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Hyperion Records

CDH55413 - Hindemith: Ludus Tonalis & Suite '1922'
Adapted from a special edition of Ludus Tonalis illustrated by the composer.
Reproduced by kind permission of Schott & Co
(Originally issued on CDA66824)

Recording details: July 1995
The Warehouse, Waterloo, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: November 2012
DISCID: B210391E
Total duration: 68 minutes 59 seconds

'L'excellent pianiste John McCabe s'engage dans une approche unitaire, grave et remarquablement architecturée, privilégiant l'austerité et la densité du propos' (Le Monde de la Musique, France)

Ludus Tonalis & Suite '1922'
Marsch  [1'29]
Shimmy  [3'40]
Nachtstück  [5'58]
Boston  [5'16]
Ragtime  [2'43]

Ludus Tonalis is that great work of intellectual gymnastics which has been called a '20th-century composer's reappraisal of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier', but its twelve fugues and their interludes are notable equally for their emotion as for their (indisputable) logic. The work represents a musical statement of Hindemith's theories yet in it we encounter one of the most adventurous works for solo piano of the twentieth century.

The Suite '1922' has five movements which stylize various American popular dance themes, each featuring Hindemith's characteristically cavalier use of traditional harmony and Satie-like instructions to the performer: 'Regard the piano here as an interesting percussion instrument ...'

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
'Hindemith’s success lies in his being a power for order.’ Thus Wilhelm Furtwängler, writing in his Notebooks for 1945. At that time, Hindemith was living in America, Furtwängler in Switzerland. Both of these great German musicians were in exile as a result of their opposition to the Third Reich. They had first met in the early 1920s when Hindemith was leader of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra and Furtwängler was the conductor of that city’s Museum Concerts, prior to his appointment in 1922 as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in succession to Arthur Nikisch.

1922 was also a significant year for Hindemith. Born in 1895 near Frankfurt, the son of a house-painter, Hindemith’s early life was dominated by his strongly independent father who—himself musical—encouraged his naturally musical children (Paul, Rudolf and their sister Toni). Paul Hindemith’s gifts were wholly exceptional. By the age of twenty, and a member of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra, he had played Bach’s Chaconne and the Beethoven Violin Concerto in public and had begun to compose. He was also a fine pianist and mastered several other instruments. Hindemith’s earliest works exhibit little of the total originality that marked them out from about 1922 onwards—chamber music featured much among them, for he played in various ensembles, largely for pleasure, not for profit. His ability as a violinist ensured he had plenty of work, but in 1917 he was called up for military service. Whereas other musicians and composers fought at the front, and some were wounded or killed, Hindemith was fortunate in his commanding officers. They were from old, patrician families and the young corporal spent much time in organizing chamber music concerts for his superior officers, for which he was thankful. His father had been killed in action in Flanders in 1915.

After the war, Hindemith returned to lead the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra, but the artistic climate was subtly changing. His composing now continued apace, and in 1919 he wrote to the music publishers Schott and struck a deal with the company which lasted for the rest of his life, even if, at first, Willy Strecker (the son of the head of the firm), on seeing the music Hindemith wrote after his Second String Quartet (Op 10, 1918)—the work that commended him to the company—baulked at some of these compositions, fearing their commercial failure.

In March 1920 Hindemith offered Strecker some ‘foxtrots, Bostons, ragtimes, and other junk of that kind. When I run out of any decent ideas I always write such things. I am very good at it … ’ He actually sent Strecker some of these pieces, but soon afterwards they were returned as Hindemith said he needed them for a dance at which he was to play. Whether the occasion of the dance was the reason for their return, or whether (as Strecker had expressed some interest in them) Hindemith shied at the idea of such pieces being published with his name at the time when he was seeking to establish himself as a serious composer, it was clear that he was au fait with the latest popular music.

Among the conductors under whom Hindemith led the opera orchestra in Frankfurt was Fritz Busch. Although Hindemith was writing music regularly, he was diffident about showing his compositions to others. Busch had learned of Hindemith’s work and asked to see some scores. With his theatrical background, Hindemith had written three one-act expressionist operas. Busch decided to produce two of them in Stuttgart. The third, Sancta Susanna (given in Frankfurt) caused a sensation—as much for the story (about a sex-obsessed nun) as for the music. The production of these operas in 1921/2 was the breakthrough Hindemith had been looking for as a composer. He resigned from the Frankfurt Opera and concentrated, with financial help from Schott, almost exclusively on composition, though he continued as a professional chamber musician for almost the rest of the decade.

