for discrete jabs offered from time to time to keep the soloist about his business. Gradually the individual players become unable to resist interjections of greater length until eventually all the players are going full tilt once again. The Hindemith admirer will by now long ago have spotted a potential fugue subject in such an idea. Following a series of threatening pedal points the expected fugato section does set forth. No sooner is this material seemingly exhausted than it is begun a second time; the composer adding some scale passages swirling upwards to heighten a feeling of acceleration. Contributing his share to the final flurry of excitement, the soloist dashes through a set of wicked double arpeggios, the hands ranging from a sixth to a tenth apart. The movement concludes as abruptly as it began, but happily enough the story of the Hindemith Chamber Concertos does not end at this point. During the next few years the composer was to enrich the modern repertory with several such pieces bristling with the wit and the technical difficulty that are so much the spirit of the 1920s.


- Robert H. McMahan



Concert Music for Solo Viola and Large Chamber Orchestra


The following commentary is reprinted from the original First Edition Records LP release.


Remaining true to his belief in the aesthetic and economic future of the chamber-sized orchestra, Hindemith continued to compose for such ensembles even after his pieces for full orchestra had met with general approval. In 1930 he fashioned a trilogy of important works for unusual orchestral settings: the Concert Music, Op. 48 featuring the viola solo; Op. 49 for piano, brass, and two harps; and the widely-performed Op. 50 for strings and brass. Because of its virtuoso character many writers also include in this grouping the Philharmonic Concerto of 1932 although the latter is scored for a full-sized orchestra.


The listener who is already familiar with Hindemith’s Op. 36 Chamber Concertos will find the latter set to be conceived on a broader, more romantic scale, than the earlier pieces although the complement of strings has been reduced to only four each of the cellos and basses in order to set off the texture of the solo instrument. Elements of the Baroquish concerto grosso style remain in the composer’s music of the 1930s. We will often find a busy, seamless texture moving perpetually forward in whatever tempo the music sets forth at the outset. Typically, the rhythmic impulse is supplied by short bursts of full orchestra that seem to attack the running figuration of the solo.


With dozens of large-scale pieces already behind him, Hindemith seemed to be thinking seriously in his Op. 48 about the kinds of variations upon the established formulas that would be striking enough to maintain novelty. The slow movement, for example, is that one-in-a-thousand that begins, not quietly, but fortissimo. What is more, the composer, himself an excellent violist, contrives with a certain perverse whimsy to spoil the soloist’s lovely melody by prefacing it with a pair of false starts in the woodwinds. In a similar fashion the three movements that remain provide certain tongue-in-cheek alterations of the normal procedures. The author, perhaps fearing that the accompanied cadenza that concludes the slow movement was not going to be enough to satisfy the soloist’s needs, furnished him with a buzzy obligato linking some sporadic commentary from the winds by a series of mad arpeggios that change keys all the while. From here to the end the Concerto alternates between one mood of elfin humor and another that projects a grim, robust energy.


- Robert H. McMahan



Concerto for Piano and Orchestra


The following commentary is reprinted from the original First Edition Records LP release.


The first movement, marked ‘Moderately fast,’ is mainly in triple rhythm, in the key of A major. The clarinet first announces the principal theme, which is immediately taken up by the piano. Two clarinets and bass clarinet sing the lyric second subject, immediately varied by the piano, and the piano introduces the closing subject - a muted trumpet adding a characteristic motive that is to be used importantly in the development. The piano alone begins the varied recapitulation. There is a coda, opening quietly with a figure for clarinet, in which the solo instrument further develops the main theme.


The slow movement is fresh and inventive in its orchestral colorations, simple and straightforward in a clear three-part form. The first part is based on two themes: the first sung by cellos and base clarinet in unison; the second by the piano, then by the oboe with the first theme serving as its bass. A single subject, announced by the piano and repeated by the horn, suffices for the middle part, but it is much elaborated. The two themes of the opening division are inverted when they reappear at the beginning of the recapitulation: the cellos’ theme is now sounded by the violins in octaves, and the piano’s original subject is given to the lower strings, while the solo instruments play soft chromatic figurations. Both themes are then given to the piano, second violins and violas murmuring the figurations. The melody of the middle part is repeated by the trombone in the brief coda.


For his finale, Hindemith chose to write a ‘medley’ on a 14th century dance theme entitled Tre Fontane (Three Fountains). The ‘medley’ begins with a canzona sung first by the piano and continued by the bassoon, the piano, and again the bassoon. The fast march is given to the orchestra without the solo instrument, which enters only at the end to introduce the slow waltz, beginning it unaccompanied and keeping it mostly to itself. Piano and strings make alternate entries in the fleet, highly scored caprice - soon the wind instruments are heard from. Tre Fontane, the dance theme itself, then sounds forth from piano and orchestra.


- George H. L. Smith

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