A new kind of music cast in traditional forms

Exit Romanticism. © Charles Thibo

Fear – that would be too strong a word. Reluctance, yes, that describes it better. I feel an intense reluctance to listen to works of certain composers, to expose myself to their music despite my curiosity. What exactly do I expect? Being disappointed by music that may seem boring? Being horrified by dissonant sounds hurting my eardrums? I don’t quite know, but what I know is that once I summon my courage to explore the music of one of these composers, I usually do not have to confront disappointment or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Discovering Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith is a case in point. Poor Hindemith! In my musical universe his name has been around for at least a few years. My fellow blogger fugueforthought has written about him extensively this year. His name has popped up as a reference in the context of other composers. And of course, music history of the 20th century would be unthinkable without him. And still, I never felt compelled to study his music until I bought a ticket for yesterday evening’s concert where the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg under Gustavo Gimeno and the German violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann performed compositions of Richard Strauss (Don Juan), Robert Schumann (Phantasie for Violin and Orchestra), Bela Bartok (The Marvellous Mandarin/Suite) and Hindemith’s Chamber Music No. 4, Op. 36/3.

There was no way I could get around Hindemith anymore so I decided to throw myself into the Abyss of the Unknown! Like Hindemith’s father. Apparently Rudolf Hindemith ran away from home when his parents vetoed his idea to become a musician. He became a painter and a decorator later, but he subjected his three children to unrelenting musical training so that they could become musicians. Talk about an idée fixe! Paul Hindemith, born in 1895, received regular lessons from 1905 on. He studied with the Swiss violinist Anna Hegner, who was the first to recognize his talent. Grants and the support of rich Frankfurt families allowed Hindemith to study composition at the Hoch Conservatory from 1912 to 1913.

New ideas about rhythm and tonality

Hindemith wrote his Chamber Music No. 4 in 1925. It has five movements and it is scored for a violin and a chamber orchestra. The musicologist Giselher Schubert writes in an article for “Grove Music Online” that “the Kammermusiken nos. 2–7 (1924–7), a series of concertos for individual solo instruments and chamber orchestra, exhibit a range of influences from neo-Baroque forms and developmental procedures to parodies of military marches, and from lyrical, intense nocturnes to waltze”. Hindemith enjoyed composing this piece very much, as he himself commented in his catalogue of works.

Paul Griffiths explains in his book “Modern Music” that Hindemith intended to fill the old Baroque form of the suite or concerto, as it was familiar to Johann Sebastian Bach, with something new: the use of winds, an extended idea of harmony and complex rhythms. Griffith detects in Hindemith’s “Kammermusiken” a certain combative mood, and this is precisely what Hindemith and other representatives of the neo-classicist genre had in mind: to contend the idea that the tradition from Bach to Brahms was anachronistic and that the transcendence of diatonic tonality (major/minor) – Arnold Schönberg preached this in Vienna – was the only way to salvation.

Different paths forward

Strauss and Bartok would have subscribed to Hindemith’s credo even though they found very different solutions to the question of how to compose music after the Romantic period. Strauss settled on the tried and tested models of Romanticism, but created new, dramatic effects in his symphonic poems through the instrumentation: He would sometimes use orchestras three times the size of what Ludwig van Beethoven had used. Bartok would explore traditional music from different countries to infuse his compositions with new ideas of rhythm and harmony.

Once I had understood this, the evening at the OPL became a true delight. Schumann provided the Romantic starting point of the evening while the pieces of Strauss, Bartok and Hindemith offered three different visions of the future of music in the early 20th century. Did I like Hindemith’s Chamber Music No. 4? I did. I came well prepared to the concert having studied the piece and the historical context before. I had listened to the recording of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Polish violinist Konstanty Kulka and I found the piece less experimental than I had anticipated. Changing rhythms – yes, heavy, unexpected use of percussions and brass – yes, parallel voices instead of a stringent musical “narrative” – yes.

Fear, marching columns, strident voices

But Hindemith was no fool and only the live performance made me discover the many subtleties of his Chamber Concerto No. 4. Listening to Frank Peter Zimmermann and the (piccolo) flautists suddendly filled the music I heard with meaning. The brutal contrasts between Romantic language and dissonance, and the polyphony – a Baroque form – took me back to the 1920s in Germany, a time of economic hardship, the traumatic experience of World War I and particularly defeat still affecting people. Ordinary folks were afraid of the future. They feared a Communist insurrection and listened increasingly to this little politician preaching in his strident voice a national revival. The nazis were marching – already!1I found all this in Hindemith music, the fear, the trauma, the nationalist hate soeach, thevtimid vouce of the opposition and the vain hope for peace and prosperity.

© Charles Thibo

1I would like to recommend in this context the double biography of Stalin and Hitler: Alan Bullock: Hitler and Stalin – Parallel lives. ISBN 978-0-679-7294-5

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de Chareli

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