1922 was indeed the turning-point for the twenty-six-year-old. In September of that year he wrote to Emmy Ronnefeldt on his work during the previous months: ‘A lot of orchestral playing, a great many concerts, a lot of touring. And an awful amount of composing … ’ He then listed twelve scores written that year, including the Suite ‘1922’, Op 26 for solo piano. If two years earlier Hindemith had shied away from having his popular music published, after the impact of Sancta Susanna he had no qualms about writing concert music in these forms. The composer felt the personal importance of that period, as he incorporated the year in the title. The Suite is in five movements, two of which—the opening ‘Marsch’ and the central ‘Nachtstück’—in their cavalier use of traditional harmony and Satie-like instructions (the march to be played ‘rather clumsily’) more than suggest a Dada-esque approach to music, reinforcing some of Willy Strecker’s misgivings. The remaining three movements are stylizations of popular music of the day: ‘Shimmy’ (No 2), an American dance not unlike the foxtrot; ‘Boston’ (No 4)—another American dance, a slow waltz—and the final ‘Ragtime’, the most jazzy of the Suite’s movements, which also has iconoclastic instructions for the player: ‘Play this piece very wildly, but keep it in strict rhythm, like a machine. Regard the piano here as an interesting percussion instrument … ’ Hindemith’s emerging individuality can nonetheless be discerned in Suite ‘1922’.

Hindemith himself designed the title page. He was a talented artist, a gifted linguist, but his genius lay in music. From his father he had learned rather forcibly the virtues of hard, sustained work, and during the 1920s his list of compositions grew apace, his art defining, and redefining, an inner conviction that music had to be based upon tonal principles. He regarded tonality as a natural force, like gravity, a belief reinforced through his parallel career as a performing musician. He now concentrated upon the viola, achieving international status on the instrument. In 1929 he was the soloist in the world premieres of Walton’s Viola Concerto in London and of Milhaud’s Viola Concerto No 1 in Amsterdam.

In the late 1920s Hindemith composed a number of short works to which a generic title cannot adequately be given. He later thought the title ‘Music to Sing and Play’ about the best. They were short pieces, ‘everyday music’ almost, ‘utility music’—not meant as concert works sagely dissertated upon, but music people might like to use in the same way as they will pass the time of day by reading a magazine article, or doing a crossword. The appearance of such music, of such a compositional philosophy, came to haunt and dog Hindemith’s career somewhat, but those who know his music well are aware that his greatest works—among the finest of the twentieth century—are those surrounding the four large operas that appeared at cardinal points throughout his career: Cardillac, Neues vom Tage, Mathis der Maler and Die Harmonie der Welt.

The early 1930s saw Hindemith as composition professor at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. With the appearance of the Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Harps, Op 49, for the Chicago Symphony, and his great Concert Music for Strings and Brass, Op 50, for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s fiftieth season (the last work to which he gave an opus number)—and the Philharmonic Concerto for Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic—Hindemith’s international reputation seemed assured.

Willy Strecker had suggested that Hindemith write an opera on Matthias Grünewald, the early sixteenth-century German artist—an idea the composer did not at first find attractive. But the election of Adolf Hitler as German Chancellor in January 1933 had long-term implications for all. As the Nazis took hold of every aspect of German life, including art, the idea of an artist at odds with the leaders of his society—as Grünewald had been—pushed itself forward as an ideal allegory for modern times. The opera was finally completed in 1935, but early the previous year Hindemith completed an orchestral Symphony Mathis der Maler using music also utilized in the opera. Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic gave the premiere of the Symphony in March 1934. Soon afterwards, Hindemith conducted the first recording of it for Telefunken, but in spite of the success of the Symphony, Hindemith fell into disfavour with the Nazis—the early operas, which Fritz Busch had premiered in 1921, were now condemned for their subject-matter. Hindemith’s wife was half-Jewish, and it became clear that the Hindemiths would have to leave Germany. At the end of 1938 they moved to Switzerland, where Mathis der Maler finally received its premiere under Robert F Denzler.

