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ClassicsOnline Home » HINDEMITH, P.: String Quartets, Vol. 2 (Amar Quartet) - Nos. 5, 6, 7
As an elite string player, whose Amar Quartet was one of Europe’s most exploratory chamber groups, Hindemith was perfectly placed to write his powerful sequence of string quartets. One of the greatest quartets of its time, the technically sophisticated No 5, Op 32 reveals Hindemith as a master of the medium. Twenty years were to pass before No 6 in E flat, written in America, which reveals similar qualities of control, whilst No 7 in E flat was written for himself to play in a domestic setting with female students from Yale University and his wife, an amateur cellist. It concludes one of the twentieth century’s greatest cycles of quartets.
Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)
String Quartets • 2
Paul Hindemith was the first composer of string quartets since Spohr (1784–1859) who was also an outstanding violinist and viola player; he 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 the intervention of 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 the rich chamber music tradition. With his String Quartet No 2, Op 10 (1918) [Naxos 8.572163], his 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 more controlled progressive style of Hindemithʼs music from about 1930, which he himself developed fundamentally and described in his treatise Unterweisung im Tonsatz (Instruction in Music Theory). The music becomes more restrained 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 composed his String Quartet No 5, Op 32, in October 1923 while he was on tour as the violist of the Amar Quartet. In a way the music of this work matches the impulsive interpretative style of the ensemble and was written in the light of that: the reckless energy of the first movement, the altogether unsentimental and melancholy lyricism of the second movement, the scurrying vitality of the third movement and the thematically allusive expression of formal procedures in the fourth movement. At the same time Hindemith also indulges freely in strict contrapuntal techniques and forms from which, however, he removes all aridity and dryness through a completely original form of freedom from dissonance.
The first movement is an incredibly elaborate double fugue which uses every possible thematic device and which at its best can complement Beethovenʼs Grosse Fuge, Op 133. The second movement proceeds with two widely-spaced melodies simultaneously in different metres which are also related to each other by double counterpoint, so that the registers of each can be interchanged. The third movement is a brusque march, which grows steadily and energetically from triple piano to triple forte. The final movement is a richly-articulated Passacaglia, with 28 variations, which is rounded off by a turbulent fugato. At the same time the passacaglia theme in this fugato, through motivic transformations, turns out to be a variant of the first fugal theme of the first movementʼs double fugue. The String Quartet No 5 was given its première on 26 October 1923 in Vienna by the Amar Quartet, only three days after its completion.
With the String Quartet No 6 in E flat, written in May 1943 in New Haven and which, like all of his works after 1930, has no opus number, Hindemith reaches the pinnacle of his music for string quartet. He now works out freely the harmonic and tonal relationships, rigorously organized; at the centre of the tonal relationships is the fundamental note E flat, and the harmony becomes considerably more relaxed.
The summation which Hindemith achieves here is founded on an altered technical and aesthetic level and because of that it turns out to be even more forceful. The first movement alludes unmistakably to the fugal movement which begins the String Quartet No 4, Op 22. With its thematic gesture springing from the instrumental unison the second movement refers back to the beginning of the String Quartet No 3, Op 16 [Naxos 8.572163], while the variations of the third movement are related to those in the String Quartet No 2, Op 10. And with the multipart final movement of the String Quartet No 6 Hindemith then skilfully recapitulates the themes of the previous movements, draws them tightly together and so brings the work to its cyclic conclusion. He wrote the String Quartet No 6 for the Budapest Quartet, whose members were friends of his. Like Hindemith, the cellist of the quartet, Mischa Schneider, had studied at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt am Main and they had both made music together at that time. The Budapest Quartet gave the première of the quartet on 11 November 1943 in the Library of Congress in Washington.
The same players also gave the first performance of the String Quartet No 7 in E flat, on 21 March 1946, once again in Washington. Hindemith had actually written this quartet for himself to play in a domestic setting with female students from Yale University in New Haven and his wife, an amateur cellist. In many respects he had taken account of her limited technical abilities in the conception of the work. The compositional technique here is very sophisticated, yet it makes its effect discreetly. The first movement is in a very concentrated sonata form and is followed by a brief, amusing scherzo and a joyous multisection rondo with a slow introduction. The final movement then presents the most diverse canonic forms before returning to a section of music in retrograde. In doing so Hindemith simplifies the playing of the cello part by doubling the note values in the movement structure. He thus reduces the technical demands by heightening the art of composition. The first three movements of the work date from December 1944/January 1945, once again in New Haven, while the last movement was written in December 1945 when he was travelling to Chicago. With this final quartet Hindemith made a return, both as composer and interpreter, to the realm of domestic music-making, from which the string quartet had emerged as the most sophisticated type of instrumental music.
English translation by David Stevens
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