Friday, July 10, 2009

Listening: Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith. Sonatas for Winds and Piano, vol. 1. Massimiliano Damerini, piano. Rino Vernizzi, bassoon, et al. ARTS 47122-2. Available from

One evening last winter, Will and I sat in the car having one of those musical "driveway moments." We were listening to a Schubert piano sonata. Will listened appreciatively for several minutes, then commented, "The problem with classical music is that it's mostly just a bunch of scales." I suppose I had noticed this before, but had never articulated it so bluntly. My favorite example of "just a bunch of scales" is the magnificent and moving pas de deux from Tchiakovsky's Nutcracker:

In the treble clef, it's nothing but a descending G-major scale (the F is sharp) that quickens (from quarter to sixteenth notes) as it descends. It's satisfying because it does what we expect it to do. The ear knows where the music is going. This is true of most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music. Beethoven's symphonies are monumental structures constructed primarily out of scales.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a small private recital of chamber music for bassoon and piano. The first piece on the program was the short bassoon sonata by German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). The piece captivated me because it was lyrical but unexpected. The music didn't always go where my ear expected it to. Here's the opening of the bassoon sonata:

After the lyrical opening phrase, Hindemith begins to ascend the scale. But which scale is it? Unlike Tchiakovsky, who comes downstairs one step at a time, Hindemith seems to play hopscotch on the stairs. The listener is never quite sure which step he'll land on next. Here's how Wikipedia explains Hindemith's compositional method (emphasis added):
Most of Hindemith's music uses a unique system that is tonal but non-diatonic. Like most tonal music, it is centered on a tonic and modulates from one tonal center to another, but it uses all 12 notes freely rather than relying on a scale picked as a subset of these notes. Hindemith even rewrote some of his music after developing this system. One of the key features of his system is that he ranks all musical intervals of the 12-tone equally tempered scale from the most consonant to the most dissonant. He classifies chords in six categories, on the basis of how dissonant they are, whether or not they contain a tritone, and whether or not they clearly suggest a root or tonal center. Hindemith's philosophy also encompasses melody—Hindemith strives for melodies that do not clearly outline major or minor triads.
What this means to me, as I listen to Hindemith's sonatas, is that his music is free from the expectations that scales would impose upon it. The melodies flit like butterflies from flower to flower. Sometimes it seems as if Hindemith has collected broken fragments of melody and assembled them into something that derives its beauty from the beauty of the fragments as much as from the beauty of the whole. There will be an unexpectedly lovely moment—an interval, a resolution—and then it will melt away. Hindemith's sonatas are momentary, not monumental, and for me that's the source of their unexpected beauty.


Jim H. said...


Way back in high school, our orchestra played a very traditional repertoire -- Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Beethoven, etc. But we also tackled a Hindemith piece and found it difficult (in a good way). We felt clumsy because, as you point out, the music doesn't go where you expect it to. For some sophomoric reason, we started calling him Catcher's Mitt (rhymes with Hindemith).

Thanks for helping uncover an old fond memory.

Penelope said...

Hallie is playing his wind quintet (I think there's just one, but I could be wrong) at music camp in CO right now! She declares it "cool." (Her Tartini string trio, not quite as cool. She's a girl who loves Shostakovich, so that's to be expected.) I appreciated your explanation of his approach.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .