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Hyperion Records

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Adapted from a special edition of Ludus Tonalis illustrated by the composer.
Reproduced by kind permission of Schott & Co
Track(s) taken from CDH55413
Recording details: July 1995
The Warehouse, Waterloo, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: March 1996
Total duration: 49 minutes 53 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
1942; Studies in Counterpoint, Tonal Organization and Piano Playing

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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.

from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1995

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