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Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
Kammermusik No 2 for Piano and Orchestra Op 36 No 1 (1924)
Sehr lebhafte Achtel
Sehr langsame Achtel
Kleines Potpourri: Sehr lebhafte Viertel
Finale: Schnelle Viertel
Few composers of the early twentieth century were able to distance themselves entirely from the political events around them, such was the turbulent atmosphere in which they found themselves writing. Paul Hindemith was no exception: his relationship with the Nazi regime remains a contentious issue, with accounts of his life varying dramatically regarding his allegiance. While Joseph Goebbels denounced Hindemith as an “atonal noisemaker”, other members of the party saw in his music the potential to celebrate a ‘new’ and ‘modern’ Germany. In truth, he fell in and out of favour with the Nazis during their time in power, and despite accepting a number of commissions under their direction, he was eventually rejected by their more radical factions and effectively pushed out of Germany in 1937.
During the three years in Switzerland that followed, Hindemith set about writing his own tonal theory to rival that of his contemporary, Arnold Schoenberg. Unlike Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, Hindemith’s system was essentially tonal (centring around a tonic note), but its rather more free use of the twelve chromatic tones was intended to preserve the ‘natural’ or ‘acoustic’ basis of harmony, as he saw it. Melodically, Hindemith tried to avoid outlining major or minor triads, resulting in the angularity – and slight awkwardness – of the melodic lines. Although this theory appeared to open a new chapter in Hindemith’s compositional life, in fact Hindemith had already been exploring different kinds of musical ‘systems’ in his earlier works and shared many common interests with his ‘rival’ Schoenberg, such as the revisiting of antiquated forms and the possibilities of musical symmetry.
Many of Hindemith’s works from the 1920s demonstrate an interest with a systematic way of writing; in particular, his Kammermusik (Chamber Music) of 1924-7, exploits melodies which feature all the notes of the chromatic scale. Although the instrumentation suggests that these works are
not strictly ‘chamber music’ in the traditional sense, their outlook is distinctly small-scale, focussing on intensive motive development, clarity of line (with sharply differentiated instrumental sounds) and propelling rhythms – a rejection of the inflated emotionalism of post-Romanticism that preceded this period. Instead, this collection of eight compositions for varying instrumental ensembles pays homage to Hindemith’s longstanding love of Bachian counterpoint, clarity of form and technical precision. The Kammermusik No 2 for piano and orchestra is the first of the eight works to receive the subtitle ‘Concerto’, and features solo piano alongside a small ensemble of twelve ‘Solo-Instrumente’. Like Stravinsky’s own ‘neo-classical’ revival of baroque and classical procedures, Hindemith’s exploration of antiquated techniques appears to splice effortlessly with contemporary practice. The sharp, syncopated rhythms and alternating time signatures of the first movement produce the effect of a baroque moto perpetuo, while a ritornello-style alternation between soloist and orchestra breaks the otherwise unbroken melodic flow and illuminates Hindemith’s dense motivic craft. Beneath the complex harmonic system, the work as a whole also conforms to baroque expectations: with a broad, ornamented slow movement, a witty ‘Potpourri’ taking the role of the scherzo and a triumphant march to finish.
© Jo Kirkbride