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ClassicsOnline Home » HINDEMITH, P.: String Quartets, Vol. 1 (Amar Quartet) - Nos. 2 and 3
Paul Hindemith wrote seven String Quartets, all of which reflect the experience and practical assurance of a distinguished violinist and, later, violist. No 2 was written in 1918 whilst he was a soldier on active duty. It’s a bracing, dynamic and pithy work with a clever series of variations which parody romantic excess, and a virtuosic finale. No 3 followed early in 1920 and was an instant success, a thrilling example of Hindemith’s concise imagination at work. This passionate quartet, with its richly varied material, is one of his supreme chamber masterpieces.
Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)
String Quartets • 1
Paul Hindemith was the first composer of string quartets since Spohr (1784–1859) who was also an outstanding violinist and viola player and who could easily have had a career as a soloist should he have aspired to it. He was born in 1895 in humble circumstances in the small town of Hanau, just outside Frankfurt am Main and in 1908 started to study the violin at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. As early as 1915, as a nineteen-year-old, and having previously given a scintillating performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Hindemith joined the prestigious Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra and in the following year was appointed its leader. In spite of initial resistance from his father, he took up the study of composition to see if he had any aptitude for it.
In 1921 Hindemith achieved his compositional breakthrough with three Expressionist one-act operas and the String Quartet No 3, Op 16, following which he left the opera orchestra and founded the Amar Quartet, named after its first violinist, and in which Hindemith moved over to the viola. As a driving force on the programming committee of the Donaueschingen Chamber Music Performances, whose fame and reputation he established, Hindemith exerted a decisive influence on the music of the Weimar Republic. In 1927 he was appointed to the Musikhochschule in Berlin but as early as 1933 his teaching activities were severely hampered by the Nazis. They forced him to take voluntary leave of absence from the Hochschule and first imposed a ban on radio broadcasts of his music followed later by a ban on performances.
In one of his most important works from this period, the opera Mathis der Maler, to his own libretto, he created a work in which he addressed the, for him, pressing issues of producing independent works of art in a totalitarian age. When Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels vilified Hindemith publicly as a “charlatan” and “atonal noisemaker” he was, to all intents and purposes, able only to give concerts abroad. In response to an invitation from the Turkish government Hindemith spent many months there as an adviser on the organization of Turkeyʼs musical life based on middle-European models. At the Nazisʼ notorious Exhibition of Degenerate Music in 1938 Hindemith, as one of the few so-called “Aryan” composers, was derided as a “standard-bearer of musical decay”, so he emigrated, first to Switzerland, and in 1940 to the United States. He became an American citizen in 1946 and, in 1955, as a token of appreciation for his work, he was awarded honorary citizenship. Hindemith took one of the most prestigious composition classes at Yale University, even though he himself regarded composition as unteachable. From 1953 he taught also at Zurich University and moved permanently to Switzerland, settling in Blonay, a small municipality on Lake Geneva. Hindemith worked as a guest conductor of the most important orchestras in both the new and old worlds and also produced a cornucopia of further works, among them arguably his masterpiece, the opera Die Harmonie der Welt (The Harmony of the World). He died suddenly in 1963 in Frankfurt am Main.
Hindemithʼs seven string quartets were produced in different phases of his rich compositional development, but without reflecting this growth in every detail. All these works testify not only to his inner familiarity with the way each instrument functions, but to the special requirements of public music-making and its uncertainties or, possibly, to his routine as a performer tackling the challenges of soloist virtuosity.
With the String Quartet No 1, Op 2 (1914/15), which was an impressive confirmation of his hoped-for compositional promise, Hindemith showed himself to be an inventive composition student of a rich chamber music tradition. With the String Quartet No 2, Op 10 (1918), Hindemithʼs music became more unified, tighter, more straightforward, and was driven by a playful impulse which came across as spontaneous and direct. In the following three quartets, which were written between 1920 and 1923, Hindemith cultivated the style of the “New Objectivity”. This music is severely contrapuntal, simple and unadorned and it expands tonal relationships almost to breaking-point, unleashing a fury of music-making in readily-comprehensible forms. The String Quartet No 6 “in E flat”, written twenty years later, looks back, so to speak, at the moderating element from about 1930, which he himself developed fundamentally and described in his treatise The Craft of Musical Composition. The music becomes more manageable from a harmonic and tonal aspect and is developed subtly through every contrapuntal device and with the greatest refinement. This compositional mastery, which has remained without parallel in twentieth-century music, comes to the fore in the late works and is almost anticipated with possibly more obvious features in the String Quartet No 7, also in E flat, but without lapsing into academic, dry “scholarliness” or becoming mired in the esoteric.
