Monday, May 16, 2016

A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations by Paul Hindemith



 Here are all the books I'm currently reading


After making such high claims in my last post of making a self-imposed deadline to publish a book review each Sunday, I have succeeded in missing the last two Sundays.  It is not that I'm not reading a boat load of books, I just had not finished  any of them until now.  Therefore, with Ralph Vaughn Williams' exquisite Mass in G minor playing in the background (I'd play Hindemith but his music is way too aggressive to concentrate by) I put pen to paper (figuratively).


https://img.yumpu.com/12209370/1/358x507/a-composers-world-horizons-and-limitations-paul-hindemith.jpg

I don't know how interesting this book will be unless you love the music of Paul Hindemith, something I'm quite passionate about, but maybe you will find his essays describing the process of turning sound into music worth reading.

Paul Hindemith was a German composer of the twentieth century.  He left Nazi Germany in 1940 and immigrated to the United States.  He is known for his percussive, expressionist style of musical composition.  I am most familiar with his Sonatas for piano and various brass, wind and string instruments because I have performed several of them.  This spring I played with a trumpeter and next fall I will be performing with a tubist.  My favorite, however, is the Sonata for piano and flute which I had the good fortune to play with a beautiful flutist (that describes her person and her playing)

 Hindemith's goal was to write a sonata for every instrument but he did not complete this endeavor.  My favorite performances are by Glenn Gould with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I've listed a few that I could find on youtube.  The entire set is on Spotify. Type in Hindemith Brass Sonatas. 

The first group of chapters were the most interesting.  He got a bit cranky towards the end of the book and I didn't entirely agree with his perspective.

His first chapter, The Philosophical Approach discusses various scholars throughout the ages, such as Boethius and Augustine and how they defined music.  I found quite a few thought-provoking gems through out this chapter.

Hindemith describes Augustine's philosophy of music thus:  "Musical impressions are by no means simple reactions to external stimuli but rather a complex mixture of sound and though sound can exist independent of a listener, one must hear before they can perceive and mentally absorb what took place.  This in turn releases reactions in the brain's center of hearing.  Then we must imagine music mentally.  Furthermore, music conjurs up mental images from prior experiences and adds to these experiences."

Boethius insists that "music is a part of our human nature" with the "power to improve or debase our character.  Our mind is a passive receiver and is impressed and influenced by the power music exerts."

He also believes, as did Keplar, that our planetary spheres are moved by music, causing the "cohesion of the entire universe".

The next chapter delves into how a listener perceives music intellectually.  How the listener constructs the music depends (according to Hindemith) on his musical literacy.  How can a listener with no prior experience in music accomplish such a "seemingly complicated task of music construction?" he asks.   After all, there "must have been in each human being's life a moment when a first conscious apperception of a musical impression did not permit any reference to former ones."

Hindemith attempts to explain this by asserting that we first respond to music through our own "acts of motility". That their "organization according to space, duration, and intensity," already "well established in his emotional experience, serves as measurement for these penetrating audible impressions." 

He then proceeds to explain how we perceive music emotionally in his next chapter.  We've heard that music is a universal language, but Hindemith declares that our emotional response is cultural.  He supports this by stating that a Western listener listening to Asian music for the first time would not detect in musical significance in it. 

His following chapter theorizes on how music is a vehicle for inspiration.  He makes the interesting comments that "the emotions released by music are no real emotions" but rather "images of emotion that have been experienced before".  He says that musical space is felt by our experience in real space. 

Chapter 5 and 8 describes the means of musical production.  Here he gets a bit technical, developing the concept of tones, overtones, and intervalic structure which, if one is not a musician, or a literate one ( can read and write music) won't make a lot of sense.  But I find his discourse on how music travels through space and the means by which to make this happen (instrument choice, what kind of material to use etc..) very interesting.

In Chapter 6,  7, and 9 Hindemith's tone takes a turn.  He becomes negative about composers who concern themselves more with form rather than substance.  He derides those who wish to dazzle with technique and style instead of quality musical communication.  He has the same criticisms for performers who would rather impress with their ability rather than "lose themselves" in the expression of sound so that the listener forgets the interpreter and only concentrates on the music. 

He also criticizes music being performed in space it wasn't written for.  He believes that most musical compositions were written for small areas and not large concert halls, which he asserts distorts the sound.  It also forces the performers to play on a scale (loudly, fast) contrary to the intentions of the composer.  He finds this especially true when large orchestras play Bach, Handel and Mozart on contemporary instruments rather than in small ensembles and on period instruments these composers' works were originally performed on. He rightly states that modern, versions of instruments can't possibly replicate the sound those composers intended.  However, he also concedes that it is presumptuous to say modern instruments are not equally effective in musical expression perhaps more so in some instances.

His final chapters lambast education and educators.  He believes far less people should choose a career in music and none should choose it for the sole purpose of teaching without developing a love a mastery of a particular instrument.

The last chapter deals with the music industry and again he thinks that there is a glut of mediocre musicians produced from universities because the schools want students to pay tuition rather than a sincere desire to cultivate first rate musicians and mercilessly cull out the rest.

Frankly, I think he is too harsh in this last instance and it really isn't his business who chooses to major in music and seek a career as a performer or teacher.  No one was forcing him to listen to anyone he didn't want to.

Still, all in all, I found this book to be enlightening and a rare opportunity to read the inner machinations of a great man's mind.

He will always be a favorite composer, even if I don't entirely agree with his music philosophy.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/be/Paul_Hindemith_1923.jpg 
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

I hope you will take time to hear these beautiful compositions.  I am not the pianist but I have performed all three with various instrumentalists.

Hindemith Sonata for piano and flute
 
Hindemith Sonata for piano and trumpet

Hindemith Sonata for piano and tuba

7 comments:

  1. I am only remotely familiar with Paul Hindemith. I am always interested in listening to more composers. As it is with many things time is an issue.

    I have been interested in both composers biographies and music theory at times. I find these fascinating subjects.

    I want want to listen to more of his music before reading a book like this.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Brian. Composers and their lives are fascinating as is analyses of their works. I encourage to listen to Hindemith. He may be an acquired experience if you are not much of a listener to 20th century music but I think you would find him rewarding.

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  2. Very nice post. I enjoyed learning about Paul Hindemith.

    I really enjoyed listening to the three compositions at the end. I particularly enjoyed the Sonata for piano and flute the most!

    Thank you for sharing!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Chris! Thanks for reading my post. Not everyone is into 20th century music, certainly not essays about writing music.
      I'm glad you took the time to listen to the music. The sonata for flute and piano is my favorite too.

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    2. I look forward to your post they are very interesting.

      Delete
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    ReplyDelete

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