The German composer Paul Hindemith was born in 1895, which means that in 1919, when the Weimar Republic replaced the German monarchy after world war one, he was 24. At the time he was a leading violinist and, eventually, violist, and as a composer he was one of the leading figures in German expressionism in the 1920s.
With the rise of the Nazis, Hindemith's music came in for serious criticism. The sexual nature of works like the opera Sancta Susanna, and the occasional zaniness or dissonant complexity of his earlier scores, led to his work being denounced as Entartete Musik - degenerate music - in a 1934 speech given by Joseph Goebbels.
I have no doubt Hindemith's erotic one act opera on sexual equality, Das Nusch-Nuschi, would have been in the Nazis' sights as well. [listen]
In 1940 Hindemith took up residence in the United States and he became an American citizen in 1946. He was a respected teacher and conductor, as well as a composer, and he taught at Yale University. His later years, though, were spent in Europe and he died in Frankfurt in 1963.
While in America, Hindemith met the famous ballet choreographer, Leonid Massine and the two began planning a ballet collaboration. The idea was to create a ballet based on the music of Weber, one of the most important figures in German music of the early 19th century. After some initial sketches though, these two creative but very different individuals decided not continue on the project.
Hindemith wanted to salvage the music he had prepared and develop it into a purely orchestral work. The result, completed in 1943, is one of his most popular works, the Symphonic Metamorphosis of themes by Carl Maria von Weber. In this, Hindemith takes four pieces by Weber and "metamorphoses" them into a four movement orchestral work which outwardly resembles a symphony but which in other respects is more like a suite.
In this article I want to give you the chance to hear Weber's originals and compare them with what Hindemith did with them.
Three of the four movement's of Hindemith's work are based on Weber's four-hand piano music, and by and large Hindemith followed the originals rather closely. But the metamorphosing goes far beyond mere orchestration; he occasionally alters the structures, adds intriguing new countermelodies and accompaniments, and in the process turns Weber's charming piano music into a dazzling orchestral showpiece.
The first movement is based on one of Weber's 8 Pieces for Four Hands, Op 60, which was composed around 1819 and published in 1820. Weber marks the piece All'Ongarese, meaning "In the Hungarian style". It's a march-like piece full of detail which Hindemith was to exploit deliciously. The structure is ternary, with the outer sections in A minor, and the central trio in A major. [listen]
In Hindemith's hands, and transcribed onto an orchestral canvas, this piece becomes a thrilling opening movement. The harmonies and melodies are occasionally changed and given Hindemith's own unmistakable fingerprint. He retains the ternary structure of the original, but at the same time makes it completely his own.
One of the stand-out features of this music for me is the dazzling use of the woodwind. Whether as a section, or in unusual combinations, or in solo passages, Hindemith's woodwind writing always stands out from the strings and the brass. The strings and brass sections are used monumentally, usually as sections, but the winds always get their chance to shine individually. There are some beautiful moments for the oboe and some passages where even the often-hidden sounds of the bass clarinet and contrabassoon come to the fore. [listen]
For the second of his four movements, Hindemith went to Weber's theatre music, and in particular music composed in 1809 for a performance of Gozzi's play Turandot. This was given in German (in Schiller's 1804 translation), but the Italian original went on to inspire others to make their own versions of the story of the infamous Chinese princess, most notably Puccini.
For the overture to the play, Weber re-used a piece he'd written in 1804, an Overtura cinesa (Chinese Overture) and he based this on a tune which appeared in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 1768 Dictionary of Music. Rousseau's air chinois purported to be an authentic Chinese melody, and Weber used it as the basis of not only his overture but most of the subsequently-composed incidental music for the play. The awkwardness with which this melody is squeezed into a western G major context is played up by Weber in exotic sounding harmonies and orchestration.
Among the newly-composed music for Gozzi's Turandot, Weber wrote a march based on the same tune. Like the overture it makes liberal use of percussion, something not lost on Hindemith. [listen]
For the second movement of his orchestral reworkings of Weber, Hindemith wrote a scherzo based not only on a quirky version of the allegedly Chinese tune Weber appropriated from Rousseau, but which also acknowledges Weber's cheeky - and noisy - setting of it. And then Hindemith goes much further, writing a stunning set of variations which gives pride of place to the percussion section. At the start, the bells outline the first four notes of the Chinese theme before each of the first four melodic phrases. What follows is a massive set of variations on the theme, which is heard eight times in increasingly complex orchestral dress and with increasingly complicated accompaniments.
This dies away to usher in a fugue in the brass, based on a jazzed-up version of the Chinese melody. The winds take over before they in turn are swamped by the percussion. The original theme returns in the cellos and basses, with a kick in its tail, which builds to yet another climax in which, yet again, the percussion have almost the final word. [listen]
The sources for the remaining two movements of Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis return to Weber's four-hand piano music. Weber's opus 10 was a set of six pieces for piano four hands which was published in 1810, and from this Hindemith chose the second, a gentle Andantino in C minor with a central section in C major. [listen]
From this gentle piece of parlour music designed for domestic music-making Hindemith fashioned his orchestral work's ravishing slow movement. He follows Weber's structure very closely but alters the harmonies subtly and beautifully to create a wistful interlude between the riotous scherzo and the enormous march finale which is to come.
The central trio in the major is characterised by a newly-added pedal point - the long sustained note in the bass - and an intriguing "twist" in the melody (which is played by the clarinets, violas and cellos). The reprise of the minor key music is virtually identical to when it was first heard, with the exception of a newly-added, exposed solo for the flute over the top. [listen]
Another movement from Weber's opus 60 pieces, the seventh of the set of eight, provides the raw material for Hindemith's finale, a stern-sounding march. Like the other piano pieces Hindemith used, it's in a minor key with a central section in the major. The major section in Weber's original is characterised by a triplet accompaniment which will become a vital part of Hindemith's texture. [listen]
In Hindemith's hands, this march becomes a thrilling finale, one of his most exciting and crowd-pleasing pieces. The minor key march - in the woodwinds - has a sinister accompaniment added to it in the strings. The central section starts with Weber's triplets scampering in the woodwinds while the horns - instruments for which Weber himself always wrote wonderfully - have the new tune in the major key.
The minor key reprise is much altered in Hindemith's hands, with a wonderful passage in the trombones building to a return to the major key music - something which doesn't happen in Weber - for a massive coda. The coda takes the roof off and brings Hindemith's ingenious homage to his 19th century compatriot to a dazzling close. I’ve conducted Hindemith’s piece a number of times and this finale never fails to thrill the audience. [listen]
Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis of themes by Carl Maria von Weber was completed in August 1943 and premiered in January 1944 by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Artur Rodzinski. There can be no doubt that upbeat finale went down well in wartime America, but the work has gone on since then to remain one of Hindemith's most popular works.
I'd like to acknowledge an online essay on Hindemith's work by David Neumeyer of the University of Texas at Austin as an important source of information for this article.
This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2012.