Hindemith wrote his three-movement String Quartet No 2, Op 10, between January and April 1918 while he was a soldier in the field, yet it is free of those horrors of war which Hindemith experienced and also described in a war diary; by his own testimony he survived a grenade attack only “by a miracle”. With the composition of this work Hindemith seems to have released himself physically and to have escaped into another world which gave him the power to withstand the terrible experiences of the war. The work is a first synthesis of his early compositions. It seems to be as much influenced by Brahms or Reger, as by the colouristic stimulus of Slavic music. Hindemith constructs the first movement as a concise sonata movement with thematic material which is pithy and which never gets out of control or is too insistent. In the development section he includes, unusually enough, a fugato, which is to be performed “completely listlessly, numb” and which maintains the identity of the fugal subject which is derived from the main theme, not just breaking it up or fragmenting it. The six variations of the middle movement, on an original theme, which returns unaltered at the end, stand out not only through the superior intervention of the art of thematic transformation, but also perhaps suggest the fourth variation, which has the character of a slow march and which should be played “…like music from afar”, and in the third variation which has parodies of expressive “romantic” playing with rubato. The Finale, on the other hand, is a technically challenging, extremely demanding, concertante virtuoso movement for all four instruments, with an elegantly catchy subsidiary theme, that skilful chamber music opens up with supporting elements, completes and extends. As the distinguished music critic Alfred Einstein observed in the 1920s, this music operates with “…an absolutely overpowering joy in playing and hearing music”.
With the first performance of the String Quartet No 3, Op 16, also in three movements, which dates from January and February 1920—the 786 bar long final movement was penned in just two days, on 24 and 25 January 1920—Hindemith achieved a spectacular success on 1 August 1921 at the first Chamber Music Programmes event in Donaueschingen. Moreover this première led to the founding of the Amar Quartet, since initially no suitable ensemble could be found which would be willing to study and perform this technically demanding and tricky work. “It is brimming with youthful energy” opined Heinrich Strobel in 1928, “…a thrilling, musical event, real “new” music, that one longed for after all the recent sets of problems and all the intellectualisation. Here everything is comprehensible and concrete. Not a trace of the merely rational or immature.” Through this music, which seemed to give expression to a young generationʼs feeling of being alive, one felt freed from the weight of a jaded tradition. It was judged: “…to have swept from the table with a movement of the hand all abstract, egocentric, speculative and mystifying woolly notions with an attitude that was more an expression of a collective consciousness of a generation than a reflection of subjective feeling.”
The first movement places side by side, with breathless panache, sections which are all development-like in the way they are put together and which are all motivically interconnected and derived from one another. Hindemith concentrates the motivic and intervallic events on the extremely compact interval of the falling second, which, discernible or hidden, pervades all the thematic material. It is hardly possible to imagine a more intense, yet simpler thematic concentration with such an accompanying richness of variety. The following slow movement refers back motivically and intervallically to the falling seconds of the first movement and develops, extends and intensifies them with a more fundamental chromaticism. With its obvious debt to the chromaticism of Wagnerʼs Tristan it ranks among the most expressive movements in all Hindemith. Initially this movement was marked to be played “with melancholy” but later Hindemith removed this performance instruction from the score. The Finale on the other hand takes up again the turbulent, impulsive musical richness of the Finale of the Quartet No 2, Op 10, simplifies it where possible and turns it into an unbridled, swashbuckling and powerful piece of music-making. Hindemith composed here music with two themes played partly simultaneously, partly in sometimes successively running bands of sound, which imbue the music with a thrilling flow and an urgency which even Alban Berg admired. Paul Virilio spoke of its “frenzied stasis” which gives to the quartet its enduring modernity.
English translation by David Stevens
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