Thoughts on Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher

By Marie-Elyse Badeau

Though condemned by the Nazi party, or maybe because of that very fact, Paul Hindemith’s music participated greatly in the great changes happening in arts during the twentieth century. His numerous pedagogical and theoretical writings contributed to a new form of music practice and accompanied more than one musician’s path to professional life. Hindemith’s compositions hold an important place in many instruments’ repertoire, and the viola, which he used to play as a soloist, particularly benefited from his attention as a composer. It is for his great contribution to the repertoire of my instrument and his diversity as a composer that Hindemith stands by far as one of my favorite composers. For these same reasons, I chose to introduce his famous concerto for viola and orchestra, Der Schwanendreher, especially the first movement, as a blog post from the studio.

First, because I think it is essential for a musician to know the background of a composer, let me talk about Hindemith himself. Born in Hanau, Germany, in 1895, Hindemith began his musical apprenticeship at an early age on the violin. His immense talent earned him a full scholarship to the Hochschule in Frankfurt. Later, he worked as concertmaster of the opera of Frankfurt and founded with his brother the Amar quartet. In this quartet, Hindemith initiated himself to the position and sound of the viola, the instrument that would make him known as an international soloist later on. After fleeing Germany during World War II, Hindemith returned to his native country, dying there in December 1963, after a life full of playing, writing, composing and conducting.

As for his compositional style, though he was never tempted by his contemporaries’ technique of serialism, Hindemith is nonetheless a modern and “anti-Romantic” composer. In all his compositions, counterpoint and structural identity are his signature as well as clear, diatonic melodies accompanied by progressions of chords beyond the realm of common-practice era harmonies. In fact, the German composer is more inspired by the compositional techniques of the Baroque era than the Classical, though Hindemith still features some neo-classical aspects in his music. Rhythmic energy is also characteristic of Hindemith’s music. It represents the industrial era in which Hindemith lived and is often called Motorik, in reference to the sound of the new motors invading the new century. Like these motors, the rhythms in Hindemith’s music are percussive and repetitive, like an obsessive ostinato. In spite of their many dissonances, his compositions stay tonal and tend to develop more and more little motives.

Der Schwanendreher: The Concerto

The title of this famous concerto may seem weird at first. “The swan turner” is in fact the title of a song from a German songbook published by Franz Böhme in 1877: Altdeutsches Liederbuch. A swan turner was, as well, a profession of the Middle Ages that is depicted in the original edition of the concerto in an illustration, or it can also refer to minstrels. The work has three movements, each of them introducing the listener to one or more songs from Böhme’s songbook. It is also the reason Der Schwanendreher earned the nickname of Concerto on Old Folk Songs over the years. Hindemith links altogether the songs by writing an underlined story or poem in the preface of the concerto:

A musician comes among merry company and performs the music he has brought with him from afar: songs grave and gay and at the end a dance. According to his ability and inspiration he expands and embellishes the tunes, preludes, and fantasizes, like a true musician.

The first movement of the concerto, “Tween Mountains and Deep Valley,” is a real masterpiece of counterpoint. It starts with a solo for the viola as a colorful prelude that represents well a wandering minstrel starting a show for his/her audience. The prelude, however majestic and deeply emotional, is also probably a violist’s worst nightmare. The most important things to remember when you practice it for an audition are how you want the jury or the audience to remember your playing and how the actual writing, and the respect of it, can help you achieve what you want. As I already said, Hindemith takes rhythm seriously, and I find, personally, that some players tend to change or “ornament” it too much. If the rhythm is played exactly, one will notice how the energy is still driving and how the different articulations written are contrasting with each other. Also, it definitely proves to everyone that good rhythm goes along with great musicality. The sound is also very important. One should play the prelude as if starting a really long story that will bring the audience all over the world together before it ends and draw the attention of everyone inward. It is important to remember that the orchestration of the concerto is slightly unstandard as well. In Der Schwanendreher, Hindemith eliminates the violin and viola sections of the orchestra, which leaves only cellos and basses to the ensemble. The heavy combination of the low strings, woodwinds, and brass sections makes the viola hard to be heard throughout the piece. Therefore, articulation and focus in your sound are keys to make yourself heard as well as keeping your energy going for the next thirty minutes. For musical ideas, I always think about playing Hindemith the same as I would play Bach. The themes have to be clear, and the progressions, or sequences, made obvious for the listener. Finally, the first chord is a problem for most of us. Starting with an octave in tune as a first note can be dreadful, but as my teachers told me (and I write it to remember it myself), your fingers know where to play, and you should trust them enough to quiet the urge to prepare your octave ages before. Just play it when it is time, it is usually way more in tune and ringing that way 🙂

I really hope my little talk about Hindemith and the first movement of his concerto can help you understand more the motivation behind the piece and give you a guide for what to listen to in any of Hindemith’s compositions. If you want to learn more about the other movements, I encourage you to read this article by Libror Ondras on the JavsOnline!

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