One of Southern California's leading pianists, Charles Fierro has made concert tours for the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council and has given more then 25 concerto performances with orchestras.  He has appeared twice at the National Gallery of Art and the Dumbarton Oaks Foundation in Washington, D.C.  In 1976 he played the American Bicentennial  Recital at the Palace of Fontainebleau in France on the personal invitation of the legendary musician, Nadia Boulanger.  He has interpreted the music of Beethoven, Schumann and Liszt at the Ojai Festivals and performed more than a dozen times at the prestigious Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles, presenting the American premieres of important new works. 

His debut for Nonesuch Records was named “Critics’ Choice” for five consecutive months by High Fidelity Magazine.  His recording of the piano music of Aaron Copland was made under the auspices of the composer himself.  For Delos International, he has recorded MacDowell's Sonata Eroica and Twelve Virtuoso Etudes. For Nonesuch, he has recorded MacDowell's Keltic Sonata, Sea Pieces, and Woodland Sketches and the world premiere recording of MacDowell's First Modern Suite.  Current plans include recordings of Hindemith's Three Piano Sonatas and Ludus Tonalis. 

As Professor of Music at California State University Northridge, he received the Distinguished Teaching Award.  An experienced adjudicator, he is known for his inspiring master classes in all aspects of the piano repertory.  He has lectured at the New England Conservatory in Boston, taught at the Image International Music Festival and served on the Board of Directors of the Paderewski Music Society.  He is also the author of numerous published articles on musical subjects, as well as chamber music reviews which have appeared in the international press. 

Charles Fierro studied piano with Lillian Steuber, Adele Marcus and Joanna Graudan and musicology and conducting with composer Ingolf Dahl, whose major piano works he has recorded on the Orion label.  He holds a Doctorate of Music “with Distinction” from the University of Southern California. 

“To play all these works in one session is a formidable undertaking and Fierro met the challenge with massive authority and assurance.   His technique was at all times unimpeachable; the most difficult demands were mastered effortlessly.  He stirred up immense storms of sound and was equally successful in realizing the most evanescent tonal effects.  It was a strikingly impressive exhibition of piano playing as well as of musical comprehension.” 
                                Los Angeles Times

"Consistent virtuosity and expressiveness"   New York Times

"Under his hands, the music sings."   On Stage Magazine, Houston

"Intense, artistic sensitivity"           Musical America

"Fierro rises superbly to the music's brilliance with showy pianistic             colors."                          Performing Arts Magazine       

"Commitment, virtuosity and passion in abundance" 
                            Los Angeles Daily News

Charles Fierro

One of the giants of twentieth century composition, Paul Hindemith wrote a great deal of music in every genre for concert audiences.  Because he believed that a composer has a social responsibility to be comprehensible, there are melodies everywhere in his scores; the emotions and forms are clear, even when he writes an abundance of notes.  Moreover, he founded his mature style on natural principles: the overtone series and the psychoacoustics of human hearing. 

Since the 16th century, composers have occasionally reserved some of their best music for special audiences and for musicians who appreciate subtleties of technique and meaning.  Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier is a perfect example. Occasionally works like these carry a modest designation. Bach, for example, called his keyboard Partitas "exercises", yet no one would deny that these are some of his most sublime creations. 

Ludus Tonalis belongs to this type of music.  Hindemith calls it  "studies in counterpoint, tonal organization and piano playing", and like the Well-Tempered Clavier it is far more than an academic effort.  It is his largest work for solo piano, a contrapuntal tour-de-force and a masterpiece of art and philosophy.

Free from the need to provide mere entertainment, Hindemith challenges the pianist and the audience with music of far-reaching consequence.  There are no sensational effects, no empty virtuosic displays: only pure music.  The pieces in this famous work are "etudes" in the sense that they present diabolical difficulties while at the same time remaining joyful, even light-hearted. 'Ludus Tonalis", after all, means "a play of notes" or "a game of tonalities". 

The title itself is a kind of manifesto.  In 1942, serial music was in the ascendancy; its practitioners abandoned tonal perspective, organizing their music with tone rows.  Hindemith, on the other hand, strongly believed 12-tone music is arbitrary, unnatural and confusing.  In all his scores, particularly Ludus Tonalis, he demonstrates in actual music that expanded tonality is an inexhaustible resource for composition and, indeed, the only way for music to make sense.  Even with the liberal use of chromatic notes, his melodies and harmonies have identifiable roots, the overall design has clear tonal centers, reinforced with characteristic cadences, pedal points, sequential writing and, above all, a feeling of tension and repose.  
Outwardly Ludus Tonalis appears to be a book of fugues and interludes, framed by a prelude and postlude.  However, the work is not really a collection but an integral unity and Hindemith means it to be played that way.  Its individual pieces are like the colors of a rainbow, radiant, distinct, each one leading to the next.  In fact, the entire work can be heard as a set of free variations on the opening Prelude. 

