Friday, December 14, 2007

Huzzah for Hindemith

For one reason or another, I've been listening to a lot of Paul Hindemith's music lately. My relationship with Hindemith has been unusually productive, based mostly in performing, rather than listening to, his music. Before being asked to accompany his flute sonata, I had never heard any Hindemith, and as I learned the difficult piano part I fell in love with his unique style. There was no initial struggle with the idiom; the music spoke to me immediately. Since then, having performed many more of his works on piano and organ and listened to a wide cross-section of the orchestral music, I can't understand why his music isn't more popular.

Almost unknown to the public and criminally misunderstood by musicians, Hindemith is generally thought of as a pedantic, intellectual composer. To the average musician, Hindemith's reputation stands by the fact that he wrote a sonata for every major orchestral instrument. The conservatories and faculties of music across the country are filled at any given moment with students who struggle through these difficult works, often the only major pieces of modernist music they will study. Some emerge from the struggle with an appreciation for his style, but others emerge bitter and vengeful.

Of course, none of this is the fault of Hindemith's music. One frequently hears the complaint that a man who would want to write for every orchestral instrument couldn't possibly be driven by musical inspiration. This sort of thinking is precisely the sort of thing which most irritates me about music-making. Such essentially Romantic attitudes were crushed fairly brutally by the early modernists several generations ago but, like cockroaches, just run away and hide under the baseboards to re-emerge when you least expect them. There is, of course, no reason in the world why the desire to write for every instrument is incompatible with musicality - composing has much more to do with study and hard work than artistic inspiration, and it's likely that a mind like Hindemith's was stimulated, rather than stifled, by the challenge of writing for so many different instrumentations.

Perhaps Hindemith's music is not well suited to the times we live in. After all, the prevailing musical orthodoxy is pro-tonality and anti-serialism, and the backlash against the rigours of twelve-tone composition has made it difficult to accept Hindemith's carefully crafted compositional system. It is almost inevitable, therefore, that Hindemith will be labelled as an "academic", "intellectual" composer rather than a true artist. In a few of his works, I can see some justification for those labels, but if you think this work is dull and pedantic, your ears are on backwards:



This excerpt is the first movement of his Kammermusik I, a work rarely heard in concert halls because of its unusual instrumentation (basically, chamber orchestra with piano and accordion). The entire work is well worth listening to, highlighting Hindemith's ability to create a boisterous, rhythmic character as well as his underappreciated sense of humour. (The zany last movement gradually increases in tempo to a breakneck speed, until Hindemith finally closes things off with, of all things, a siren). Hindemith is also capable of achieving a wonderful, gorgeous lyricism, as in the oratorio When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, Hindemith's elegy for Roosevelt set to a poem by Walt Whitman.

Hindemith's music may not be to everyone's taste, but the prevalent stereotypes of his music are inexcusably ill-founded. At his most populist, as in orchestral works like the Symphonic Metamorphoses, his idiom should appeal to anyone steeped in the Romantic orchestral tradition, and this work is probably the best entry point for people who don't know (or think they don't like) his music. But the work I keep returning to is the suite Nobilissima Visione, based on Hindemith's ballet about (of all people) St. Francis of Assisi. It has everything I love about Hindemith - the curiously melancholy lyricism, the robust sense of energy, the contrapuntal expertise - and I'm increasingly convinced it might be his masterpiece.

This post has run very long.

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