Hindemith String Quartet no. 1 in C, op. 2

performed by the Amar Quartet, or below by the Danish String Quartet

(cover image by Annie Sprat)

Paul Hindemith’s first string quartet wasn’t recognized as such until recently. In Stephen Luttman’s book Paul Hindemith: a Guide to Research, he makes a note to this effect when speaking of the string quartets. He says:

Hindemith wrote seven string quartets; Schott published all but this first one. The traditional numbering, with op. 10 as the first quartet, is Schott’s; throughout his lifetime and with a high degree of consistency, Hindemith numbered the op. 2 quartet as his first, and the remaining six as numbers 2 through 7… Since the early 1990s, all Schott printings of the quartets make use of Hindemith’s own numbering.

Well that’s interesting, isn’t it? At some point somewhere along the line (years ago), I had borrowed or streamed a set of the composer’s quartets, and the “String Quartet no. 1 in Fm, op. 10” was listed as part of the recording. A search online did reveal some information about this C major quartet and I was quite perplexed, thinking Hindemith isn’t an obscure composer, nor is he so removed from our time that we should still be finding scores and updating his catalogue, but apparently the work was never published in his lifetime. So remember, kids, old recordings may not have the quartets numbered correctly.

The first movement was completed just before the outbreak of the First World War, and not continued until the spring of 1915, whence the source of the second movement we shall discuss shortly. The work was programmed by Hindemith’s composition teacher for a concert at the Hoch Conservatory, and it was likely this pressure that pushed him to complete it as quickly as he did, for the premiere on April 26, 1915, with the composer playing first violin. I would also guess that this is the reason the last two movements are significantly shorter than the first two.

(It seems the info for the above video comes from the program notes to the Danish String Quartet release. I have found the same content reproduced elsewhere, but have found no author or attribution. Shame. I’ll still be using it as a reference because it’s the only resource I can find for this work. The above history for the work comes from there, as does some of the description below, at least what I could also see for my own two eyes from a borrowed score.)

The work is in four movements and lasts around 40 minutes, give or take, so it’s not a diminutive work by any means. The movements are labeled as such:

  1. Sehr lebhaft
  2. Adagio
  3. Scherzo
  4. Ziemlich lebhaft

More on the Amar Quartet for a moment, though. Hindemith founded the Amar Quartet in 1921, and their Wikipedia page tells us they were quite a performing force. Hindemith’s third quartet had been accepted for performance by the Havemann Quartet at the 1921 Donaueschingen Festival, but Havemann eventually refused to perform the the work (some sources cite its difficulty as the reason). So Hindemith picked his brother (dedicatee of the piece) as cello; he himself played viola, and he was able to pick out Licco Amar, former concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic as first violin. The quartet was named after him and in less than a decade of their existence, they were said to have given 500 concerts. They disbanded in either 1929 or 1932, depending on what source you read.

But if you look at Naxos offerings, you’ll see the Amar Quartet has recorded a cycle of the composers quartets and it certainly doesn’t sound like 85 year old technology. In 1995, an ensemble in Zürich adopted the name, for Hindemith’s centennial, and it is they who recorded the cycle, and the recording I listened to. They also have a beautiful homepage.

But back to the first quartet.

From the opening, really, there’s nothing that jumps out as terribly wild. Think of what Schoenberg had done in the string quartet genre by this time. In that context, the first quartet is still very Romantic in nature, although we can hear that it’s no 19th century work. Some of the opening evokes thoughts of Dvorak.

The lengthy first movement is the longest of the four, and shows quite some talent in the content it presents. There’s a pretty clear repeat of the exposition, and some interesting tonal ground covered, with the first and second subjects in C and G, respectively. While this is obviously nothing of the harmonic vocabulary of later Hindemith, there’s a certain… what I can only describe as fragrance, or color, to the sound, something like very late Brahms, in a more free, liberal way. There will be much more of that later, in that specific sound of Hindemith’s. Overall, we have a large sonata form movement, with a nicely crafted first theme, and a sweet, delicate second subject. It seems the young composer had great ambitions with this work, but as I mentioned, it seems that changed. His skill as a composer is already undeniable.

The second movement is instantly different from the warm vividness of the first movement, and the background of the work gives us some insight into why. Although not being conscripted into the German army until 1917, the outbreak of The Great War must have had an effect on him. It’s droning, mournful, breathtakingly beautiful, but almost static, and I am instantly surprised that something that begins this way isn’t as well known as Barber’s famous adagio. Those mysterious program notes describe this as having “the character of a three-part funeral march.” This first theme isn’t necessarily march-ish, but it’s plenty mournful.

Only a bit shorter than the previous movement, this one has plenty of its own material, making up a sort of compound ternary form. The subsequent sections may not be as full of pure sorrow and despair, but they’re not very far removed, like sitting outside in a car at the curb while the funeral continues inside. The sorrow swells and recedes as we move through the sections, with plaintive solos from various members of the ensemble, with the centermost passage being perhaps the brightest, most optimistically sentimental. It’s a good thing the content is so engaging, because we are reminded here that this is certainly one of the most straightforward forms in all of classical music.

The scherzo contrasts with the second movement in many ways. Not only is it bustling with a subtle busy energy, it’s the first of the movements so far that’s this chromatic. This movement is only about half the length of the previous movement (again, I submit that this is because the composer was pressed for time to complete the piece), but it’s full of differences, not only for its chromatic nature but also the sudden burst of texture in the constant trills in the writing. It never really explodes to life, but remains at a constant muffled buzz of activity. In contrast, the trios are quieter, even almost somber, to balance out the busyness of this movement, but listen for great harmony and texture.

The finale is marked ‘Ziemlich lebhaft’, or ‘quite lively, but this lively is different from the scherzo. It’s lively, not busy, but also light, at least for the opening, but I get the slight impression that the composer might be rushing against a clock, trying to get all of his originally-planned content into a compressed space. It seems to be a rondo,, and the content is wonderful, but feels a little cramped. He even manages to quote previously-heard material. The first movement seemed especially broad in scope, but maybe the finale could benefit from a bit of that breathing room. It is, as all movements have been, very charming music, but it’s a shame we’re ripping through it in only six minutes.

Next week, we’ll see some more early music from Hindemith, and something that we got a glimpse of here becomes far more prominent: reaction to the War. Stay tuned for that and more, and thanks for reading.

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