Two years later, after the outbreak of war, Hindemith emigrated to America. This was not his first visit, but it was the most significant, for in America Hindemith found the resources and the environment in which his art could continue to flourish. He had moved on, artistically, from the excesses of his youth. Writing to Willy Strecker’s son Hugo in 1940, he said: ‘I think it is not necessary to reprint that awful Suite ‘1922’, neither with picture nor without. The piece is really not an honourable ornament in the music-history of our time, and it depresses an old man [Hindemith was then not yet fifty!] rather seriously to see that just the sins of his youth impress the people more than his better creations … ’—a comment which demonstrates that composers are rarely the best judges of their work.

In America, which welcomed him, Hindemith could also continue with what had become an important aspect of his life: teaching. Towards the end of 1940 he was appointed professor of music at Yale University, but his methods did not always please his students; another pupil (though not at Yale) was Lukas Foss, who admired Hindemith greatly but walked out of his class in anger.

Hindemith had outlined his approach to music in The Craft of Musical Composition, published in 1937, which was greeted by Donald Francis Tovey with the comment, ‘the great event in musical history at this moment is the appearance of Hindemith’s harmony book’. In English, Hindemith wrote of the composer’s social role in A Composer’s World in 1950. But Hindemith had not written a work which musically summed up his theories. It is true that all of his music did that, to varying degrees, but—being the kind of man he was—he needed to put these ideas into a piece which students and professionals could play and study at home, if necessary, and which would demonstrate in practical-theoretical fashion, his approach to composition.

The result was Ludus Tonalis, a work for solo piano composed in 1942, which bears the subtitle ‘Studies in Counterpoint, Tonal Organization and Piano Playing’, a work in the spirit of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. Ludus Tonalis—which might best be translated as ‘Tonal Game’—consists of twelve fugues, interspersed with interludes, which latter movements, among other things, modulate from the ‘key’ of one fugue to that of the next. The work is begun and ended with a Praeludium and a Postludium respectively, so composed that they are actually the same music—the latter piece is the former, played backwards and upside down.

However academic this procedure may seem in description, in practice we encounter one of the most thrilling and exciting works for solo piano of the twentieth century. As the ‘key’ of each fugue is arrived at by way of the preceding modulatory Interludium, it is clear that Hindemith intended the work to be heard continuously.

Hindemith’s view of tonality was based upon the overtones produced by a single note when resonating—according to universal laws of acoustics, the twelve degrees of the chromatic scale have clearly defined relationships to the note. Hindemith believed that relationships between intervals can be so organized; these twin facets remained as the bases of his music. In Ludus Tonalis, therefore, the fundamental tonality, C, is departed from in accordance with the natural relationship of the degrees. The interludes are wholly transitionary, fulfilling a primary modulatory function. Thus, they cannot be separated from the preceding fugue or performed separately. In addition, they are exclusively homophonic in contrast to the polyphony (in this context, a more appropriate word than ‘counterpoint’) of the fugues. Hindemith knew, as not all composers do, that fugue is most emphatically not a form; it is essentially a texture. We have mentioned the word ‘key’ earlier with inverted commas, as Hindemith never stipulates the mode. We should therefore consider the ‘key’ of each fugue as being not a tonality in the generally accepted sense of the word, but a tonal region, defined by the subject of the fugue. The Praeludium contains within it all the elements to be explored in the ensuing work. It is itself in three main parts, akin to toccata, arioso and chorale. Starting in C, it eventually modulates to F sharp, which, as the subject of the Fuga Prima begins on G, is felt as the ‘leading note’ in traditional harmony, thus forming a cyclical transition to the C of the fugue. There are exceptionally subtle relationships between the Interludia and their succeeding fugues. The opening three notes of the Praeludium begin the subject of the Fuga Prima, with a second transmuted into a seventh; and, in varying degrees, each Interludium has cellular-melodic kinship with the fugue towards which it modulates.

There are other extraordinary aspects to this superb and wholly original masterpiece: Hindemith’s use of three-part fugal texture, when the fugues are often only in two voices; the brilliance of his cross-rhythms; the humour, beauty and grandeur which exude throughout; and the technical virtuosity—each of these features, together with others, is moulded by this great composer into a work which, above all, retains a supremely communicative character. Here, surely, the spirit of Bach stands at Hindemith’s shoulder in this magnificent ‘play of sounds’—a superb demonstration of Hindemith’s ‘power for order’, as Furtwängler said.

Robert Matthew-Walker © 1995

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