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Paul Hindemith (1895 - 1963)


Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber
1. Allegro
2. Turandot, Scherzo
3. Andantino
4. March

Hindemith is often regarded as one of the founders of “modern music”, along with Stravinsky, Bartok and Schönberg, but his reputation has been rather eclipsed in recent years. This is probably due to his music being not as brilliantly coloured, nor as obviously radical as that of his contemporaries. He was perhaps the most intellectual of these composers, interested in literature, philosophy and history as well as music. As a young man he was a professional violinist with symphony and opera orchestras, played viola in a top string quartet, and was a soloist of international standard who gave the premiere of Walton's viola concerto in London in the 1930s. In his spare time he was a railway enthusiast! He worked in Germany, his homeland, until the Nazis labelled his music “degenerate” and, guessing where Germany was heading, he moved to Switzerland. From there he moved to America in 1940, having been offered teaching work at Yale University.

In America he met up with Massine, the choreographer and principal dancer from Diaghilev's Ballet Russe company, with whom Hindemith had collaborated before the war. Massine suggested another new ballet, this time to be based on music by Weber. Hindemith liked the idea, and came up with some musical sketches. But it soon became apparent that Massine wanted simple orchestrations of Weber's music, not the sophisticated re-composing that Hindemith had in mind. When Hindemith discovered that Massine planned to ask Salvador Dali – whose work he detested – to create the set and costume designs, he found an excuse to pull out of the project. Hindemith kept the music, however, and a couple of years later reworked it into this four movement suite. The suite was first performed in New York in January 1944, and it soon became one of Hindemith's most popular and successful works.

The work is like a concerto for the different sections of the orchestra, which Hindemith contrasts in their different sound worlds. He gives particular and unusual prominence to the percussion section. It is upbeat and fun - a remarkable creation for an exile witnessing the destruction of his homeland.

The first movement opens boldly, with a swaggering theme that makes much use of wind and brass. There is a gentler section in the middle, and all the percussion join in towards the end.

The second movement is the longest, being a set of variations on a Chinese-sounding tune. The tune is in four sections, played separately first separated by gentle bell notes. The percussion ushers in the rest of the orchestra, who develop the theme to a huge climax surrounded by woodwind trills and a flurry of string scales. This subsides, and there follows a jazzy variation for the brass, a light and bouncy variation for the wind, and a short variation for percussion alone. The full orchestra re-enter and whip up another big climax, after which the percussion comes crashing in – but subside to an unexpectedly quiet ending.

The andantino that follows is a gentle contrast, in a lilting 6/8 rhythm, that features the woodwind and horns. The second half is decorated by a virtuoso flute solo.

The final movement is a bold march on two themes, both vigorous and energetic, which leads to a jubilant close.

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