Posts Tagged ‘Hindemith’

Paul Hindemith – Der Schwanendreher (1935)

Sergio Muñoz Leiva will perform Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher with the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra on Friday, 6 February 2015, in the Eastman Theatre at the Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs Street, Rochester, New York 14604.

Paul Hindemith wrote Der Schwanendreher, his third and most popular viola concerto, during a period of political hostility in Germany. He was the object of both open and indirect attacks by the Nazi regime because of his avant-garde style as well as his collaboration with his Jewish colleagues at the Berlin Musikhochschule, where he taught composition. Many of Hindemith’s works were forbidden and musicians feared programming those that were not. For this reason, even though he would not decide to flee from Germany until 1938, most of his musical activity happened in foreign countries.

Hindemith started composing Der Schwanendreher shortly after completing his opera Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter). The opera discusses the theme of the artist’s social responsibility in the face of oppressive politics and power. While the opera reflects Hindemith’s own artistic and political dilemmas under the Nazis, Der Schwanendreher portrays in a less overt, more intimate way the emotions that the composer was experiencing during this time: Feelings of fear, anxiety, and loss, but also hope for a better future and willingness for finding light in the midst of darkness. The concerto was finished on 13 October 1935 in Berlin. It was premiered in Amsterdam on 14 November 1935 by the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Willem Mengelberg and Hindemith himself playing the solo.

Hindemith wrote a programmatic note to the piece: “A minstrel comes to a happy gathering and shares what he has brought from afar: Serious and light-hearted songs, a dance for closing. By his inspiration and skill he extends and embellishes the melodies like a true musician, experimenting and improvising. This medieval picture was the basis for the composition.” Hindemith’s interest for the past is in accordance with his development of a very personal extended sense of tonality within traditional musical forms and techniques. His solo and ensemble writing, for example, are said to have been inspired by the style of J. S. Bach.

The concerto’s unusual name comes from the folk tune that inspired the last movement: Seid ihr nicht der Schwanendreher? In fact, every movement is inspired by one or two medieval German folk tunes, which can be found in Franz Magnus Böhme’s Altdeutsches Liederbuch: Volklieder der Deustchen nach Wort und Weise aus dem 12. bis zum 17. Jahrhundert (Old German Song Book: Folk Songs of the German after Words and Melodies from the 12th to the 17th Century). Hindemith’s interest for folk song stems from his desire for bridging a stronger connection between the composer and the listener by drawing from material that is familiar to everyone.

The first movement uses the tune Zwischen Berg und tiefem Tal (Between Mountain and Deep Valley):

Zwischen Berg und tiefem Tal, Between mountain and deep valley
Da liegt ein’ freie Straßen: There runs an open road:
Wer seinen Buhlen nicht haben mag, He who does not like his sweetheart,
Der muß ihn fahren lassen. Must let it go.

Fahr hin, fahr hin, du hast die Wahl. Away, away, you have the choice.
Ich kann mich dein wohl maßen! I can sense your welfare!
Im Jahr sind noch viel langer Tag, There is many a long day in a year
Glück ist auf allem Gassen. And luck is on every alley.

This movement is in sonata form. The slow introduction starts with a declamation of the main theme by the soloist. This first statement of marked angular contours climbs to high pitch mountains before descending to the deepest registral valleys of the viola and into the march-like entrance of the orchestra, with the folk tune in the horns and trombone. The viola presents the first thematic material of the exposition, which retains the militaristic character of the introduction. After complex yet transparent contrapuntal play between the soloist and the orchestra, the clarinet arrives at the opening melody, which becomes a songful and playful second theme. Throughout the rest of the movement, the folk tune will come back in multiple occasions on different instruments, but never sounded by the soloist. The viola only gets a fragment of the tune at the very end of the movement, in the coda.

The second movement features the tune Nun laube, Lindlein, laube! (Now Shed Your Leaves, Little Linden!) and is the one that discloses Hindemith’s emotional conflict most vividly:

Nun laube, Lindlein, laube! Now shed your leaves, little linden!
Nicht länger ich’s ertrag’: I cannot bear it any longer:
Ich hab’ mein Lieb’ verloren, I have lost my love,
Hab’ gar ein’ traurig’ Tag. I have such a mournful day.

The music is in ABA form. The opening A section is an intimate duet between the soloist and the harp; its swaying sicilienne rhythm creates a lilt that makes this music sound almost like a lullaby. The melancholic folk tune appears as a chorale in the woodwinds, where every phrase is intercepted by recitative-like declamations of the viola. The introspective mood is interrupted by a cheery fugato B section initiated by the bassoon and followed by the rest of the woodwinds. The fugue theme is the tune Der Gutzgauch auf dem Zaune saß (The Cuckoo Sat on the Fence):

Der Gutzgauch auf dem Zaune saß, The cuckoo sat on the fence,
Es regnet sehr und er ward naß. It rained a lot and it got wet.
Guck-guck, guck-guck! Cuckoo, cuckoo!

Darnach da kam der Sonnenschein, Then came the sunshine,
Der Gutzgauch der ward hübsch und fein. So the cuckoo was cute and fine.
Guck-guck, guck-guck! Cuckoo, cuckoo!

Alsdann schwang er sein Gfiedere, Then it swung its wings

Er flog dort hin wohl übern See. And flew away over lake.
Guck-guck, guck-guck! Cuckoo, cuckoo!

This naïve and comical song in contrast with the mournful chorale brings out the absurdity and poignancy of what Hindemith was living in the years leading up to his emigration, as he realizes that he would not be able to survive as an artist in such environment. The lost love is not a romantic partner, but Hindemith’s home country, the German fatherland. The return of the opening material is no longer a duet, as this time Nun laube, Lindlein, laube is heard as a cantus firmus on the horns. This enhances the unity between the outer sections, bringing closure as if the sad cantus firmus had always been there from the beginning.

The last movement is a set of twelve variations on the cheerful tune Seid ihr nicht der Schwanendreher? (Are You Not the Swan Turner?). The swan turner was the person in charge of turning the swan when it was being roasted on a spit.

Seid ihr nicht der Schwanendreher? Are you not the swan turner?
Seid ihr nicht der selbig’ Mann? Are you not the man himself?
So drehet mir den Schwan, Then turn me the swan,
So hab’ ich glauben dran. So that I can believe it.
Und dreht ihr mir den Schwanen nit, And if you do not turn me the swan,
Seid ihr kein Schwanendreher nit. Then you are not the swan turner.
Dreht mir den Schwanen! Turn me the swan!

It is remarkable in how many different ways Hindemith presents the theme. Sometimes it is sounded complete by various combinations of instrumental groups in the orchestra. Other times it is embedded in embellished compound melodies in the solo voice or barely hinted at, as fragments of it get passed between different instrumental groups. The variety of instrumentations, textures, and rhythmic re-interpretations of the theme creates very playful and colorful sonorities. Other than the theme itself, what seems to holds the movement together is its light-hearted character. Although, as the variations progress and the mood gets tenser, it is not clear if we are going to get to a happy ending. By the last variation, the enraged viola makes it hard to remember the happy-go-lucky tune in its original form. But the very last utterance of the orchestra brings everything to a sudden, simplistic, unison C major close. Was all of this just a joke?

Sergio Muñoz