The last and in some ways the most masterly of Hindemith’s sonatas for violin and piano is the Violin Sonata in C major of 1939. Hindemith had severed his last ties as a German resident the previous year: crossing the border into Switzerland (not without hindrance from the Nazi customs authorities), he settled there from September 1938 until February 1940, when he emigrated to the USA. If ‘settled’ is the right word—financial pressures dictated several concert tours, to Italy, France, Belgium, Holland and the USA. Nevertheless this was an immensely productive period. As well as working on a projected Breughel ballet which became the piano-concerto-like Four Temperaments
, he orchestrated some of his Marienleben
songs and began planning Die Harmonie der Welt
, an opera (not destined to be completed for nearly twenty years) on the life of the astronomer Kepler during the Thirty Years’ War. Meanwhile he produced a veritable stream of instrumental sonatas: one each for horn, trumpet, harp, violin, viola and clarinet, continuing a series originally begun in 1937 with sonatas for organ, piano duet, oboe and bassoon. He seems to have been reassessing the expressive potential of the various solo instruments; and indeed several of these sonatas possess a tension and drama very different from the harmonious serenity of the recent Nobilissima visione
. To some extent this must have been a response to the ever-worsening international situation. The Trumpet Sonata, for instance, ends with a wild and desolate funeral march subtitled ‘Music of Mourning’, culminating in the sombre chorale Alle Menschen müssen sterben
(‘All men must die’). And the powerful C major Violin Sonata, among his finest compositions in this form, looks directly towards the two large-scale concertos, one each for violin and for cello, which he composed in 1939–40. Despite its high quality it waited nearly five years for its first performance, which took place in Lisbon on 5 May 1944, given by the violinist Silva Pereira and the pianist Santiago Kastner.
The Sonata in C major is cast in three movements, each one longer than the last. The terse and truculent first movement is a vigorous utterance which is developed almost entirely out of the decisive falling three-note figure with which it opens. The second movement—a little like the finale of the E major Sonata—is essentially a slow movement that encloses a central scherzo. Here the refined melodic writing of the slow outer sections has a gentle, contemplative quality, while the highly contrapuntal scherzo section has a rhythmic drive and courageous optimism that look towards the Violin Concerto Hindemith composed a few months later. When the slow opening melody returns, it is in the piano, while the violin capers onwards in moto perpetuo style, so that the pulses of slow movement and scherzo are combined. The finale is a majestic fugue, initially on a pensive subject introduced by the piano and then taken up by the violin. A livelier countersubject is then introduced by the violin; both subjects are developed in a masterly polyphonic texture to a triumphant close in which it is possible to feel the composer making a proud declaration of the ability of art to outlast its enemies.
from notes by Malcolm MacDonald © 2013