Hindemith: Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass, Opus 50

PAUL HINDEMITH

BORN: November 16, 1895. Hanau, near Frankfurt, Germany

DIED: December 28, 1963, Frankfurt

COMPOSED: 1930, and completed on December 3 of that year; he wrote the First Part in Berlin and the Second Part in Andermatt, Switzerland. It was composed on commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra

WORLD PREMIERE: April 3, 1931. Serge Koussevitzky conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— February 1939. Hindemith himself conducted. MOST RECENT—March 2011. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, and strings (a single violin section rather than the usual 2, plus violas, cellos, and basses).

DURATION: About 17 mins

THE BACKSTORY Seventy years ago Paul Hindemith was regularly cited as one of the most significant and influential composers of the twentieth century, along with Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and (at least by connoisseurs) Bartók. In ensuing years his public stock fell sharply, but some of his compositions hold a persistent place in the active repertory, including his Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, his Mathis der Maler Symphony, his cantata When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d (after Whitman’s poem), and a number of his chamber pieces.

The years that followed World War I marked a free-for-all for creative artists, who were suddenly operating in a world that had overthrown central assumptions about society and humanity. Hindemith reveled in the variety of styles that swirled through the musical atmosphere, proving adept in various languages that, in retrospect, seem more innate to other composers: Puccini’s melodic lyricism, Richard Strauss’s rich-blooded late-Romanticism, Schreker’s Symbolist synthesis, Schoenberg’s Expressionism (found in Hindemith’s Second String Quartet, of 1921), Ravel’s Orientalism (as in Hindemith’s 1920 one-act opera Das Nusch-Nuschi), and Bartók’s modality and rhythmic intricacy (which Hindemith explored in his Third String Quartet, of 1922). American also held an inevitable allure (evident in Hindemith’s Suite 1922 for piano).

Through all this imitation and experimentation, Hindemith was developing his own angular and contrapuntal voice, which would emerge in its complete maturity in the 1930s. It was a style based on strict harmonic rules of his own devising—developed out of an idiosyncratic interpretation of musical acoustics—that, while sounding firmly tonal, wended its way through musical hierarchies that are not exactly those of the time-honored tonic-dominant system. He was also keeping busy as concertmaster of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra (1915-23) and as the violist of the Amar Quartet (1921–29), and the Wolfstahl (later Goldberg)-Hindemith-Feurmann Trio (1929–34). “I’ve got a chronic mania for work,” he wrote in 1922. He spoke openly about the challenges busy musicians needed to address if they were to avoid falling into stultifying routine, and he put his recommendations into practice by constructing programs with constantly changing selections, expanding his active repertory to include ancient music as well as new works, and even forming ensembles in which each member was required to play an instrument he or she did not already know how to play.

With the rise of the Third Reich he became persona non grata in his homeland; his own modernist proclivities were deemed offensive enough, and the fact that his wife was Jewish added to the difficulties. The Hindemiths left for Switzerland in 1937 and proceeded in February 1940 to the United States, which he had visited on concert tours in each of the three preceding years. He applied for American citizenship almost immediately on his arrival and was finally naturalized in 1946. Several colleges and universities vied for him to grace their faculties, and in the end Yale was the successful suitor. He would teach there until 1953, when he and his wife returned to live in Europe.

Hindemith was disturbed by the widening rift he saw separating the serious composer from the general listener. At a lecture in 1928, he proclaimed: “The tenuous connection in music today between producers and consumers is to be regretted. The composer today should write only if he knows for what purpose he is writing. The days of composing for the sake of composing are perhaps gone forever.” This was the central creed of what became known as Gebrauchsmusik (“useful music” or “music for ordinary use”), which would occupy Hindemith through the end of 1932; but even after that, he tended to keep his sights on the practical—at least on writing music that performers could make through their traditionally acquired techniques, which was far from a given in the postwar years.

