Paul Hindemith

Picture of Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith, the great German composer, and one-time world-famed virtuoso violist, died last year in Frankfurt, West Germany on the 29th December. The last time I spoke with him was after his Royal Festival Hall concert in London, Autumn, 1962. A few days prior to this I discussed by telephone with Hindemith and his devoted wife, Gertrude (who looked after much of his affairs both artistic and financial) the question of Hindemith coming to South Africa to conduct some concerts of his own music. As a matter of fact, I had been trying to persuade him to do this ever since I came to this country. At one time, when he was still Professor of Composition at Yale University - that is, up until 1950 - he did seriously consider coming here. Here is a relevant excerpt from a letter sent to me on January 19th, l948:
"Your last remark is quite alluring. A tour through South Africa is by no means beyond our reach. I am leaving for Europe in July, by way of Iceland and England. As I have a Sabbatical, I shall stay over there till February or even the summer of l949. If you are interested, I could send you reports of my activities as a conductor, teacher and lecturer last year, all over Europe. I do not play the viola any more, except for my own pleasure. I do not know when your concert season is, but I could arrange to come down in January. Distance does not mean much, but the mere travel expenses for Mrs. Hindemith and myself seem to be awfully high. Perhaps you have some funds for cases of that kind. The plan may be nothing but a strange dream. If so, I would be glad to hear the rattling of the alarm clock in your next letter."

Unfortunately, we could not have Hindemith here during our summer vacation, nor was it possible for him to come in our second University term, as, by that time, he had to return to the States. I wrote to Hindemith on subsequent occasions, but he was more and more in demand all over Europe and America, and in any case, he had indicated pretty clearly by this time that he would not come here just for his expenses.

In the conversations that I had with the Hindemith's in England, October 1962, his wife Gertrude raised another difficulty. They refused to travel by air, and the minimum round trip of four weeks, by ship, occupied more time than they could spare. I then broached the matter of his latest opera, a setting of Tennessee William's bitter-sweet, time-telescoped play, "The Long Christmas Dinner", composed in 1960 and published in 1961. The opera had just had a highly successful premiere in the Mannheim Opera House, Germany, 17th December, 1962, conducted by the composer. Mrs. Hindemith told me the press were enthusiastic and compared its simplicity, tunefulness and charm to that of a Mozart opera. The composer was particularly fond of it, and Hindemith had reserved for himself, the rights of conducting the opera. Hindemith said he was prepared to conduct performances in London with our Cape Town Opera Company, if a suitable time could be arranged. He said he knew of our successful launching of Bela Bartok's "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" in England, 1957, and had no fussy artistic qualms about associating himself with a mainly amateur University Opera Company of this calibre and enterprise. He looked up his diary - in February he was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, in March he had to be in Vienna, and so on.

Assuming that a convenient date could be arranged, another problem was to find a companion piece to go along with "The Long Christmas Dinner", in one act and playing for only an hour. I was about to suggest his own "Sancta Susanna" but quickly remembered that even in Europe the work is, on religious grounds, seldom performed. "Hin und Zuruck" which we did here in 1962, was obviously too short. Hindemith said it was his intention to write a companion piece to "The Long Christmas Dinner", but had been unable to find a suitable libretto - Had I any suggestions? "Why not use one of the shorter Eugene Lonesco plays?" I replied. "Rhinoceros" is marvellous but too long - some of the others would make a first-rate libretto." "The trouble is", he replied drily, "they are too good, too original". He doubted if he could write equally good music, and besides, the Ionesco plays were entirely complete in themselves and didn't call for the addition of music.

Remembering that we had a practically unknown one-act Cherubini opera, "The Portuguese Inn-keeper" recently added to our repertoire (June 1962) I hazarded "Why not something by Cherubini?" and mentioned this opera. He immediately pricked up his ears, saying he had a very great respect for Cherubini, who had been very much maligned (owing to Berlioz's catty remarks about him in his Autobiography) and said that he himself had conducted some of his little known Masses: further, that whether or not we were associated in some future London performances, he would very much like to see a score of "The Portuguese Innkeeper" for its own sake, with a view to performing it elsewhere. Was it an original work or a pastische? I assured him it was an original opera alright, first performed in 1797, revived in Magdeburg 1917, but that we were having some difficulty in locating the score.