The music begins and ends in the key of C. The harmonic scheme follows Hindemith's hierarchy of key relations (C, G, F, A, etc.), reaching its farthest destination in the Fugue in F-sharp. The climax and loudest point occurs near the center of the work (the seventh interlude, marked "very broad"), where the great arc of tonality turns from A-flat to D.    

There are 12 fugues, each of a different kind, written with magisterial skill and authority.  Nonetheless, these techniques both are and are not the music. Their content is about mood and even scene painting.  It would not be difficult to imagine scenarios for any of them.

I would like equally to call your attention to the interludes, which are character pieces in the tradition of Schumann, Debussy and others.  Here you will find songs, dances, a pastorale, a depiction of a summer storm, a march, a toccata, etc.  Like the fugues, these "fleeting visions" allude to a panorama of Western music from medieval to modern times, enhancing the listener's pleasure. 

The prelude and postlude are three-part fantasies in the Baroque manner. The prelude announces the main ideas with enthusiasm and expectancy; the following pieces chart a spiral path toward the postlude, which arrives at a place of celestial wisdom and acceptance. In design, the prelude and postlude are in inverse/reverse relation to each other, but I must insist that these techniques are means and not ends. Listeners need not be aware of technical procedures in order to enjoy the music.  

All of Hindemith's creative output is meant to symbolize and express the order of the universe and to promote the ethical benefit of humanity.  This happens when the listener actively and empathetically participates in the experience.  This ancient concept of the moral purpose of music, together with the inspiration of a creative genius, accounts for the enduring value of the music. 
                                                                            Copyright 2012



by Charles Fierro
When he first appeared on the European musical scene in the 1920s, Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) amazed listeners with the kinetic energy and freewheeling dissonances of his compositions.  An anti-Romantic attitude gave his early music an “expressionist” edge.  In his ironic Suite 1922, for example, he treats the piano like a machine, applying “abrasive arrogance” (Glenn Gould’s characterization) to popular dances like the Shimmy, Boston and Ragtime.  His iconoclastic Kammermusik series for diverse virtuoso ensembles toppled traditional notions of beauty.  During the same period, however, he produced  the witty Wind Quintet and the affecting song cycle, “Das Marienleben". 
In his middle thirties, as his artistic philosophy matured, Hindemith made a drastic change in his style of composition.  (Here we may recall that, at a similar age, Beethoven declared, "I am not content with my work up to now; from here on I intend to follow a different path.")  Hindemith moved from shocking listeners to communicating with them. "Music," he insisted, "despite its tendency toward abstraction, is basically a means of communication.  Composers and performers have a social responsibility to be comprehensible." 

While some composers abandoned standard harmonic practice in search for new source materials, Hindemith, instead, single-handedly undertook the renewal of the entire tonal system, expanding its boundaries enormously.  To accomplish this, he placed the art of music on a foundation of natural principles, in particular, the overtone series and the psycho-acoustic facts of sound perception.  In his groundbreaking book, The Craft of Musical Composition, he proposed that the materials of music are not only the seven-note diatonic scale and its chromatic alterations, but that all twelve notes of an octave can legitimately be derived from a fundamental tone and are therefore related to it.  “Tonality”, he declared, “is a natural force, like gravity.  It cannot be suspended for long without engendering confusion in the listener.”

In his theory and in his music, Hindemith found a personal way to utilize the full spectrum of “chromatic” resource while retaining conventional notions of tension and release, dissonance and resolution.  Above all, he affirmed the primacy of the major triad as a symbol and expression of order.  He employed strategically related key areas for subsidiary themes and structural relationships. This organization gives his music perspective, a third dimension like that in representational painting. 

Of course, adherence to a system, no matter how comprehensive and natural, does not guarantee results, nor does technical know-how substitute for ideas.  Hindemith was, in fact, a fountain of ideas.  Like Mozart, he composed quickly, yet his music is perfectly crafted in every detail and shows no sign of haste. 

He believed that music has the ethical power to affect human character, and that listeners have the ability to use their musical experiences for the betterment of the world.  He organized sound successions to reflect the harmony of mind and body, the beauty of mathematical proportions and even the laws that govern the cosmos.  His music abounds with a feeling of health and optimism.  Without sermonizing, it tends toward no less a goal than the moral improvement of humanity by attempting to align the human spirit with the harmony of the heavens. 

Hindemith wrote a great deal of music, but even if he had not composed a note, he would be one of the giants of 20th-century music.  His contributions to the theory and philosophy of music have universal validity, but it is the power of his compositions themselves that continues to reach us emotionally.  “Neo-Baroque”, “neo-classical” and other reductionist labels do not do justice to the striking individuality and significance of his work. 

One reason for the comprehensibility of his music is its clear relationship to tradition, especially the counterpoint of J.S. Bach, Beethoven’s technique of motivic derivation, the pianistic textures of Brahms, Schumann’s chains of dotted rhythms, the open fourths and fifths of early Renaissance style.  Pedal points, sequences and characterisic modal cadences establish a "grammar" that creates logic as well as surprise.  Hindemith's music is immediately identifiable; it sounds like nobody else's. 

