Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Case of Paul Hindemith

I was in a board meeting the other day. At the end of each season of the concert organization I work with--we present around twenty-five concerts each year from October through March--we have a big meeting to review the year and discuss plans for next season. It is a very worth-while organization as we present everything from string quartets to piano recitals, from chamber orchestra to opera. And, due to the organizational skills of our president, we do it all with absolutely no government subsidy.

So there I was, at the meeting, when the discussion turned to our patronage categories. How we do what we do is all because we are supported by a couple of hundred very generous people who donate money every year. There are various categories. The lowest one, and kind of a loss-leader just to get you involved, is called "Mendelssohn" and is for donations of $100 to $499 USD. The next category is "Debussy" for amounts from $500 to $999, the next is "Mozart" from $1000 to $2499 and the current highest category is "Bach" from $2500 to $4999. Someone was mentioning that there is a problem with the Mendelssohn category as it is too much of a loss-leader. We offer them too much for what they contribute so we should re-think that one.

So I suggested changing the name of the category from "Mendelssohn" to "Hindemith".

A silence ensued.

Then a couple of people started to chuckle, then several more.

This is, of course, exactly the kind of humour I like! I love that English dry humour where someone insults you and it takes about twenty-four hours for you to even realize it was an insult.

So, let's have a look at Paul Hindemith and see why I was tempted to make that joke at the poor fellow's expense.

As we learn from Wikipedia, Paul Hindemith (1895 - 1963) was a German composer born just at a time when the whole of European music was in a ferment. He was from the next generation after Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951), closer to the generation of Schoenberg's students Anton Webern (1883 - 1945) and Alban Berg (1885 - 1935). Hindemith had more career as a performer than most composers in the first half of the century. He was an accomplished violinist and violist and toured extensively with string quartets. From the 1920s he became well-known as a composer and teacher of composition. He had a huge influence on a lot of young composers, especially in the US where he lived from 1940 to 1953. He wrote a notoriously difficult book for training musicians after discovering that few college students in the US had sufficient basic skills. The book contains exercises requiring you to, among other things, beat out one rhythm with your left hand while conducting with your right hand and singing the melody at sight! The book is called Elementary Training for Musicians and is still in print.

Hindemith rejected the atonal system of Schoenberg, choosing instead to develop his own theoretical system that still allowed the concepts of consonance and dissonance. His system is sometimes described as being tonal, but not diatonic, meaning that there is a tonal center, but all notes, chromatic and diatonic, have a relationship to that center. A very powerful influence was the contrapuntal structure of the music of Bach.

Some might criticize Hindemith for simply being out of step with the avant-garde movement. Plainly progress demanded a movement away from tonality and traditional counterpoint (or did it?). After the Second World War, the European avant-garde very plainly set out where music should be going and atonal, serial music, particularly that of Anton Webern, was to be the model.

However, things are rarely that simple, especially in the history of aesthetics. There were lots of competing paths. The most challenging one for the young avant-garde was that of Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971) who, except for a few very late pieces, never fell under the spell of serialism. He was one of the main creators of the style known as "neo-classical" in which strong reference was made to the tonal styles of the past. There were also some other composers who seemed to just ignore "systems" of composition entirely, figures like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev in Russia.

Even though Wikipedia describes Hindemith as "among the most significant German composers of his time," his fortunes seem to have fallen considerably in recent decades. We often read articles that purport to "discover" or "re-discover" this or that obscure composer and it is true that composers' fortunes in terms of recognition and performances do often rise after their death. Shostakovich is an excellent example of this. At his death he was regarded in most Western circles as being a hack. When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, the only time he was ever mentioned was in connection with Bartók's satire of him in the Concerto for Orchestra. Now, he is recognized as being one of the great symphonic composers.

This is a case of a composer who simply did not fit into the ideological framework of the aesthetics of his day, (at least in the West) so he was ignored. But now we, with more objective eyes, see the quality of his work. I'm sure there are other composers for whom that is a reasonably accurate account. But it doesn't seem to fit Hindemith. His fortunes are declining instead of mounting. The idea of music based on some kind of extended tonality with counterpoint and the use of folksong is going to fit pretty well with what our current ideology of aesthetics is, after all. So what is the problem with Hindemith? Let's listen to some music. One of his most successful pieces is the symphony based on themes from the opera Mathis der Maler. Here is the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Herbert Blomstedt:

Now there is no denying that is a pretty good piece. But what it is not is spectacularly innovative. You might hate the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, but you can't deny the impact of the novelty of it. And Stravinsky produced many pieces that make a remarkable impression on first hearing: take the Rite of Spring for example. This piece, while solid and workmanlike, seems to lack fizz. If you listen to it next to a symphonic work by Shostakovich, it does not seem to have the same emotional depth. Here, listen to Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, written within three years of Mathis der Mahler:

You might also take note of how very long the Wikipedia article on the Shostakovich symphony is, compared to the brevity of the one on Mathis der Maler. Both articles are linked above.

After the Mathis der Maler symphony, there is not a long list of highly popular individual pieces by Hindemith. He rarely made a "splash". Let's see what YouTube pulls up. Here is the fugue from the Piano Sonata No. 3 played by Glenn Gould:

Again, solid, workmanlike but not terribly interesting. Let's compare it to a fugue by Shostakovich who did a large set in all the keys. Here is one of the shortest, in A major:

Half as long as the Hindemith and, to my mind, twice as charming. This is one of the slightest fugues from the set by Shostakovich. I could have made the point more strongly if I had picked one of the big ones. One very famous piece by Hindemith is his Trauermusik. In 1936, Hindemith was in London when George V passed away. He wrote the Trauermusik in one day and it was performed the next day at the state funeral:

It is a fine and deeply-felt piece. Perhaps we could look again to a piece by Shostakovich for comparison. His String Quartet No. 8 was written in Dresden in 1960 in three days under tremendous emotional stress. Here is a performance of the first part:

Again, I think we can see that Hindemith does not quite measure up to the competition. That may seem a callous judgement, but I think I could go on all day digging up comparisons and it wouldn't change much. Hindemith was a solid, workmanlike, rather dull composer. He is well worth knowing for a few pieces, but equally for what we learn from comparing well-written, though dull, pieces of music to those that are great works of inspiration. What is great music? We can only know that if we are able to compare it to non-great music.

So, any fervent admirers of Hindemith out there who would like to take me to task? The comments are open for your thoughts...

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