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Hindemith - The Early Years

by Glenn Gould

Published in the Stratford Festival concert program, July 29, 1962.

With Paul Hindemith we encounter one of the strangest characters of 20th century music. He is, beyond question, one of the most accomplished, most prolific, most articulate, musicians of our time. He is also, without in the slightest contradicting any of these attributes, the least influential. I cannot think of a single important composer of our generation upon whom the influence of Hindemith is noticeable and this is especially odd because in this most insecure, most unstable, most trying period of music's history, almost everyone who is prolific, who is accomplished, and who is articulate, have those to whom they represent a source of inspiration and a point of departure. There are those, of course, who sound like Hindemith. There have been certain conceptions of sonority which he has introduced into our musical vocabulary which have evoked admiration. There is in fact a whole group of young composers in Austria at the present time who, flying in the face of the now celebrated trinity of modern Viennese, Schönberg, Berg and Webern, seem to have challenged the civic loyalty (or was it ever that?) of good old Vienna by inaugurating a school of composition whose creeds of sonority lean as much to the spare, the diverting, the wry communal polyphony of the early Renaissance manner which Hindemith espoused as two generations ago that celebrated threesome had leaned toward the complex, the intense, the grandiose, over-heated, expressionistic manner. In fact, some of these younger composers sound at times more like Hindemith than Hindemith himself does. But this, in the sense that we have come to measure influence, does not quite qualify: it is really only admiration and though it bespeaks clearly the appeal that the argument and esthetic of Paul Hindemith have held for us it also bespeaks the limitation of that esthetic.

Hindemith, I think, will go down as one of the most remarkable backwaters of modern time. And there is nothing whatever wrong with being a backwater! Because in this frantic, twisted time of ours Paul Hindemith has managed, for almost a third of a century, to convey the joy which is attained in a harmonious meeting of a composer's temperament and the particular material relationships which he sets for himself. Out of this almost indecent equilibrium which he has found he has created some of the loveliest, least neurotic, least self-conscious, music of our time. He has also, in finding this equilibrium of his, brought himself to an historical impasse, to a point from which, without giving up much of what he proclaims as the essential disciplinary elements of his craft, he cannot in any evolving sense proceed further.

Today's concert we style "Hindemith-the early years," and the latest work on the program, the Piano Sonata No. 3, comes from 1936. In other words, we survey only thirteen years of composition and follow Hindemith only up to that point from which it seems the formulations of his mature style have been attained. The fascinating thing about this program though is that, while the Piano Sonata suggests the Hindemith which we know and which we can to some degree proclaim predictable, it fulfills as a "mature" work only part of the promise of the Sonata for Unaccompanied 'Cello and of the Marienleben Cycle. This is not to say that it is not a better work than its forerunners. Of course it is. It is, by all the standards which we can apply to a musician's craft independent of our approval or disapproval of his esthetic, an extremely skillful, well coordinated piece of work. Then why does it disappoint us so much? Why, with all this dexterity, this adroit counterpoint, is there so much missing in this sonata? I suppose no one really knows the answer to that, if there is one, except Paul Hindemith but I would suggest that what is missing is that sense of adventure, of uncertainty, of awkwardness even, which makes such human documents of the 'Cello Sonata and especially the Marienleben. They represent to us a young man (he was 29 when he composed the Marienleben in its original version which we perform today) struggling with all the incomprehensible vastness of the world of music – a world which in his youth had received the shattering impact of the knowledge of its own obverse – the knowledge of atonality. And both the natural resources and the consequential limitations of atonality lay yawning before Paul Hindemith as they did before all the young people of his generation.

It is rather obvious that the works of Hindemith which most closely approximate the total acceptance of this total dissonance, are the works of his early youth. He is never, however, found to be composing without some reference to a centrifugal order. But the gravitational sense in Hindemith, the sense of tonal adjustment as it were, is not sponsored primarily by a reflection of the ardent tonal-chromatic procedures of the German romantics. The tonal sense in Hindemith is on the whole a rather unique one and in the early works particularly one which is both pliable and coherent and which proves to be for these experimental years of his a most satisfactory governing discipline. His harmonic sense is not one which accepts without challenge the convention of triadic harmony as a source of resolution though it does, if only through the psychological perversity of the listener, insist upon building its own somewhat equivalent structures. He does, however, build several of the Marienleben Songs, noticeably the specifically contrapuntal ones such as The Presentation in the Temple (No. 2) and the first two parts of The Death of Mary, upon a manner of voice leading and contrapuntal interplay which is not terribly far removed, except by a certain reluctant embarrassment to cadence decisively, from the part writing of most of the late German romantics. He also, however, manages to build a good many of the other songs, most particularly The Birth of Mary (No. 1), upon a quite unique concept of the relativity of harmonic 4th chords and their triadic counterparts. And, still again, there appears in songs like The Marriage at Cana the kind of early Renaissance contrapuntal jamboree that became such a prominent part of Hindemith's mature fugal style. In short, the Marienleben is hardly tied together by a single idiomatic thread nor is it, in the organized sense of the Schonbergians, a tidy, neat composition motivically. What it really contains are fifteen of the most splendidly promising songs of our age – fifteen songs which asked the question very distinctly in 1923 – what will happen to Paul Hindemith?

No one, I suppose, can be expected to answer a question in fifteen ways and Paul Hindemith's answer was a most unique blend of resurgent counterpoint and harmonic stability. His counterpoint has, at the best of times, the intensity and drive and fitting-all-togetherness of Josquin or of Ockeghem. It has, also, at times the flatulence of Pfitzner on a dull day. His harmony in the mature years extenuated those tendencies which revealed his specific embarrassment with the cadence formulations of conventional tonality and substituted for the effect of the dominant-subdominant polarities, the side-ways embellishment of the 2nd and 7th degrees of the scale. His formal structures for the most part have been a 20th century rethinking of the sonata style of the Mozart-through-Schubert generation but out of this odd mixture there has developed a genuine musical personality – a man who may have become imprisoned by his own dexterity but a man who, despite the evident restrictions of his language, has made a very substantial contribution to the music of our time. His contrapuntal manner is as valid as any other at the present. His formal enterprise – or lack of it – portrays only that degree of terror in the face of dissolution which has been felt by most other composers in our age, and his harmonic invention though cloistered is perfectly responsible to the other ingredients of his style. But it is a style which does not seem to be regenerating. He is a backwater – but then some of the most colourful, radiant vegetation may flourish season after season miraculously upon the stagnant surface of a pool. The world may go past without changing direction because of it, but that does not make the backwater in its own splendidly uncaring way less valid or less beautiful.


Program for a Stratford Festival concert, July 29, 1962

Program for Stratford Festival concert, July 29, 1962. Glenn Gould, Lois Marshall, Leonard Rose and John Horton performed works by Paul Hindemith. Gould's essay Hindemith: The Early Years was published in the program.

Source: Library and Archives Canada/Glenn Gould fonds/MUS 109-44,34,5
© Stratford Festival of Canada. Reproduced with the permission of the Stratford Festival of Canada, the Estate of Glenn Gould and Glenn Gould Limited.

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