Interpreting Their Own Works – Paul Hindemith

Over the 20th century musical identities split and departed, creating new separated species of artists: the composer and the interpreter. A process of specialisation divided music-making between different people: a composer writes and an instrumentalist plays. This series focuses on several exceptions in the 20th century: composers who played and performed their own music.


Part 4: Paul Hindemith

The German composer and violist, who in the crucial year of 1938 decided to emigrate from his beloved country, because his music did not fit into the solemnly conservative post-Wagnerian concept of German Art as defined by the Nazis, and was placed on the infamous list of entartete Kunst (German for: Degenerated Art).

After a late romantic period in his early writings, he began in the 1920´s to break the musical conventions of that time (even daring to touch the sacredness of Tristan, with his parody Nusch-Nuschi) and to experiment with all kinds of modern influences, such as Jazz and electronic music, threading it with his own expressionistic style. All of which, gave him the reputation of a radical avantgardist with a rather provocative sense of humour. Hitler never forgave him this enfant terribleyears, which finally resulted in a complete ban of any performance of his compositions within Nazi Germany since 1935. Although at that time he had already turned toward a more classical path, led from Reger and Bach. This late style is characterised by a contrapuntal mastership, a clear formality, a bold and free harmony (though still related to a tonal center) and the occasional paraphrasing of themes by other composers or folk melodies.

Hindemith was a matter-of-fact type of person. With his rather coarse sense of humour, he enjoyed caricaturing everything and everybody around him, including himself, as seen not only through his music, but also through the letters he wrote and the many cartoons he drew. Once he was asked by a student: “Do you never act out of ecstasy?”. His ironic answer was: “I do not even think about it.”.

The famous 4th movement from the Viola Sonata, op. 25 no.1 is titled: Rasendes Zeitmaß. Wild. Tonschönheit ist Nebensache (German for: Racing Tempo. Wild. Tone-quality is secondary). Often used as a thrilling encore, this movement is usually played as fast and virtuous as possible. Though in his own recording of the piece, Hindemith denies all tempo and character markings: a freedom only the composer of the piece might allow himself?

Hindemith was a universal musician. Educated mainly in violin and composition (Bernhard Sekles and Arnold Mendelssohn), he was also interested in all other orchestral instruments and could play them quite decently – an example of his curiosity for various art disciplines, which knew no borders whatsoever. He became the youngest concertmaster ever to lead the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra at the age of 20. Later (1922) he founded the Amar String Quartet, where he played his most loved instrument: the viola.
The quartet had its emphasis on contemporary music (Bartók, Hába, Schönberg etc. as well as his own works), touring throughout Europe. They gave about 130 concerts a year – an unimaginable number for that time.
In fact, chamber music was the very essence of his musical world – as a player and as a composer. He had no fear to play with anybody crossing his way: from school kids to his students, to the greatest virtuosos of his time, such as: Feuermann, Goldberg and Huberman.
Unlike most of his famous violin colleagues, his playing can be described as rather sober and plain. He rarely uses portamento or rubato and resigns all hints of superficial sentimentalism. This sits well with his composition language, often named Neue Sachlichkeit (German for: New Objectivity), and expresses his idea of the role of the interpreter: a servant of the music – rather than the other way around. He believed, that when interpreting a piece of music, one should aim for objectivity rather than for an expression of one’s individual character or fillings. Although his technical skills could probably not compete with the virtuosos of his time, there is a unique transcendent simplicity and truthfulness in his tone, which leaves a long lasting impression on the listener.

Undisputed is his contribution to the viola repertoire. Through the many viola pieces which he wrote and with his high level of viola playing, he brought a flourishing renaissance for an instrument which since 100 years was rarely given solo parts. From that time on it became an important solo instrument for many composers, such as: Bartók, Britten, Shostakovich, Schnittke, Penderecki and many others.

Could it be that Hindemith, who knew the entire train schedule of Europe by heart, also didn´t need any music for this piece? [Chamber music session in Vienna, with Huberman, Casals and Schnabel]