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Piano Sonata No 1 in A major

'Hindemith: Piano Sonatas' (CDA67977)
Hindemith: Piano Sonatas
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Movement 1: Ruhig bewegte Viertel
Movement 2: Im Zeitmass eines sehr langsamen Marsches
Movement 3: Lebhaft
Movement 4: Ruhig bewegte Viertel, wie im ersten Teil
Movement 5: Lebhaft

Piano Sonata No 1 in A major
Although Hindemith did not formally leave Germany until 1938, he spent as much time as possible outside the country in the mid-1930s in order to avoid political restrictions and to get on with his compositions in freedom. The first two piano sonatas were largely composed during an extended sojourn in Turkey, where at the invitation of the Turkish government Hindemith was organizing the national music school in Ankara. The Piano Sonata No 1 in A major (Hindemith’s harmonic language combined elements of both major and minor, although generally these works reach a resolution in the major key), the largest of the three sonatas, has an unusual form: five movements, the fourth recapitulating the material of the first, and none of them in a conventional sonata form. This design reflects its inspiration in Hölderlin’s poem Der Main. In this ardent lyric, the German poet speaks of his desire to see distant lands, especially Greece with the monuments of its ancient culture and the idyllic life of the Greek islands, where he is ‘lured by the labyrinthine dances with wine and drum and zither’. Then he redefines this desire: he is in actuality a ‘homeless singer’ and this imagined paradise cannot replace his homeland. From far abroad he will long, even more strongly, for the place where he was once happy, by the River Main.

This paean to the river that flows through Frankfurt clearly spoke to Hindemith as piercingly as it did to the melancholy Hölderlin, whose fleeting years of greatest happiness were spent there in his doomed love affair with Suzette Gontard. As mentioned, Hindemith composed his sonata even further from Germany than Greece: in Turkey, the ancient Asia Minor, where he could visit those ruins of Classical civilization (that Hölderlin, in fact, never saw) in the increasingly sure knowledge that a return to that city on the Main where his family still lived would soon no longer be possible.

The sonata bears closely on Hölderlin’s poem, not so much as a programmatic depiction as an instrumental correlative: the music appears abstract in expression, and the correspondences of feeling remain implicit. The short first movement, with its smoothly flowing crotchets, acts as a lyrical preface, mirroring the poet’s opening description of the act of travel over mountain and sea. It may even be a ‘song without words’, a purely instrumental setting or reading of the first two stanzas of Hölderlin’s poem. (Hindemith sometimes treated poetry in this way, for example in his early Lustige Sinfonietta after poems of Morgenstern, and in the much later Horn Concerto which incorporates a wordless setting of a poem of his own.) This comparatively miniature movement prepares for one on a larger scale: a slow and solemn march of pronounced elegiac character, one of the most impressive and inward-looking of Hindemith’s many inventions in march style. This corresponds to Hölderlin’s invocation of the ruined glories of Classical and Heroic Greece.

There follows an extended scherzo, reflecting the verses that deal with the idealized life of the Ionian Islands: it contrasts a strongly rhythmic, dance-like subject with a gentler, more song-like one, and this second idea becomes the basis of a central trio section. The fourth movement then harks back, in varied form, to the material of the first movement, just as Hölderlin at this point changes perspective and looks back, from the fantasy island that has become his place of exile, over the road travelled, to the place where he had initially set out. And accordingly Hindemith’s finale is a surging movement (Lebhaft, ‘lively’) of seemingly irrepressible motion, like the final section of the poem, which hymns the German river as it pursues its course to meet its ‘brother’, the Rhine, and finally to flow into the North Sea.

from notes by Malcolm MacDonald © 2013

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Details for CDA67977 track 3
Recording date
12 December 2012
Recording venue
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Jeremy Hayes
Recording engineer
Ben Connellan
Hyperion usage
  1. Hindemith: Piano Sonatas (CDA67977)
    Disc 1 Track 3
    Release date: November 2013
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