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CD Review

Paul Hindemith

Choral Music

  • Mass
  • Excerpts from 12 Madrigals
  • Six Songs on Old Texts, Op. 33
Danish National Radio Choir/Uwe Gronostay
Chandos CHAN9413
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Beatific Mass; variable on the rest.

Paul Hindemith died, I believe, a very unhappy man. A leader who needed followers, he found himself officially honored but isolated, cut out of serious discussions of modern music, which at the time of his death meant the Schoenbergian line, particularly those composers who took off from Webern. To some extent, he had set himself up, becoming, in effect, the Anti-Schoenberg in various philosophic and polemical writings. He wound up in a kind of gap of neglect: the bright young things (no real modern music other than a rarified sliver of the spectrum) dismissed him as reactionary, while the mossbacks (no real music after Mahler) found him as bewildering and as "intellectual" - in its polemical, derogatory sense - as Babbitt. He had two genuinely popular successes: the Symphony "Mathis der Maler" and the Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. They remain really his only repertory works - a shame, because he wrote a lot more pieces worthy of discovery, including major concerti for violin, cello, viola, clarinet, French horn, operas, song cycles, and at least one sonata for almost every instrument in the orchestra. He wrote for all levels of skill, from amateur to virtuoso. The high workmanship of all of it to me argues for its endurance, but anticipating posterity becomes a sucker's game.

Hindemith's opposition to Schoenberg and vice versa seemed to me rather misguided. The two shared more than either admitted. Indeed, the late works of both sound remarkably alike. Beyond that, both were largely self-taught and the architects of their own theoretical and pedagogical systems. I don't, by the way, believe those facts coincidental. There's no room for more than one musical Moses at a time. Hindemith's influence peaked in the 1930s, mostly in the United States - touching such figures as Dello Joio, Bernstein (in his early work), the British Arnold Cooke and Franz Reizenstein, and Lukas Foss. Even here, most composers tonally inclined gravitated toward Stravinsky, rather than Hindemith. But we're talking of careers now, not music, and music is what ultimately counts.

I've written elsewhere that of the five major figures of Modernism - Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Webern, and Hindemith - one could make a case that Hindemith was by far the most intellectually formidable. His interests ranged widely, beyond music, into history and philosophy. His theoretical writings bristle with both erudition and demanding logic. Schoenberg and Stravinsky look positively intuitive beside him, Bartók a singer, and Webern a mystic. The music to a great extent reflects the subtleties of Hindemith's mind: jaw-dropping counterpoint, an almost sensual architecture, and a modern nostalgia for the distant past. Someone once said of the poet Ezra Pound that he wrote as if Shakespeare had never existed. Hindemith writes as if Beethoven and the entire Romantic era had never happened. Bach and the Flemish composers of the Renaissance seem his musical ideal. The language is classic Modern – streamlined, beautiful as a Brancusi, and largely his invention - but the artistic stance hearkens back a couple of centuries. The intellect is there, but it nearly always serves an almost mystical purpose - to celebrate creation and the idea of order, indeed to bring order out of apparent chaos. It doesn't really surprise me that the poet Rilke attracted Hindemith most strongly. I believe it a mistake to regard Hindemith the way his antagonists would have us see him - a kind of musical Mr. Gradgrind, turning music into classroom lectures. Hindemith's music has both power and poetry, a bit like a cathedral or even a Feininger painting. He can make the forms themselves beautiful and moving. He lacks only a sense of drama, despite the operas he wrote. In fact, they remind me most strongly of Schoenberg's dramatic works, playing out the conflict not of characters but of ideas - like a medieval morality play. In his purely instrumental works, one most often is aware of a powerful balance, rather than a struggle. I believe this trait led Robert Layton to label Hindemith's symphonies as non-symphonies. They certainly represent a departure from both the Classical and Romantic forms in that they eschew drama. The progress is not that of a battle but of a cathedral rising out of the mist. An extensive catalogue of great work awaits revival.

Hindemith wrote choral music throughout his career - a cappella motets and Lieder to oratorios. He intended some for amateurs and school groups, others for professionals. The works here fall into the latter category. They pose massive pitch and ensemble problems, and since I've sung both the Mass and the 12 Madrigals, I speak from first-hand experience. The Mass was, I believe, Hindemith's last completed work. The 12 Madrigals come from the late 1950s. You would call neither one warm and fuzzy. The madrigals in particular seem so private (with very pessimistic texts) and the idiom so austere, one feels as though one listens to the composer talking to himself.

Frankly, I never thought to hear a choir good enough to master these works, the performance obstacles being so high. The Danish Radio Choir - one of the world's great chamber choirs - just sail through. They've raised my expectations for these two works. Just getting the notes and keeping everything in tune constitute a major achievement. The wicked slides Hindemith calls for in the opening of the Credo they handle as if no big deal. Yet the choir actually makes real music. They've taught me something about how the pieces "work" that I didn't know before.

The Danish Radio Choir consists of professionals with long experience in taming difficult choral music, especially the wild beasts of contemporary choral music. One expects them to at least come within shouting distance of the notes. Credit, however, must go to Gronostay for his – I would say clairvoyant - understanding of the music and for his ability to get the choir to communicate it. This becomes clear from the opening phrase of the Kyrie, sung by the solo choral sopranos, which floats like plainchant in a church. It's still not music that cuddles up to you. It has the beauty, coolness, and hardness of stone. Counterpoint is Hindemith's chief tool. It's not always the standard imitative counterpoint of canon and fugue. Hindemith uses it most often to generate kinetic excitement and interest through cross-rhythms. At its best, Hindemith's counterpoint dances. In the Kyrie, for example, the three upper voices begin in three different rhythms with different thematic material. Imitation comes into the texture, but the drive behind the music is a lilting triple-time rhythm. If I were to quibble, I'd ask for sharper diction, crisper consonants, but this seems to me less important than the overall flow of each movement, particularly in the long Gloria and Credo. Gronostay definitely gets you from here to there every time.

If the performance problems of the Mass are technical (trying to keep in tune) "architectural" (trying to convey the coherence of the whole), those of the 12 Madrigals are technical and interpretive. Weinheber's poems - to me, at any rate - constitute rough going, grammar and meaning both. When you do figure out what they mean, they depress the hell out of you. Life bites and death is the great deliverer from daily suffering. Weinheber's suicide in the 1940s probably didn't surprise too many people. Hindemith manages to find humor, grace, and strength in these downers. "To a Butterfly" (An einen Schmetterling) flits lightly. "Magic Recipe" (Magisches Rezept) has a swing akin to Gounod's "Funeral March of the Marionette." The Danes do better in some of the excerpts than the others. They score in the quieter, more contemplative madrigals and seem too careful in the more dramatic, more extrovert ones. I think a lot of the miss stems from mushy diction, softening the rhythm. The same also holds true for the early 6 Songs on Old Texts, Op. 30 The "Woman's Lament" (Frauenklage) gently breaks your heart, but "Household Routine" (Von Hausregiment) and "Mercenary's Drinking Song" (Landsknechtstrinklied) lack the vigorous peasant-dance quality Hindemith builds in; too-slow tempos don't help, either. Incidentally, both Hindemith and Schoenberg have the same highest opus number - 50. The difference is that it took Schoenberg a lifetime to reach that. After his opus 50, Hindemith simply gave up numbering his works, and he had at least 30 years to go.

Sound is fine.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz