Hindemith Violin Sonata in E flat, op. 11, no. 1

performed by Oleg Kagan & Sviatoslav Richter, or below by David Oistrakh and
Vladimir Yampolski

(cover image by Sergei Akulich)

As you may have read from this past weekend’s article on Hindemith’s early first (posthumously published) string quartet, its composition straddled the First World War, and he was rushed to complete it for a performance organized by his composition teacher, so the third and fourth movements together are about the length of the second movement, still shorter than the first.

Today’s work is the first installment of his op. 11, which was a set of six sonatas for stringed instruments. The works date from 1918, by which time the composer was already serving in the German army. In Malcolm MacDonald’s notes for Hyperion, he states that this move to publish a bundle of works together was odd for the time, as it goes against the Romantic idea of individual large-scale works standing on their own. Indeed, six works being published together does remind us of Haydn or Beethoven and some of the earlier ‘sets’ of compositions. Speaking of the op. 11 as a whole, Macdonald says:

Collectively these sonatas are a fascinating crop of works that seem to chronicle the transition from the familiar sounds of late nineteenth-century Romantic music to something at once spicier and more objective.

MacDonald mentions a performance of the work at “the first-ever concert devoted entirely to Hindemith’s music,” where he acted as soloist. This took place on June 2, 1919, and I’m not sure if it was indeed the premiere or not. In either case, the concert must have been a success, because it led to his lifelong relationship with music publisher Schott, the folks who didn’t publish the op. 2 string quartet.

This sonata comes in at less than ten minutes and is in only two movements. MacDonald says there was originally a third planned, but Hindemith felt satisfied enough with the two that he already had and left it as is.

For a ‘small’ work, we’ll see it packs quite a punch, beginning with this entrance. The piece opens with a commanding fanfare-like proclamation from piano, and the violin follows suit. This is repeated once more in the introduction. It seems to provide the material for the rest of the movement, even if the spirit is entirely different. In such a small movement, we can’t go very far, so Hindemith makes superb use of the material that’s already here.

I almost expect not a sonata form, but rather a short movement bookended by the fanfare statement at either end. The center of the movement is punctuated by a powerful climactic passage, and while we might expect the movement to cool off in a sort of ternary form, the energy from the climax holds through almost to the end, briefly revisiting the sweet softer passage we heard at the beginning. So in the end, it seems like some kind of a truncated, compressed sonata form, maybe. Whatever label you want to give it, it’s an effective, compact movement that’s easy to follow and appreciate.

In contrast with the almost heroic nature of the beginning of the previous movement, we’re in a sort of unsure, eerie quiet world in the slightly longer second. It’s harmonically unstable, with piano eking out ghostly sounds from behind the violin’s almost plaintive singing. It’s as if it wants to become a waltz of some kind, but can’t. The piano part is almost enough to induce chills at times, and this calls to mind something like late Shostakovich in its near-desolate sound in passages. There’s a central climax that almost reaches the height of a mini-cadenza in this mini-sonata, but there’s quite a bit to learn here.

For one, its small stature doesn’t mean it doesn’t have plenty of impact. It’s quite a powerful work, with those two juxtaposed movements, one of an almost crazed triumphant pride, and the second an eerie, almost haunted waltz. Had that second movement ended differently, or had there been a third to round it all out, the result would have been very different, but left with the quiet, open-ended statement of the second movement, it’s quite a dark, eerie work, a strong juxtaposition.

In fact, there’s quite something to be said for working with such little material, in such a small space, and leaving such an impression. It makes for a really concentrated work, one which, when it’s over, you might want to go back and try again, because there’s deceptively more to it than you may think.

Thankfully, though, we’re not done with Hindemith yet. We still have a cello sonata of his to discuss, and it’s the third in the op. 11 set, so do stay tuned for that. Give this work another listen and see if it doesn’t really make an impression on you! Thanks so much for reading.

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