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Thoughts on Hindemith’s Viola Sonata, op. 11, no. 4, by Rebecca Gu et al.

Practicing the first page of Hindemith Op. 11, No. 4 by Rebecca Gu

Right now Ivo is having me do a lot of left-hand framing work, both in terms of my execution and mental approach. As my left-hand technique gets better, I notice that I’m able to conceptualize longer and longer chunks of notes as a perceivable unit. Beyond going for better musical flow, I’ve been trying to make use of this “reframing” as a means of efficiently choosing note groupings for technical practice. Here are a few thoughts on practicing the first page of Op. 11, No.4, as an example.

Structurally, I see this page as one long introduction, phrase, and cadenza (longer than the phrase itself); the three sections connected by the plaintive three-note opening motive.  But technically, the most difficult spots for me are some unconnected segments within these sections.

One such segment is measure four:

1031a Hindemith m4

I practice by finding the two hand frames necessary to play it (1st and 5th positions), then the transition between them (shifting on the A-sharp on the D string), as well as the transition into and out of the bar. Then I set a drone on F-sharp and practice at an extremely slow tempo, note by note, with rests in between. While playing the F-sharp, I sing the next note, A-sharp, out loud so that the feeling of an in-tune A-sharp is clear and memorable in my ears and body. Then I play A-sharp, gauging whether it’s in tune, too sharp, or too flat; if it’s out of tune, I decide how far sharp or flat and go back to the F-sharp and try again, until I’ve practiced it more times correctly than not (an Ivo tip). Playing the A-sharp now absolutely in tune, I sing the next note, C-sharp, and repeat the process, until the whole measure is in tune. Depending on my mood, I try some variation of putting it together—either removing the rests or speeding up the tempo with rests, or using a different drone.

Another spot that I find extremely difficult for intonation is near the end of the cadenza, particularly the stretch of the repeated D–G fourths on the C string. Though I perceive the cadenza as one unit musically, I think of it as having two technical units for practicing.

1031b Hindemith cadenza

At the beginning of the cadenza, my thumb is higher/closer to the fourth finger, because this allows my hand to stay more relaxed without sacrificing clarity in the fast run. Near the end, though, my thumb goes slightly under and back, so that the fourth between D and G can be in tune, even though this does not feel comfortable. To save time, I don’t practice these two sections together, except when I am practicing playing through larger chunks.

Those are just a few ideas. I am still working on finding efficient practice techniques, so I would be very grateful for your input!

Hindemith Op. 11, No. 4 by Marie-Elyse Badeau

Even with the four of us playing the same piece in the same studio, I can’t help but love this sonata and enjoy it each and every time it’s performed. I think, however, that the most difficult part when starting a piece that has been played (and heard) over and over again is to find a way to come back to the basics; in other words, what is written on the part. After hearing so many recordings and live performances of Hindemith’s 11/4, a sort of “tradition” of playing becomes part of your mind, and that “pre-learning” is often far from being accurate. I recently decided to go back to the simplest rhythm-intonation-sound practice in Hindemith’s sonata in order to better understand what to do with the music and feel free within its frame, while being meticulous with the composer’s writing. I feel that when practicing the sonata, I need to constantly tell myself to find my own way: my personal interpretation of that piece that everyone knows. I need to renew it from a different perspective and create an interpretation that would be mine, without all the preconceptions that I carry from my multiple hearings of it. It is a challenge for me to achieve that on top of all the obvious technical difficulties, but I know it will greatly benefit the piece as well as my approach to learning and playing music. I can’t wait to perform it!!

Hindemith Op. 11, No. 4 by Jill Valentine

Hindemith has been my favorite composer to listen to and to play for a long time, and it’s exciting to finally work on this, one of my favorites of his works. 11/4 is so compelling to me because of the balance Hindemith achieves between classical form, folk nostalgia, and modern harmony. Granted, Neoclassicism is what he is known for in all his compositions, but 11/4 in particular is so . . . well . . . beautiful. Compared to his other solo viola works, this earlier composition is still very connected to the conventional harmony of the previous age, and audiences tend to enjoy it very much. That said, 11/4 requires a conscious effort to phrase and emote in a more Romantic manner, but translating Hindemith’s melodic and harmonic language can be difficult. Finding a balance between the two makes 11/4 more difficult for me to play than most of his other solo viola works, even though technically the others are “harder.” Some of the louder, stronger variations in the second and third movements tend to be on the harsh side for me if I’m not careful to think of long phrases, sustained bow distribution, and vibrating consistently. The more tender variations, by contrast, risk sounding too weak by comparison and still need that very German, Hindemith-ish sense of presence. Overall my goal is to make the phrases as long and Romantic as I can, despite the curious harmonies and changing of characters. I think any character can be romanticized, especially in this masterpiece where Romanticism and Modern meet halfway.

Hindemith Op. 11, No. 4 By Meredith Kufchak

This sonata is so beautifully melodic and lyrical. One of my favorite parts of the piece is the theme at the beginning of the second movement, because the melody itself is so simple, but incredibly beautiful when played with the wonderful harmonies in the piano. It’s really interesting how each of the variations in the second and third movements has its own distinct character. The performer must be sure to take all the different sections and characters into account and make them relate to each other and form one cohesive work. Another aspect that I really like about this piece is that much of the second and third movements lack a consistent meter. When a composer isn’t catering to a specific meter, it gives him or her much more freedom, and the listener hears the larger phrases instead of primarily hearing the meter. Because the sonata is so melodic and lyrical, I like to think of taking the necessity to change bow out of the equation and think how the larger phrases would sound if we never ran out of bow or had to change our bow direction.

One thing that I find difficult about this sonata is the range of loud dynamics. This piece has a dynamic marking of fff several times, and at the very end reaches ffff. When we see a passage marked forte we think that we should play loud, but in this piece, forte is right around the middle of the piece’s dynamic range from pp to ffff. Because this piece has such loud moments, I also find it difficult for the middle register of my viola to project enough.

This sonata is one of Hindemith’s earlier viola works. I’ve played a few other Hindemith pieces, such as his solo sonata, op. 25, no. 1 and Der Schwanendreher. This sonata in comparison with some of his later works is more tonal sounding, with fewer dissonant chords. There is also much more of a focus on the melodic aspects of the piece, whereas Op. 25, No. 1, for example, has more of a focus on short motivic ideas and rhythmic aspects and is much more chromatic. One similarity between the two sonatas is that Op. 25, No. 1 also lacks consistent meters, making the phrases a little more ambiguous to the listener.


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