Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis

…on themes of Carl Maria von Weber

in an absolutely phenomenal performance by Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony, here, or below by the Royal Concertgebouw under Riccardo Chailly

So again, relative to last week’s sprawling, enormous piece, this 20-ish minute work in four movements seems positively dainty.

I wanted to include it in our list for a few reasons.

For one, Hindemith was (apparently) a frighteningly talented musician (I didn’t know him or anything, but it’s what I’ve heard), and he was just about the only German/Austrian composer beyond Schoenberg’s time that I could write anything about, and it’s because we played a concert band transcription of the final movement of this in high school. It was interesting. So that’s the ‘connection,’ aside perhaps from any influence Schoenberg may have had on Hindemith in the musical scene of the time, I guess.

This piece in high school was kind of the point at which I had two realizations about classical music.

1. Strings are freaking beautiful. I was used to wind band sounds, where a sea of clarinets and flutes and saxophones make up for a lack of violins and violas and cellos, and when I listened to like, film score music, had never given it much thought and assumed those shimmering sounds were just … Synthesized.

I was in a pretty good high school ensemble (one of the best in the country, by some arguably biased accounts), but had very little musical training or exposure, as I’ve said before. So when the REAL version of this piece, with the actual orchestration came along, I was stunned. Blown away by the crispness and clarity of the sound as a whole. It seems like such a simple thing, and it is, but this is, oddly enough, the first time I really fell in love with the symphonic sound.

2. It was the first piece (or movement of a piece) that compelled me to put it in context and listen to the other movements. In the past, I had never been bothered to go and listen to the other movements of Beethoven’s fifth, for example. Wasn’t that cool opening enough? Does anyone need the other 25 minutes? Yes, as it turns out; I just didn’t see the relation. So this was the first time I heard music and wanted to know what the rest of the piece was like and how it was all related. I imagine this is partly because the march is the final movement, not the opening one, and I wanted to know what led up to it, so I checked it out, as above. I don’t even know what (who) the recording was, but it skipped in a few places when I ripped it (that sounds so old-fashioned) to my computer, and I still have those ‘rhythms’ burned into my memory of the piece.

So while the piece isn’t a symphony in the most classical of senses, it fit the mold for me at the time, and felt enough like one (four movements, a slow third one, etc.) that I came to be quite fond of it. I also feel it’s quite a bit more… Traditional, or perhaps less modern than much of his other works. I sat through (or more politely “attended”) a performance of a few of his chamber concertos along with a performance of this work a few years ago… And they did not interest me. But I’m definitely willing to try again.

Anyway, part of that traditionalism may be due to the roots of this piece, its background. Do take note of the “themes of Carl Maria von Weber” bit. It may perhaps be that the piece is more traditional-sounding due to its origins, but I’m not sure. In any case, it’s lovely.
It originated from aspirations of a collaboration between Hindemith and Léonide Massine for a ballet based on Weber’s works, but it was scrapped. Hindemith had prepared the greater portion of the adaptations, and Massine didn’t like them. He also learned, from viewing some of Massine’s work, that he didn’t care for his style either. It seems as if they both realized after much of the heavy lifting was done that they really didn’t want to work with one another, so they didn’t. Hindemith took his music with him and did what he wanted with it, and this piece is the result. Thankfully, it didn’t go to waste. Some of the pieces are apparently not as common as some of Weber’s other works, as is evidenced by my failure to find them on YouTube. They (or some of them) were apparently pieces for piano that Hindemith and his wife were familiar with, the most famous of which (and the only one I could find anything on YouTube for) is the Turandot for the second movement. Wikipedia interestingly states:

The Weber themes are taken from incidental music which Weber wrote for a play by Carlo Gozzi, based on the same Turandot legend, that later inspired Giacomo Puccini and others.

So it kind of sounds like it should be Symphonic Metamorphosis on themes of Carl Maria von Weber on themes of Carlo Gozzi. But that would be a bit much.