He certainly knew for what purpose he was writing when he composed his Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass in 1930. He was composing it for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which was gearing up to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1931. Since 1924, the orchestra’s music director had been Serge Koussevitzky, an enthusiastic champion of contemporary music, and he was not about to lose the opportunity to enrich the repertory during such a celebratory season. The orchestra ushered ten new pieces into existence from late 1930 through early 1932. Hindemith’s Concert Music stood halfway through the lineup, surrounded by such respected compositions as Copland’s Symphonic Ode, Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 (the Romantic), Honegger’s Symphony for Orchestra, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 4, Roussel’s Symphony No. 3, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.

In 1939 the piece figured on the programs of the San Francisco Symphony. Hindemith himself conducted, and he served double duty as soloist in another of his viola concertos, Der Schwanendreher, which Pierre Monteux conducted. Of the San Francisco performance of the Concert Music, Hindemith informed his wife:

It went without a hitch and earned great applause. The orchestra put themselves to a lot of trouble and played excellently. From the very first I felt at home with these men, and they with me too. So we got along fine, and our work together was really pleasant…. There are a lot of Germans in the orchestra, also Bohemians, Austrians, and Russians…. The city is beautiful and its situation quite beyond compare. On top of that, the mild Dalmatian climate and the conspicuous niceness of the people—thanks to these my stay here is very pleasant.

THE MUSIC The title Concert Music has a characteristically Hindemithian ring, one that underscores the composer’s proclivity towards “objectivity.” Anyone else might have called the piece a symphony (and, indeed, I have seen it referred to as his “Boston Symphony” on rare occasions), but to Hindemith it was just “Concert Music,” much as his string of concertos with chamber orchestra in the 1920s had each been named Chamber Music and his concerto for piano left-hand was titled Piano Music with Orchestra. In fact, this is one of four pieces Hindemith called Concert Music, each for different forces and all clustered in the period 1926–30.

The Opus 50 Concert Music is divided into two parts. The First Part comprises two connected sections, of which the second section is notably brief; and the Second Part has three sections, of which the first and third stand as vaguely symmetrical fast sections bookending a slow center. The unusual instrumentation of strings and brass inspires Hindemith to set them often in textural opposition. So it is at the opening, where the brass play a stentorian, slow-moving melody, against which the strings announce vivacious, athletically leaping material, often in dotted rhythms. Balance can be a problem if the brass let loose at full throttle (their parts are marked fortissimo, after all), and so it is for good reason that the score asks that the strings be as numerous as possible. A neo-Baroque flavor sometimes shines through this movement, as if it were a latter-day concerto grosso fueled by counterpoint, but one that had outgrown the limits of that early genre. Then, too, the boldness of the brass writing may call to mind the sonic power of Bruckner, who in certain ways was an aesthetic ancestor of Hindemith’s. Suddenly the tempo slows—this is the second section—and the strings and brass reverse roles. Now it is the strings that sing the distended opening melody (violins, violas, and cellos in unison), against which the brasses intone accompanying chords. At the very end the brass unleash a golden phrase of potentially transcendent power, and the movement ends emphatically in C-sharp major, which was the key it had started in eight minutes earlier, even if it may not have crossed our minds very much in the meantime.

Part Two opens with three biting chords, after which the strings busy themselves with a fugato of scherzo character. A second theme draws out a more lyrical character from the strings. The tempo slows for the middle section, in which the strings play in elongated phrases; we might think of the entire second movement as a take on the classic scherzo-trio-scherzo idea. The strings establish a yearning, perhaps nostalgic character, but the brasses subvert this with more sinister suggestions. The quick tempo returns and with it a transformation of the scurrying fugato music. A coda wraps things up, beginning with a fanfare from the brasses and incorporating a few blue-note references that make us suspect Hindemith had been thumbing through Gershwin’s symphonic jazz compositions of the immediately preceding years.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

LISTEN AGAIN: Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Decca/London; out of print but obtainable through Internet sources)

(September 2019)