At Hindemith's Royal Festival Hall concert the following evening (arranged, incidentally, by one of our old students, Ernest Fleischman, now employed in steering the destiny of the London Symphony Orchestra into adventurous paths, conditioned, he boasts, by his avant-garde Cape Town musical education), the second part of the programme consisted of his "Requiem for those we love" based on Walt Whitman’s poem "When Lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed." This is not one of my favourite Hindemith works, although it has many unmistakable Hindemith characteristics. The composer gives the work a Baroque aura by introducing Bach-like rhythmic units in unbroken pattern sequences: for example, in the aria "Sing on there in the swamp." (a Scotch snap), the duet "Sing on! sing on gray-brown bird" - (a pattern of six semiquavers and three quavers) and indeed the entire requiem is pervaded with the formalism of a Bach Cantata, but in my opinion, lacking Bach's inspiration. There are some magnificent and impressive passages in a work, written - I suppose - as a sop to American culture at the time Hindemith took out American citizenship. In the first half of the programme we heard a fine clean-cut, silhouette-like performance of a Bruchner Mass, beautifully sung and played under Hindemith's enthusiastic and masterly direction. The warm sincerity, deep humanity, modesty and scrupulous artistic honesty, characteristics of Hindemith's personality, came across, as always, to the large and enthusiastic audience. They were aware of being in the presence of a great modern master of composition who, at the same time, was an enthusiastic propagandist of neglected great musicians of earlier epochs. Although I talked to Hindemith for only a few minutes after the concert, being one of a long queue of old and new admirers waiting in the artist's room to congratulate and pay their respects to a great, lovable, genial, German musician: and although he had not seen me for nearly 30 years - our intercourse, in the interval had been entirely by correspondence - he recognised me at once "Ah, there you are, Mr. Chisholm! How is smoky old G1asgow getting along? You really shou1d get us out to South African sunshine, away from these tiresome London fogs. Glad to see you again, and do keep in touch."

Before turning to Hindemith's connection with the Active Society I think you might be interested to hear excerpts from a letter he sent me in January 1948, in reply to one of mine asking for his advice about new staff for the S.A. College of Music, You will see how ready, indeed anxious Hindemith was to help us, and how precise, shrewd and honest were his judgments. He was directly responsible for Lili Kraus coming here as senior lecturer in piano.


No composer of this century will be more missed than Hindemith. Operas, cantatas, choral works, symphonies, overtures and other orchestral works, concertos for practically every instrument, chamber music for every possible combination; piano and organ sonatas; a new "48" for piano, songs and song- cycles; just about every known type of composition appeared in profusion from his untiring pen. No composer of this century had a greater personal compositional technique than Hindemith. Ernest Newman once said he played the viola in order to keep his hand from writing more music. On the death of George V, in 1936, he wrote a new "In Memoriam" concerto for viola and orchestra in three days.

No composer of this century wrote a greater variety of music than Hindemith: his Op. 42 is called "Felix the Cat" for mechanical organ; his big work for 1951 is a huge philosophical opera on the life of Kepler called "Harmony of the World". Hindemith also wrote elementary and advanced music textbooks, his personal musical credo - "Composer's World", many newspaper articles and some of his own opera libretti. No composer of this century has a greater overall world prestige than Hindemith. He was an outstanding but not a great teacher: his own musical personality and technique were so strongly individual, so settled, so allied to a particular contrapuntal technique, that his conscientious pupils - always turned into just imitators of their master.

Let us now consider the Hindemith of 1930 when he played at an Active Society concert. He had just written what for him was clearly the most trifling of exercises - probably just a light afternoon’s work - a game - for children "We build a Town" for children's voices and three instruments - for any three instruments. It is a typical example of the Hindemith-Weill (egged on by Bertold Brecht) Gebrauchsmusik - "Music for All" - "Utility Music" - "Music for Everyday Use", music written in a very familiar idiom, unpretentious, tuneful, unambitious; the reverse of the elevated, dedicated Holier-than-thou "Art-for-Art’s-Sake" kind of music.

I got hold of a score, gave it to Agnes Duncan, who rehearsed it with her Junior Orpheus Choir, and on the night, her children gave a word and note perfect performance which delighted and amused the 35 year old composer. A year or two earlier some of these children had performed a group of Children's Songs by Stravinsky and sung them in Russian too - one of them the "Teal-im-Bom" which Olga Slobadskaya sings so enchantingly,

Til-em-bom, Til-em-bom: Za ga rerl sha, cause ee dom.
Be-ish yet koo-re-val a

Hindemith played three sonatas: for viola alone, Op. 25 No.3; for viola and piano, Op. 11 No.4: and for viola d'amore and piano Op. 25 No.2. Hindemith must be one of the very few 20th Century composers who is prolific enough to group several sonatas under the same opus number.