The final piece is as follows:
1. Allegro (based on op. 60/4, no. 253 in the Jähns catalog)
2. Scherzo- (based on op. 37, J. 75)
3. Andantino- (based on op. 10/2, J. 82)
4. Marsch- (based on op. 60/7, J. 265)
All of the above music of Weber’s was written in the first decade of the nineteenth century.

The first movement does sound almost marchy from the beginning; it’s crisp and commanding and almost military in its drive. Most of the piece feels this way. It settles in after a while.

The second movement is a fantastic scherzo, ingeniously based on the Turandot, and it too has a driving kind of a pulse that keeps on rolling throughout the entire piece. It’s the longest movement, and one of the most… catchy? It really draws me in. I love it.

In contrast with the two previous pretty crisply and energetic movements, the Andantino is gorgeous. It’s short, so the break from the action isn’t too long, but provides a beautiful kind of nocturnal stillness, a pastoral sort of setting. I hear birds in forest and the like, the moon shining through the trees, crunching leaves, all of it. This is helped by beautiful solo lines in the clarinet and bassoon, and a long and beautiful flute solo.
The fourth movement is the one we played, and the march is wonderful. It’s got a quality that’s kind of looming or ominous. There’s the famous trombone part, and the bassoon is also pretty prominent in this movement, at least to me.

I don’t really want to overanalyze this piece… it’s so short, and it kind of speaks for itself. I’ve mentioned multiple times how it’s ‘traditional’ or ‘not as modern’ relative to his other things, but there are still things in this piece that kind of give it away as quite modern. For one, while the instrumentation is generally rather typical of a late-Romantic style orchestra, much of the orchestration in the actual piece and use of those instruments sounds quite modern. Things like English horn, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, and tuba will tell you it’s likely a more modern piece. They’re not rare instruments; Mahler certainly used most if not all of them, but their greater use is more common in more modern pieces. The other thing, aside from that, is the small army of percussion instruments: timpani, tambourine, glockenspiel, triangle, snare drum, three kinds of cymbals, bass drum, tubular bells (these are quite significant, to me), gong, wood block, and tom-tom. That’s a lot of percussion, and their use in the piece, along with the treatment of the instruments as a whole and as groups, give this entire piece lots and lots of texture. There’s lots of trilling, especially in the woodwinds in the third movement, but throughout the piece you’ll feel that sort of ornate, intricate flittery, buzzy, clinky, busy sound, enough to be noticeable, but not enough to be distracting. The triangle and timpani are especially apparent to me in the fourth movement because I sat in front of them during rehearsals.

The other thing that I’d say makes this piece sound especially 20th century is the harmonies, but I can’t back that up with any examples or evidence. It just sounds that way… to me. Not chromatic or atonal or anything, but it sounds decidedly modern for those reasons.

This seems about as ‘absolute’ a piece of music as you can get. There doesn’t seem to be a program, an underlying concept or story or agenda, just really good, driving, captivating music. It’s also generally, for the most part, I’d say, a bit dark. The overall tone of the piece, even in the peaceful third movement, seems, while not actually eerie, to at least suggest a bit of eeriness. Does that make sense? Even the march, which should be marchy, isn’t as energetic and driving as either of the first two movements to me. There’s something… slithery and kind of almost wicked about it. It sounds borderline exotic. If it were to be used in some Fantasia type animation, I’d picture like, a non-Arabian Jafar conjuring an army of his reptilian minions to do something nefarious. Or something. Maybe.

Anyway, this is the final piece in our nine-week German Symphonies series, even though these last two weren’t symphonies. We only touched on the very beginning of what German/Austrian/Swiss music is about and who brought it to us and how it influenced the world. There’s plenty more to come, but these nine names (well, perhaps with the exception of Woyrsch), are a fantastic place to start (Weingartner being known more for his recordings of the symphonic repertoire than his contributions to it) for some quite representative examples of their era of music. There’s so much more, and that’s what I love about it. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next week for something entirely different!

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