Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

So I was in Tallahassee two weeks ago.  My wife works for the Summer Music Camps at Florida State with another friend with whom they run the Elementary Music Day Camp.  She bogarted the computer for a majority of the week and the other portion of the week I was helping her friend's husband (who is incidentally my good friend as well) build a sort of Antarctic mountain out of particle board and screws.  Needless to say, I haven't had much time to do my homework, hence the week lost.

Like Douglas Adams once said, I feel the deadline whooshing right by me.  But I will persevere, I will not let my faithful readership down.  All 2.5 of you.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was a German born composer, conductor, violinist and teacher.  He was famous for a lot of things but I really just want to focus on two of his bits of famousosity before diving into our homework for the evening.  First thing, he was a composer growing up in Nazi Germany.  We'll talk about that in a second, but the second thing was that he reinvented how we think about tonality.  Now some of you might just be asking, what is tonality?  And that's ok, because it means you're paying attention.  Tonality relates to the center of the key that you're dealing with.  So think of all the white keys on a piano: together they make up all the notes of a C major scale.  If you start on C and move up D E F G A B and back to C you'll play the scale in ascending order.  C is the first and last note and it is also known in this case as the tonic.

Not...that tonic.

So in our system there's 12 of these keys in total before they repeat over and over.  Each key has its own scale and each scale starts on a different note and that first note is always called tonic.  So thinking back to tonality- we are really talking tonic and how all these other notes relate to it.  So stay with me cause it gets a little bit squirrelly here.  In most Western music we operate in what is known as diatonic harmony (essentially meaning "of the tonic") which is a really fancy and useful way for saying we're gonna write a piece of music, pick a key, and then only use notes from that key.  

It all falls down when you realize that if you stay diatonic you've only got 7 notes to work with and that tends to get boring.  So we introduce things like key changes and notes not in the key (non-chord tones, non-diatonic harmony, other fancy words, etc.) and many other crazy ways to justify using notes that aren't in the key, but we are just trying to relate this all back to the poor tonic.  

So going back to the other part of Hindemith's life, here he is caught right in the midst of pre-war, Nazi Germany trying to etch out what purpose his music would hold.  There was considerable support from within the Nazi party purporting that Hindemith's music represented the new order of Germanity, but there was equal criticism that claimed it was essentially experimental noise and nothing more, that it lacked German folk roots.  Hindemith's stance on all of this was seemingly apolitical.  He was motivated to earn a living and support his family, and he had a vision of how music could be written and analyzed and he wanted to share it.  He married a Jewish woman, and frequently worked with Jewish composers and artists which put him in a paradoxical relationship with those in the higher offices in the Nazi party.

Although Mel Brooks seemed to do alright.

Hindemith eventually began teaching composition in Berlin and that's when things came to a bit of a head. A performance of his opera, Mathis der Maler, was forbidden by the Nazi authorities.  The higher up's had enough of Hindemith's ambiguity towards the whole Jew-hating/murdering thing that they were going for so Hindemith quietly submitted his resignation and left for Turkey to start a music school in Istanbul.  About a year later he did attempt to move back to Germany and actually went as far as signing an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler in 1936.  This was only a few years prior to the beginnings of the Jewish genocide. 

Hindemith's reputation (his relationship with the Jewish community and his seeming apolitical views) ultimately doomed his German career to failure and in 1940 he finally emigrated to the United States where his music had been performed frequently since the 1920's.  In the US, Hindemith's music filled a void that was created as the concert band began to take a strong foothold.  Though he was extremely popular as a composer of wind band music, he frequently composed for multiple formats and a wide variety of instruments.  He actually wrote the first ever sonata for the trombone in 1941, almost 250 years after the birth of the trombone as we know it today!

OK, so getting back to why he's awesome- Hindemith had this idea.  What if instead of thinking of music in these little diatonic boxes where you've got 7 notes and that's it, what if we picked our tonic and then just used everything based around that note?  So instead of playing in C and using only C, D, E, F, G, A, & B, what if we could use all the notes on the keyboard?

Well, what if we rated the distance (also known as the interval) between each of these notes on a scale from most consonant to most dissonant?

Not those consonants...

OK, consonant basically means two notes that sound pleasing to the ear.  Dissonant is the opposite, it sounds harsh, crunchy, tense.  If you listen to the Hans Zimmer "Batman" soundtracks, you'll hear lots of examples of dissonant harmonies.  Por ejemplo, listen to the music in this scene.  You'll hear several ascending pitches all moving independently of each other.  This is a common trick in modern film scores since it creates a natural feeling of tension (you only have to watch until Batman shows up).  

So Hindemith said, why don't we just use all of these notes however we want, just paying attention to how they individually relate to the tonic we've chosen?  It's what I imagine it would be like to invent a new color, all of a sudden you have all these crazy new wild harmonies you can create, and what's more you have new grounds for melodies too!  Hindemith made it a point to write melodies that didn't just float around tonic chords. So think of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.  Timeless classic.  Sing it in your head:

Twinkle, twinkle little star...

The notes (if we were in C) go:

Twin - kle, twin-kle lit-tle star...

C         C    G     G   A  A  G----

The C major chord is C-E-G and this essentially outlines it (barring the A in the middle there).  But if you have anyone younger than about 6 in your home, you've heard all of these nursery rhymes that all incorporate this style of melody.  It's all based on these basic, diatonic chords.  Hindemith broke out of that box when he said all 12 notes are fair game, so long as you understood the relationship to tonic and where on the dissonance/consonance curve they sat.  

Now, if you're still scratching your head a bit, that's OK too.  This ain't simple stuff.  But, what I really like about Hindemith doesn't have to do with his music theory.  I feel like he was caught in an ocean that was much bigger than himself, and he really wanted to change the tide.  Sure, he was seemingly apolitical, but at the core I think he felt somewhat helpless to prevent the Nazi war machine from bringing death and destruction to Europe and beyond.  I think in his deepest heart, he wanted to embrace his German heritage, he wanted to be the poster child for young German composers, he was just born at a really, crappy time.  I can only imagine the personal turmoil he must have experienced.  

It shines through in what he wrote.  

In the end, Hindemith was a lot like the Batman.  He was the composer Germany deserved, but not the one it needed.  

Our listening for this week is the Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.  Weber was an early Romantic era composer, but that's for another LF.  This is a four movement work for band, written originally for a ballet, but it fell through.  Hindemith salvaged the two themes he originally wrote for that project and continued with this work, adding two additional movements.  We'll listen to the final movement today, Marsch.

It always makes me think of penguins waging some sort of Antarctic war.  

I don't know why...

Homework: Listen.  Write a story based on what you hear.  Try very hard to not write about penguins.  

See you next Friday.