I was the pianist, and, although I played a great deal in those days, I certainly had qualms about being a competent partner for such a world-famous composer and virtuoso player. Hindemith had an international reputation from 1921 onwards, and I see that our local music critics (by no means au fait with the then futuristic music) however much they may have been puzzled by his music, all referred to him as the "famous" Hindemith. One such critic described the viola sonata as representing a rare buoyancy of spirit, perhaps better described as a kind of powerful restlessness. With the assistance of a local viola player (Mrs Shannon - our Pat's mother) I had been practising the piano part for several weeks prior to the concert. Hindemith was kindness itself at the rehearsals: he seemed pleased that I was quick on the uptake, immediately caught on to his tempi, and was not afraid to give him plenty of support.

Don’t think me immodest if I read you this "Glasgow Herald" account of my part in the proceedings:- "Mr. Erik Chisholm, his partner, performed an exacting task with great success. There is a spontaneous quality in his playing which makes him always interesting, and his power of response to the music includes a genuine sensitiveness on appropriate occasions, but there were a few places in this exciting work last night when a too heavy and inelastic treatment of the keyboard robbed his playing of some of its intended vitality and brilliance", which I may say is high praise, for neither then - nor now - in Britain, Canada, India or Malaya was I ever personally on friendly terms - usually the opposite - with local press critics. I remember that in a certain passage in the viola d'amore sonata, Hindemith said: "Would it not be better if you played it this way - with such and such a finger? And do use more downward wrist movement for a cantabile touch". I quickly slipped off the piano stool and he gave me a convincing demonstration. It was fun, too, to hear and accompany a viola d'amore; this was, indeed, the first time I had ever heard the instrument. It is similar in size to the ordinary viola, but had 6 or 7 gut strings, tuned in 3rd and 4th, and a secondary set of fine steel strings lying close to the belly, which in Hindemith's instrument was decorated with a circular rose and a blindfolded Cupid on the head - I believe this ornamentation is original.

Hindemith played with great gusto, sweeping the bow powerfully across the strings in the many arpeggio-ed 6 note chords.

All his life, Hindemith divided his energies between composing and performing. Born in 1895, while still in his teens, he earned his living as violinist, violist, pianist and trap-drummer: playing in a cafe orchestra, dance orchestra, movie orchestra, jazz band, military band and for operettas. Later, when he graduated from "Pop" commercial music, he became leading violinist and concert master at the Frankfurt-am-Main opera House. During the eight years that followed (1915-1922), he joined the Amar Quartet as their violist, and with Simon Goldberg and Enmanuel Feuerman formed a string trio which gained international renown.

It is time to play you some music, and here is the scherzo for viola and cello from Hindemith’s 2nd string trio, played by the composer (viola) and Emanuel Feuerman (cello).

Recording made in 1927.

Cape Town audiences have heard a fair amount of Hindemith's music in the past, notably when the Kreitzer Quartet performed the complete cycle of his string quartets in the College of Music, 1953. Again, many of his sonatas for single wind instruments and piano have been heard at the Hiddingh Hall; also "The Four Temperaments", the piano sonatas and songs and Hindemith's version of the "Well-tempered Klavier", a collection of preludes and fugues which he calls "Lodus Tonalis", played brilliantly by Adolf Hallis.

I would like you now to listen to the first two movements of his concerto for orchestra Op. 38, a work which has not been heard here. Any concerto for orchestra, living up to the name, must pay allegiance to the 17th Century concerto grosso - where small combinations of solo instruments alternate and contrast with the full orchestra - or otherwise, why call it a concerto? In the short first movement of this concerto, oboe, viola and bassoon - as a concertante group - contrast their own thematic material with a broad declamatory passage on the orchestra; we find the same modus operandi in the Brandenburg Concertos. The scherzo follows without pause, illustrating the composer's fondness for a massed layered orchestration; note particularly the whirling vortex arabesque writing for the strings. Hindemith’s orchestration, as a rule, is not of the brilliance and multi-spectrum colours of Stravinsky being more restrained and appearing to be more concerned with the moving texture of the music itself than for developing colour possibilities and devising varied instrumental presentations of the material, - music texture first, colouring matter afterwards.

