Bridge over centuries – Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

Posted on December 26, 2013


For all the people who daydreamed about traveling back in time the Symphonic metamorphosis would provide one of the best time machines one could get, functioning as a wormhole bridging time and space between ancient China, baroque and romantic Europe, and modern America. In parallel with radical innovations, the twentieth century had seen an increased interest in the integration and further development of music from the past.

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), just like Hindemith, was a musician with a comprehensive approach to music, a multi-instrumentalist, composer, conductor (one of the first ones), music theorist, critic and teacher. He was one of the leading personalities of the early Romantic current, composing operas, instrumental, orchestral and vocal works. He was enthusiastic about compositions for wind instruments and developed an interest in the music of non-Western cultures. The Chinese melody in the incidental music he wrote for a play Turandot was probably the first instance of an oriental melody being included in Western music.

The German born composer Paul Hindemith created this piece in the United States in 1943, after he emigrated from the Nazi Germany, where propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels labelled him as “atonal noise-maker”, and his music was banned and declared by authorities as “degenerate”. In 1940 Léonide Massine, Russian choreographer approached him with the idea of creating a modern ballet based on the music of Weber. Massine successfully staged several ballet performances with innovative choreography and design based on music of the previous centuries, re-invented in the raise of neo-classical movement. Hindemith and Massine worked together earlier, successfully creating the ballet Nobilissima visione in 1933 but they could not reach artistic agreement regarding Symphonic metamorphosis, after Massine suggested Salvador Dali as visual designer. Years after cancelling the project Hindemith created one of his best loved symphonic composition from his initial sketches, premiered in New York in 1944 by the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra.

Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Eugen Jochum
In Symphonic metamorphosis Hindemith brought together into a symphonic musical narrative some of the lesser-known pieces of Weber, namely three piano sonatas and an overture to incidental music. He preserved the main structures of all these pieces, but distributed their musical material across a large orchestra, using the full range of tonal coloratura available. Hindemith added a few melodic elements to the piece, such as the second theme in the second movement, competing with the principal tune and a brilliant flute solo in the Andantino.

The inspiration for the first movement, quite surprisingly, comes from an elegant, lovely little piano sonata for four hands (op. 60, no. 4), which Hindemith used to play with his wife Gertrude. This little piece explodes under the hands of Hindemith into a sweeping full-orchestral movement of elemental power. The piano sonata has an ABA structure, both the A and B sections displaying two principal motifs, all sharing a common rhythmic element of one-quaver followed by two semiquavers. The overall structure, the melodic passages and the characteristic rhythmic pattern are essentially preserved in the symphonic movement. However, the melodies are dispersed among the instruments, which complement each other in a dazzling, polytonal, constantly changing flow of sounds. The intensity of the music would increase towards the cadences, with shifts from flutes, clarinets and oboe towards brass instruments of higher sonority. The trills and cadences of Weber’s piano sonata are expanded and transformed into thunderous conclusions of full orchestral force.

The score of the piece can be on the following site:

Symphonic metamorphosis

The second movement expands the incidental music Weber composed for a play entitled Turandot by Carlo Gozzi, set in ancient China (Op. 37). Having been introduced into romanticism and the music of Webern, we are ready to make some more leaps in time and space in this movement, starting with an old Chinese tune first brought to the West by Jean-Baptiste du Halde in 1736 in his book describing China. Picking up this melody, the music would whizz through the Baroque, Classical and Romantic Europe, and makes a safe landing in twentieth century America. The overall structure of the movement looks like sonata form (a feature of the Classical and Romantic styles), as one could identify sections that could serve as exposition, development (from measure 147, letter P), recapitulation (from measure 246, letter W) and coda (from measure 282, letter Z). In the exposition section the Chinese tune is presented individually by each group of instruments, alternating between high and low registers, in an amazing array of tone colour. The melody is often passed from one instrument to another, similar to hocketing in isorhythmic music, e.g. in its first presentation it is passed from the flutes to the clarinets. In the background there are increasingly dense and vibrant ostinatos, reaching to a section of maximum intensity dominated by strident brass sounds and drums. The development section is introduced by reducing the intensity of the music to the minimum, after which the instruments would be joining in again gradually with jazzy, syncopated variations of the tune. Hindemith uses techniques of counterpoint (mainly imitative counterpoint, characteristic to Baroque) to make the music sound more sparkling, playful and light-hearted. The recapitulation section continues to employ counterpoint to superpose two melody lines, the first phrase of the Chinese tune and a new theme by Hindemith, both repeating in ostinato, getting increasingly intensive as if fighting with each other as new instrumental groups join in. Ultimately they reach a point where they seem to cancel out each other in a cataclysmic passage of full orchestra, including thunderous drumming.  In the conclusion of the movement the drums and the chimes play the first two measures of the Turandot melody, as if signalling its survival.

The source for the third movement – Andantino – was Weber’s Piano Duet Op. 3 No.2.  This is the moment of serenity after all the turmoil in the previous two movements, so necessary to bring balance to the symphony before the sweeping triumphant march in the finale. There is no conflict in this movement, which is structurally balanced along a 2/3 – 1/3 ratio. All the instruments of the orchestra move slowly, conjunctly along a smooth melody, like a large river, for approximately two thirds of the movement (40 measures). In the last third (17 measures) the flute emerges as a solo instrument and carries on with a myriad of lacy figures until finish, like glimmering sunshine on water, gently supported with a soft harmonic background by other instruments.

The fourth movement is a glorious march, based on another piano piece (no. 7) published in Weber’s Opus 60. Hindemith expanded the sonata to exploit all the instruments of the orchestra, just like in the first movement, but this time Hindemith’s adaptation seems to stay closer to the style of the original piece, and I could feel how the moderately self confident dynamism of the sonata is transformed into an exuberant flow of energy. The structure of the two works is a similar ABA format. The melodies are dispersed across the orchestra, playfully passed between the instruments, with the lower wind instruments, the strings and drums keeping confident, steady pace for the music, embellished by intricate swirly figures by clarinets, flutes and oboes. Comparing the first and the last movements, it was impressive to experience how the sound of a large orchestra with strident brass and strong percussion can express so different feelings, menacing and thunderous in the first instance and joyful, celebratory in the second.

Hindemith preserved the main structures and melodies of Weber’s music. He added a few melodic elements to the piece, such as the second theme in the second movement and a brilliant flute solo in the Andantino. He distributed the musical material across a large orchestra, using the full range of tonal coloratura, adding extra dimensions to the music, making it more emotionally expressive and engaging.

Tibor Kovacs


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