His chamber music is always exceptionally interesting to me, and as many of you will know he has
experimented with unusual instrumentation quite a bit within the genre. The "Althorn Sonata" is but
one example, and *the* example here (the players both recite a poem written by Hindemith in the final movement).
Hindemith composed more than 30 sonatas for the most diverse instruments. In this respect, one can distinguish two creative periods: an early one, up to 1924, and a later period that begins with the Sonata in E for Violin & Piano, composed in the summer of 1935. At that time, after having been the leading figure of musical modernity in the Germany of the 1920s, Hindemith had figured for some months at the center of debates on cultural policy in what was now the Nazi state. His works were vilified as "Bolshevistic music", disappeared from concert programs, and were finally banned from performance in 1936, while his own activity as a concert artist came to a stand still. Various autobiographical references are to be found in the works of this period: the opera "Mathis der Maler" (1935) raises the question of the role of the artist in politically charged times, the Viola Concerto "Der Schwanendreher" (1935) explores the themes of solitude and isolation, and the numerous songs with piano from these years-composed for his wife and not published in his lifetime-may be interpreted as documents of internal emigration. In this phase of external oppression, Hindemith also began an intense preoccupation with matters of music theory, which he set out in his textbook "Unterweisung I'm Tonsatz" from 1937, later to be translated as "The Craft of Musical Composition". The insights he gained from this work are reflected in the 17 sonatas he wrote between 1935 & 1955.
The three-part texture common to all of them gives expression to Hindemith's conviction that a listener can perceive no more than three simultaneous voices. On the other hand, three voices is also the minimum number to ensure the ear can place sounds in a harmonic scheme without risk of ambiguity-an aspect that was becoming increasingly important to Hindemith in the context of his studies of harmony. Other basic principles on which he was working, for example concerning the formation of melody, also influenced these compositions. While the compositional technique, in accordance with Hindemith's theory of music, thus appears "standardized", this is complemented by the individual formal conception of the sonatas.
In the Sonata in E for Violin & Piano Hindemith opted for a layout in two movements, which are motivically related to each other by discreet rhythmic and melodic analogies. In the first movement, one may discern Hindemith's stylistic characteristics of the 1930s: a definite tonal orientation and clear architectonic structures. After a slow introduction, the second movement continues with a section marked "Sehr lebhaft" (Very lively) resembling an old Springtanz or "Leaping dance", interrupted towards the end by a reminiscence of the slow introduction.
The composition of The Sonata for Cello & Piano, completed in 1948, can be attributed to Hindemith's friendship with with Gregor Piatigorsky, who like him had emigrated to the States and had already premiered the Cello Concerto of 1940 in Boston, MA. With this sonata (quite different from the more intimate character of the Violin Sonata in E) Hindemith created a brilliant work of an imposing, concertante cut, featuring manifold varieties of thematic work-for example in the first movement, an extremely complex sonata form, or the scherzo, in which the cello & piano each have their own themes, which are developed independently of each other. Hindmeith designed the finale as a passacaglia over a constantly recurring theme.
Most of the late sonatas are dedicated to wind instruments. Hindemith himself explained why to his publisher in late 1939: "You will be astonished that I am besonata-ing the entire range of wind instruments. I always intended to do a whole series of these pieces. In the first place, there's nothing decent available for these instruments, with the exception of a few Classical things, and so it's a meritorious deed - admittedly not in an immediate business perspective, but in the long run - to enrich the literature. Secondly, now that I'm taking such a great interest in wind instruments, I'm really enjoying these pieces; and finally, they are serving me as a technical exercise for the big push with which I hope 'Harmonie der Welt' can be begun in the spring."
Each of the wind sonatas may be viewed as an individual musical portrait of the instrument in question. Moreover, Hindemith actually prefaced the unusual Sonata for Althorn & Piano (1943) with a poem written by himself (to be recited by the musicians!) that gives the programatic framework for the piece:
'Is not the sounding of a horn to our busy souls
(Even as the scent of blossoms wilted long ago
Or the discolored folds of musty tapestry
Or crumbling leaves of ancient yellow tomes)
Like a sonorous visit from those ages
Which counted speed by straining horses' gallop
And not by lightning prisoned up in cables,
And when to live and they ranged the countryside,
Not just the closely printed pages?
The cornucopia's gift calls forth in us
A pallid yearning, melancholy longing'.
'The old is good not just because it's past,
Nor is the new supreme because we live with it,
And never yet a man felt greater joy
Than he could bear or truly comprehend.
Your task, it is, amidst confusion, rush and noise
To grasp the lasting, calm, and meaningful,
And finding it anew, to hold and treasure it'.
The sonata subtly transposes into compositional terms the various ideas contained in the poem: the leisurely horn calls in the first movement and the rapid galloping of the horses in the finale. And the rhythmic motif that pulsates like an ostinato throughout the middle section of the second movement may be interpreted as the Morse code, thanks to which the telegraph superseded the stagecoach era.
Hindemith also combined extra-musical references with characteristic idiosyncrasies and playing styles of the instrumental protagonist in the Sonata for Trumpet & Piano, written in November 1939: at the end of the last movement, entitled "Trauermusik" (Funeral music) one hears above a dotted march rhythm an arrangement of the chorale "Alle Menschen müssen sterben" (All men must die), which expresses the composer's anxiety at the onset of the Second World War. In the Sonata for Trombone & Piano (1941) the relatively limited musical possibilities of the solo instrument are harnessed as a compositional resource for a felicitous instrumental character study. Not the least element in its success is the ironical, tongue-in-cheek middle movement, on which Hindemith conferred the title "Swashbuckler's Song".