Wilhelm Furtwängler conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

The day following the Glasgow concert, Hindemith travelled with me to Edinburgh to renew his acquaintance with Donald Tovey. I don't know how close was the friendship between them, but in conversation they called each other by their first names. Hindemith was the sort of modern composer whom Tovey could respect and understand up to a point, and did indeed very much admire. Tovey was, however, too much steeped in the classical traditions to wholeheartedly approve of modern composers who deviated from the straight and narrow path of classical tonality. When a student in our composition class once asked Tovey what was his opinion of Schonberg's theory of tone rows, our Professor very heatedly replied: "Bunk.! just plain bunk!" I had some work to do in the library that morning and left the two great men together. A couple of hours later, Tovey called me into the class room, asking me if I had brought with me the score of Sorabji's second piano concerto, as I had promised. I had, and opening it at the first page, Tovey shouted across to Hindemith, who had been examining the console of our organ in the Reid School of Music: "Come and have a look at this score, Paul, and tell me how you would conduct the opening bar." More about Sorabji: suffice just now to state he is a Parsi composer who moves in a world of superlatives: he writes enormously long, enormously complex, enormously difficult, enormously un-practical works, which nobody wants to play, nobody has ever played, and nobody is allowed to play; yet, contrariwise, everything he writes has about it the air of a master. Hindemith pored over the score, attempting to grapple with the technical problems of conducting the first bar of this Sorabji piano concerto, (incidentally, dedicated to Cortot). The opening bar has eleven quavers in it, and you can comfortably beat out the first seven quavers - 60 to the minute - when you reach quaver 8, however, the conductor is required simultaneously to (a) beat four further quavers to control the clarinet syncopations (b) beat three for the violin triples (c) beat two for the two groups of quintuplets on the flute. As these facts registered on him Hindemith became noticeably paler - : "how does a conductor, with only two hands, do a job which requires at least three?" He moved on to the next bar - in common time, with a triplet lying across the 3rd and 4th quavers: shakily turned a page - a 5/4 bar with still further rhythmical complexities "Ach," exclaimed the bewildered German master, "there is only one solution to this problem - the composer himself must conduct his concerto." "But, Paul", replied Tovey, gently, "Sorabji is the only pianist in the world who can play the solo piano part. You can hardly expect him to play - and conduct - now can you?"

Hindemith died ten weeks ago. Time, in its own good time, will assess and fix his position in musical history; a position - in the nature of things - bound to be as fluid and fickle as with Cherubini, Bruchner, Berlioz and others, whom this generous-hearted and genial man did his best to bring more favourably into public honour.

Here now are now some slides...

Hindemith at 33: he sent this photograph to me from Berlin - Charlottenburg where he was living in the early 1930's
A letter in Hindemith's hand writing - discusses the difficulty he has in arranging a further concert in Glasgow
A letter in Hindemith's hand writing - discusses the difficulty he has in arranging a further concert in Glasgow
ere you see Mde. Armhold with Hindemith
Here you see Mde. Armhold with Hindemith, after the Menz performance. Stravinsky is also in the picture
Hindemith sometimes made his own Christmas cards: here is one he sent me in 1952
Hindemith sometimes made his own Christmas cards: here is one he sent me in 1952: on a background of a million notes he has written - Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and then pasted twisted bits of paper eachwith a word - Paul - Gertrude - Hindemith - 1952 - 1953: typical of his tireless energy, passion for detail and boisterous fun
Message written on card
This is the message he wrote on the other side of the card
Hindemith conducting a rehearsal in the summer of 1947
Hindemith conducting a rehearsal in the summer of 1947 - Left picture "Now who made that mistake? Centre picture - "It was you, wasn't it?" Right picture - "That's better?"
An example of Hindemith's manuscript
An example of Hindemith's manuscript, the first page of his string quartet in E flat composed in 1943 and written for the Budapest Quartet
A page from the third movement - a set of variations
Hindemith conducting
The last picture is of Hindemith rehearsing his opera "The Harmony of the World" at the 1957 Munich Festival. He wrote both words and music

To close this session I will play you a movement from Hindemith's "Symphonic Metamorphosis on themes by Carl Maria Von Weber." The best of these is the Scherzo, where a theme from Weber's "Turandot" is melodically brought up-to-date, repeated over and over again as it is tossed from one instrument to another, and built up into a long and thrilling crescendo: in the second part of the movement it is jazzed up.

PLAY RECORD Second Movement

Tomorrow morning we deal with two musical aristocrats - Kaikhosru Shapurgi Sorabji and Bernard van Dieren.