Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Paul Hindemith

Der Schwanendreher is his third viola concerto, and, as such, a reminder that he was an outstand­ing viola player who contributed more to the reper­toire and status of the instrument than any other 20th-century composer. It is the most approach­able of the concertos, not simply because its language is imbued with that of folksong but be­cause its personality is so endearing: modest, both wistful and vivacious. It is a self-portrait. Hin­demith admitted as much in the little programme note he appended to the score: "A minstrel visits a happy company of people and plays for them the music he has brought from far away: serious and joyful songs, ending with a dance. According to his fancy and his skill he extends and decorates the melodies like a real musician, with preludes and improvisations . . ." Hindemith, now a wandering minstrel, gladly plays to an appreciative audience the melodies he has brought from his homeland. As for the melodies themselves, he is both cele­brating and preserving their character, protecting them from the maltreatment they suffer in Ger­many, and using them to spell out a coded mes­sage. That there is a message is clear from his ex­traordinary title, which obviously was calculated to throw out an interpretative challenge, as if to say "Who has ears to hear, let him hear". Hindemith himself never explained his message, nor why he selected four particular melodies out of over 600 in his source book (Franz Böhme's Altdeutsches Liederbuch. Leipzig 1877). This was partly, no doubt, because he wanted his music to speak in its own terms, and for its inner content to be con­cealed under its undemonstrative, though subtly worked out, exterior: a sonata movement pre­ceded by a slow introduction, a slow movement enclosing a central scherzo, a finale in variation form. But the real reason was because his mes­sage was dangerous. He had not yet actually left Germany, still entertaining the slimmest hope that things might change.
What Hindemith is saying can be deduced from the texts of his chosen melodies. The first movement is based on Zwischen Berg und tiefem Tal ("Between the mountain and the deep valley"), a song which tells how the lover (Hindemith) must leave his beloved (Germany) - the appearances of the song becoming gradually more determined - and take the "free road" that lies between the moun­tain and the valley. The second movement de­scribes how the lonely, disconsolate lover (viola and harp) picks up two posies from under a wintry lime tree and sends them to his beloved as a keep­sake. Nun laube, Lindlein, laube! (“Grow green, lime tree") is treated like a chorale. The move­ment's central scherzo is a fugal working of Der Gutzgauch auf dem Zaune sass ("The cuckoo sat on the fence"). Hindemith here casts himself as a cuckoo (he was regarded by the Nazis as a treach­erous upstart, an intruder in the national music scene), first perched dripping in the rain and then flying off splendidly in the sunshine. In the final movement, the cuckoo, or ugly duckling, has turned into a swan. Der Schwanendreher is as pe­culiar a title in German as in English translation: "The man who wrings the swans' necks". This dance-song is about the poultry keeper in noble estates, one of whose jobs is to fatten the swans and prepare them for the table. He is offered a wife, the cook (Germany), but she thinks he is impotent and he's not interested in her anyway. He's alright; he doesn't care. With this sardonic, self-deprecat­ing, parodoxical song Hindemith shakes the dust from his feet and sings his swan-song to Ger­many.
Ian Kemp

Listen: Here

No comments: