Over the years I’ve often thought about why 20th century German composer Paul Hindemith’s music speaks to me as much as it does. I think it has to do with its being so melodic, lyrical, and rhythmically accessible within the rather objective strictures of the composer’s non-diatonic 12-tone methods.
The first movement, designated Mit Kraft (With Power), of Hindemith’s 1939 Sonata for Trumpet and Piano was my own introduction to modern music, back when I was in high school. That might also have something to with the continuing appeal for me. One year several bandmates hired me to accompany them on piano at their NYSSMA (New York State School Music Association) auditions. That movement’s opening fanfare-like melody was etched into my mind and has remained there through the decades.
Hindemith wrote sonatas for a great assortment of instruments. Five, including the Sonata for Trumpet and Piano, are included on Paul Hindemith: Sonatas for… (Harmonia Mundi). Pianist Alexander Melnikov works successively with Teunis van der Zwart (althorn), Alexander Rudin (violoncello), Gérard Costes (trombone), Isabelle Faust (violin), and Jeroen Berwaerts (trumpet). All the musicians play with elegance sensitivity and make a fine case for the lasting quality of Hindemith’s large oeuvre.
Most unusual here is the althorn (alto horn), an E-flat brass instrument invented by Adolphe Sax that looks like a miniature tuba and has a range similar to that of the the French horn but a more cornet-like timbre. In the calm opening movement (Ruhig bewegt), the instrument’s tone jibes extraordinarily well with Hindemith’s melodies, as if the composer’s sensibility had been made for it. The contrast with the anxious and much more assertive opening movement of the Sonata for Trombone and Piano (1941), which has the fire of a call to arms, couldn’t be much more extreme.
The althorn sonata’s fourth movement opens with a spoken introduction, a poem by Hindemith celebrating olden times, before the telegraph and telephone, when instruments like horns were needed for long-distance communication, “those ages/Which counted speed by straining horses’ gallop/And not by lightning prisoned up in cables…The cornucopia’s gift calls forth in us/A pallid yearning, melancholy longing.”
The crystalline piano chords descending through the introduction of the cello sonata’s final movement and the firm rhythms that follow remind me of Scheherezade, and that’s not the only time Hindemith’s sonatas link up in intentional or unintentional ways with the music of earlier composers who wrote more traditionally, with key signatures. The third movement of the trombone sonata rhapsodizes in a Brahmsian way, and as the liner notes point out (I would never have picked this up), the last movement of the trumpet sonata quotes Bach’s chorale Alle Menschen müssen sterben (All men must die).
Hindemith wrote that in 1939 as war clouds gathered, two years after the Nazi regime had devoted a whole section of the “Degenerate Music” exhibition to him and one year after he had reluctantly emigrated to Switzerland. Fortunately he outlasted the Nazis and enjoyed a thriving career as a composer, conductor, and theoretician until his death in 1963 at age 68.
Paul Hindemith left behind a very large body of inspiring music, inventive and modernistic yet readily accessible to the ear raised on classical or pop music. This expertly played selection of his sonatas is a fine testament to his legacy.