Music Post: The music of Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith

In one of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer mysteries, needing to reinforce his picture of a academic as an arid sort of fellow, he has the man say he and his girlfriend had a shared interest in Hindemith.

Musicians who should know better also sometimes think of Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) as the arid academic composer referred to by Ross Macdonald (1915-1983).

That is not the Paul Hindemith I know. For me Hindemith is a great composer, like Bach a consummate craftsman who still managed to come up with melodies and moods to savor for centuries.

It’s which Hindemith works you’re exposed to. He wrote many sonatas, intending to create music for every instrument, and some (not all) are indeed arid. But that’s not the Hindemith I was exposed to first.

The Hindemith I heard first was an album of William Steinberg and the Boston Symphony performing “Mathis der Maler” and Concert Music for Strings & Brass.

“Mathis der Maler” is a three-movement symphony inspired by Hindemith’s plans for an opera on the life of the painter Matthias Grunewald, but actually written first. It is magnificent.

Concert Music for Strings & Brass, which has no storytelling program whatever so far as I know, is even greater. Inspired by the challenge of creating an orchestral work without woodwinds or percussion, Hindemith produces a two-movement masterpiece that is as modern as it is tuneful. The new theme to my show comes from the second movement, where it appears three times, introduced in full as the second theme of the second movement, then in motto form as a stinger, then folded into the finale.

Hindemith’s most famous orchestral work is generally said to be “Symphonic Metamorphosis in Themes of Carl Maria von Weber,” a concerto for orchestra in all but name with marvelous use of percussion.

Of many excellent orchestral works that are more obscure, I would single out the three-movement ballet “Noble Vision.” It ends with a passacaglia that tops anything Bach, Brahms or Reger ever did.

The Symphony in E flat is an excellent work that includes a unique funeral march, and its opening movement reinvents the form. Instead of a regular sonata-allegro with two contrasting themes, Hindemith offers a motto several times, each leading to a different variation on the one idea, a world of music in only four and a half minutes, a triumph of concision.

The Symphony in B flat for Concert Band is one of the greatest band compositions of all time – I would put only Holst’s “Hammersmith” higher. The work is filled with dense, needle-threading polyphonic writing, and another compelling funeral march.

I like Hindemith’s organ sonatas, and “Morning Music for Brass,” and his “Kleine Kammermusic for Five Winds,” and his raucous first “Kleine Kammermusik” for chamber orchestra.

But his masterpiece may be “Ludus Tonalis,” Hindemith’s answer to Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” It consists of fugues in all keys, with interludes that often modulate from the key of the preceeding fugue to the key of the next one. A preludium, turned upsidedown and backwards, becomes a postludium. The various pieces a wide variety of time signatures, tempos and moods. There is a world of music in it.

Hindemith may have hindered himself by being a brash fellow. I knew a musician who told a secondhand story of Hindemith at a party, spotting a publisher and marching over to him to demand that he publish his works. In academe, Hindemith was a tough grader and gave out almost no degrees. Where Copland explained simplifying his style by saying he thought it was worth the effort to see if he could say what he had to say in the simplest possible terms (how reasonable! Who could argue with that?) Hindemith simplified his style so students and amateurs could perform it, and called it gebrauchmusik – utility music, or music for use. Utility music? It was almost as if he wanted the approach to be unpopular.

Hindemith belongs in the same pantheon as Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok, because he, too, had specific ideas about how modern music should be composed, and his thinking was more reasonable than theirs. Hindemith said the rules of music, not by any fiat on his part but at the behest of nature, are the rules of natural harmonic overtones. He said you can infer from the overtone series which intervals are consonant and which are dissonant and to what degree, and, having learned that, what you do with the information is up to you. What Hindemith himself did was start on a clear tonal base, venture far afield, and at the end return to a nice round chord for the conclusion. One critic suggested that Hindemith founded no school because any student who tried following Hindemith’s rules wound up composing music that sounded like Hindemith.

Hindemith’s music certainly sounds like Hindemith, but at the end, when he presents you with that concluding chord, it is a solution as neat as any to be found in a Ross Macdonald detective novel.

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