Kammermusik No. 1, Op. 24, No. 1
In the early 1920s Paul Hindemith – composer, conductor, violist, educator and theoretician – became the acknowledged leader of the German musical avant-garde. As a result, he was made a member of the organizing committee of the annual music festival in Donaueschingen in south Germany, which was dedicated to the performance of new music (a fellow member was Kurt Weill). This prestigious festival was held in the family seat of the princes von Fürstenberg, where the 10-year-old Mozart had played in 1766 and Liszt in 1843.
Hindemith’s eclectic, modernist style, of course, did not sit well with the Nazis and the composer was forced to leave, emigrating to the United States, where he established himself at Yale and wrote a harmony book almost universally hated by first-year music students.
Hindemith composed Kammermusik No. 1 for the festival in 1922, dedicating it to the prince. It is an irreverent work scored for string quartet, double bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, accordion, piano, harmonium, and percussion including a glockenspiel, xylophone, siren and a tin can filled with sand. Each of the four movements, played without pause, focusses on different sonorities. The brief introduction for the whole ensemble sounds a little like a rip-off from the opening of Petrushka. The second movement is a quick-march during which the four orchestra sections engage in dialogue. A quiet respite from the nervous energy is a woodwind trio, featuring lyrical solos for flute and bassoon. The finale is simply frenetic, a perpetual motion movement in which the strings play an underlying ostinato while each of the other instruments gets a substantial solo.
The series of seven Kammermusik works foreshadow one of the composer’s subsequent projects. Hindemith, calling himself “A Master Craftsman,” was able to play – at least passably – all the standard instruments of the symphony orchestra and subsequently composed sonatas for each of them.
Rhapsody in Blue
The musical idiom of jazz evolved in New Orleans in the early part of the twentieth century from ragtime and the blues. The origin of the term jazz is obscure, but it first appeared in print in 1913 in a San Francisco newspaper, in reference to enthusiasm at a baseball game. The application of the term to a specific style of music occurred during World War I.
It was in Europe, however, where American dance bands were popular, that classical composers first incorporated the new idiom into their compositions: Claude Debussy in Golliwog’s Cakewalk (1908); Igor Stravinsky in Ragtime (1918); Maurice Ravel in the Piano Concerto in G major; and especially Darius Milhaud in the ballet La création du monde (1923).
George Gershwin was the first American composer to make jazz acceptable to the American classical music audience. The son of poor Jewish immigrants in lower Manhattan, he was a natural-born pianist and left school at 16 to become a pianist with a Tin-Pan Alley firm, plugging their new songs. He soon commenced writing songs himself, eventually teaming up with his brother Ira as lyricist to become one of the most successful teams of song and musical comedy writers on Broadway. They created a string of immensely successful musicals from Lady be Good in December 1924 to Let ‘em Eat Cake in October 1933. The opening night of a George Gershwin musical comedy was a social and media event with Gershwin himself usually leading the orchestra.
Gershwin received the commission for an extended jazz composition from a conductor of popular music, Paul Whiteman, who promoted concerts of jazz music in New York’s Aeolian Hall. Whiteman was the self-styled “King of Jazz” who attempted to make jazz more symphonic and respectable. Whiteman’s commission followed an Aeolian Hall concert in the fall of 1923, at which Gershwin had played piano arrangements of a few of his songs.
Gershwin composed the Rhapsody in a mere three weeks early in 1924, in a two-piano version. Lacking the skills to orchestrate the work, he turned it over for piano and jazz orchestration to Ferde Grofé, a popular composer, pianist and arranger, who served as Whiteman’s factotum. Grofé practically lived in Gershwin’s house, orchestrating the work page-by-page as it came from the composer’s pen. He also rescored the Rhapsody two years later for full symphony orchestra.
The premiere, on February 12 1924, was a smashing success. Although the critics – true to form – mostly panned it, the audience loved it. Virtually overnight, jazz became respectable. Gershwin himself played the piano part, becoming an instant celebrity. Significant credit for the success must go to Grofé’s imaginative orchestration, which has ended up as his most enduring contribution to music, along with his Grand Canyon Suite.
In the fall of 1930 George Gershwin traveled to Hollywood to work on the score for the film Delicious, starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Perhaps at Gershwin’s own suggestion, a lengthy musical sequence was devised for the film that would give Gershwin more artistic scope. Called in that context New York Rhapsody and later Rhapsody in Rivets, the music accompanied a scene in which an immigrant composer-pianist described his wandering through the streets of the city with its hard-edged sounds, Latin rhythms and offbeat serenades. Only about half of Gershwin’s music was used in the film.
However, according to the composer, he wrote the work as purely abstract music: “There is no program to the Rhapsody. As the part of the picture where it is to be played takes place in many streets in New York, I used as a starting point what I called ‘a rivet theme,’ but, after that, I just wrote a piece of music without any program”
In the following year Gershwin reorchestrated and expanded the Rhapsody at the request of Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony, who premiered it in 1932 with the composer at the piano.
Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber
In the 1930s Hindemith’s musical language became warmer and more humanistic, combining traditional ideas of tonality with the ever-widening harmonic resources of the twentieth century. But his inquiring and rebellious spirit brought him into conflict with the Nazi hierarchy and forced him to flee Germany in 1937. His opera Mathis der Maler, about the life of the German Renaissance painter Mathis Grünewald and the concept of artistic freedom sealed his fate and brought him to Yale.
Hindemith composed the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber in 1943, based on sketches he had made for a ballet a few years earlier. It is a rollicking, witty orchestral showpiece, whose themes seem to evolve over time as they change style from classical to contemporary. This quality is already well demonstrated in the opening to the first movement, based on the Allegro all’ongarese, the fourth of Weber’s eight Piano Duets, Op. 60. It is a swaggering march with a slightly eastern flavor.
The second movement has an entirely different origin. In 1768 Jean-Jacques Rousseau quoted the theme in his Musical Dictionary, stating that he got it from Jean Baptiste Duhalde, an eighteenth-century priest and China traveler who claimed that it was Chinese. There it was discovered by Weber, who used it in 1809 for his incidental music to Schiller’s translation of Carlo Gozzi’s play Turandot. In Hindemith’s hand it is gradually morphs from singsong chinoiserie into a jazzy fugue.
The slow and gentle third movement theme comes from one of Weber’s Piano Duets, Op. 10. It begins with a lovely arabesque for oboe and clarinet and ends with a charming flute embellishment. The final movement is based on the Marcia funebre, the seventh of the Piano Duets, Op. 60. Suggesting more a funeral march for a doll rather than for a human being, it ends exuberantly, with a showcase for the full orchestra.
Program notes by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn