Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Semester of Hindemith: A Bit of Musical Immersion

I just listened to 8 minutes of Hindemith concert music...and survived.

Joking aside, though, I really like Paul Hindemith's music, and I have no idea why. I started studying his Sonate for clarinet and piano at the end of summer 2009, and took to it immediately. It wasn't until the end of September when I played it in a master class that I realized, oh, most people don't think this music sounds normal. And upon closer examination, it made sense that people thought it was weird- harmony  based around 4th, 5th, and 2nds, metric dissonance everywhere. The melodies, in a sense, were notes placed with gaping holes in the middle; classically, not melodic at all. But for whatever reason, I plowed on with learning it, playing the first movement for my jury and deciding I'd also play it for music department's annual scholarship competition the next semester.

About halfway through that winter's break, I decided I needed a new challenge for the first movement, so I set forth to memorize it. It was, oddly, one of the easiest things I've memorized. I rewrote the whole thing by hand, memorizing it in chunks and phrases. I played the Hindemith and the Adagio from Mozart's clarinet concerto for the competition that February.(FYI, not perfect enough to win, but having the music memorized definitely won some points since, at least around here, that's not usually expected of instrumentalists.)

The semester went on; I enlisted our staff accompanist to play the second movement of the Hindemith for our department recital hour. I hinted that he might enjoy playing it, he hinted that "Hindemith never was my favorite composer." Touché. (I should add that for the first movement, my accompanist was Dr. Maria Corley, who is a lovely person and extremely talented musician.) That performance went well, but I was by no means done with Hindemith yet.

At this point, in March and April 2010, I was deep into learning the rest of the Hindemith sonata for my junior recital, which made it the perfect material for.....a music history paper. For the second semester of history, our papers were to be analysis-based, so I decided to compare and discuss Hindemith's pre-WWII sonata versus his post-WWII clarinet concerto. This led me to some extremely interesting music history books, my favorite of which being the Selected Letters of Paul Hindemith, edited and translated by Geoffrey Skelton. Up until that point, I had only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of Hindemith's compositional rebellion, finding things like his protest of the twelve-tone row.(He wrote 11- and 13-tone rows, apparently just to be a jerk.) When I started reading the letters, I realized, wow, Paul Hindemith really was incredibly brilliant, and most of all, gloriously snarky.

For example:
June 1917- age 21:
"The trouble with our music is that it lacks music! And all I want to do is make music. I don't care a damn if people like it or not- as long as it's genuine and true."
Sure, a little lofty, but Mr. Hindemith was generally very true to his music. Earlier in the letter he denounced writing in 'old' forms just for the sake of using them, saying that if his work happened to come out that way, great. If not, bugger off.

November 1917:
"My present great ambition is to write [a piece of music] consisting of just three bars, theme, development, coda. Conciseness is the sign of the master!" Oh, Paul Hindemith. Hyperbolic to the extreme.

Another favorite of mine, more of a story than a quote, came from an incident when Hindemith faked a letter to the people behind the now-infamous "Muzak"(heard in elevators everywhere), saying that there was an opportunity for an agreement to broadcast Muzak to America via a Trans-Atlantic cable. Hindemith figured they'd catch the joke right away, but it turned out the Muzak corporation had received his 'proposal' in the middle of real talks with their directors about an English project, adding "added strength to their grandiose plans", as PH said.

In a related letter, he proposed that Muzak be broadcast to/through the deep-sea fish that have the little lanterns, so that they didn't miss out on the glory of Muzak. Completely tongue-in-cheek, he wrote, "As far as all other living creatures down below are concerned, it can doubtless be assumed that, for purposes of musical training, they have at their disposal pianos and other musical instruments from sunken vessels." Since, after all, no one had actually been down there. Ridiculous, but fantastic.

Hindemith also never hesitated to comment on his fellow composers:
- He called Stravinsky's Jeu de Cartes "very clear and simple." But not simple in the sense of an idea being brought to its clearest and best expression, but rather that of just plain simplistic music. "If Igor considers the Schwanendreher[one of Hindemith's major works for viola] important, I fear I can't say the same about his new piece." I particularly liked his thoughts on this, because the first time I heard Jeu de Cartes on the radio, I was playing the "identify-this-piece" game, and thought, hmm, this sounds like Stravinsky, but it sounds way too happy. It was fun to find out I was right, and later to find that I wasn't alone in that thought.

Later, Hindemith commented on Stravinsky's conducting, which I've heard to be questionable, but this sealed the deal- "Igor is a truly mediocre conductor and cunningly avoids any step in the direction of free and spontaneous music making." Ouch.

PH and wife Gertrud, New Haven, CT
Hindemith was quite a character. I understand that he played, or at least attempted, to play pretty much everything he wrote, and was on a mission to write a sonata for every standard instrument. Finally, I give you this picture, also from the Letters book:

Isn't it the most ridiculously charming thing ever? It makes me want to grow old and sit in my living room, playing and writing music all day. I believe that's an alto horn that he's playing.

My semester of Hindemith culminated with the performance of the complete Sonate at my junior recital, an A on my paper, and the eventual finishing of the Selected Letters on my own time. Since then, Mr. Hindemith and I have been on an extended hiatus.

[Tune in next time for "Fall 2010: The Semester of Milhaud":-P Only sort of kidding.]

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