We also relate to his music because its moods and forms (“cheerful”, “solemn”, “energetic”, “pastorale”, “march” etc.) are familiar from our life experience and because even his most complicated pieces retain an essential vocal connection. (First-time listeners to his compositions are often surprised to find how tuneful they are.)  In his book, A Composer’s World (which I highly recommend), he writes: “Whatever a pianist does, using intellect, hands and lever arrangements in the process of enlivening musical forms, will always be derived from musical experiences with the human voice.  If pianists want to move listeners intellectually and emotionally, they would better stay close to the conditions of vocal expression. Even in prestissimo tone successions, so easily produced by faultlessly working keyboards, the reference to the basic musical material of the singing voice should always be recognizable.”    

Throughout his professional life, Hindemith was committed to education. He taught at a number of institutions of higher learning, including Yale University.  His finest works, like the Sinfonia Serena, Concert Music for Strings and Brass and the ballet Nobilissima Visione, attain a high degree of inspiration and are in no sense "academic".  His Symphony Mathis der Maler and the Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber retain perennial popularity precisely because of his brilliant use of melody, continuity, metric rhythm and tonality.  In his judgment, the absence of these qualities in the music of his contemporaries led to a "barbarous" (his word) musical culture without a common language, a virtual Tower of Babel. 

In this context, the integrity of Hindemith’s music is more relevant than ever.  He believed in communication, but he also believed that there must be something important to communicate.  As he said in one of his lectures: "The inexhaustibility of artistic forms is the inexhaustibility of human thought itself.  If a musician has the gift of showing, with the means of expression related to his times and circumstances, a reflection of this inexhaustibility to his fellow-men and bringing into existence, together with them and on their behalf, a small universe, then he has fulfilled his artistic task." 

                            Copyright 2012



Charles Fierro

    Piano Sonata no. 1
Paul Hindemith spent the winter of 1935-36 in Ankara, Turkey, on a commission to organize the music education system in that country.  While there, he planned the cycle of the Three Piano Sonatas, completing the project upon his return to the Continent. It was a time of ominous political developments in Europe. Officials of the Third Reich had recently banned public performances of his music in Germany.

Hindemith rarely spoke about his own music, but in a prefatory note, he credits “Der Main”, a poem by the 19th-century German poet, Friedrich Holderlin, for providing the inspiration for the First Piano Sonata.  Professor John Irving of the CSUN Language Department, made an elegant translation for me. In it, the poet dreams about an idealized ancient Greece, a land once ringing with songs and dances of a happy, highly civilized people on the shores of the blue Aegean, but now in ruins, devastated by wars and oppression.  Evidently Hindemith saw a parallel to what was happening in his own country. Though the connection of the music to the poem is of a general nature only, the Sonata in very much a product of its moment in history. 

The music is symphonic in dimensions and presents an extraordinary range of moods.  As in Beethoven, the opening phrase of the first movement generates the principal themes of the entire work. This technique creates subconscious cross-references throughout the piece while allowing maximum freedom to the composer’s imagination. 

The overall design of the work is unusual: none of the movements is in sonata form. The first and fourth movements are variants of one another.  The first and second movements go together; the fourth and fifth go together.  The third stands by itself. 

The Sonata opens thoughtfully with two melodies, the first in bright A major, the second in dark E minor. Elaboration begins right away, with no hint of the later significance of these themes.  

The solemn processional in the second movement is one of the noblest in the piano repertory. The grief here is real; there are tears in the ink for the loss of thousands in the First World War.  The music attempts to transcend the grief, builds to a great climax, then ends with resignation in one of the most sublime passages in twentieth-century music.   

The third movement parodies the pseudo-excitement of a (Nazi?) parade (ironically in triple metre!).  While the sonorities blare, the composer daydreams; memories of tender old songs (and better times) float in and out.  The prominent sound of chimes and the rude parade music try to bring him back to "reality". The resulting sadness that naturally follows is magically lifted during the silence between the two themes of the next movement.  From here on, the Sonata takes a positive direction.     

The finale bursts in with a boisterous gigue and a humorous transition. An important cadence leads to a jolly dance tune.  In the movement’s central section, however, a fanfare introduces a serious idea in the lower registers of the piano.  After a brief development, the gigue returns, builds to a grandiose climax and ends with a festive coda.

I am indebted to pianist Jon Sakata for the observation that in Hindemith's music, every movement is like a panel in a tryptich where the intense identification of subject and emotion is complete in itself, and at the same time the cumulative energy of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Piano Sonata no. 2

If the First Sonata is orchestral in concept, the Second is more like chamber music.  It opens with a graceful allegro, followed by a lighthearted, slightly delirious waltz. The emotional depth of the third movement Elegy lends weight and significance to the Sonata.  A cheerful Rondo follows immediately.  It appears to be unrelated at first, but gradually reveals itself to be a variant of the Elegy.  The chorale that concludes both the Elegy and the Rondo invokes a benediction. 

Piano Sonata no. 3

In this, his most popular keyboard work, Hindemith summons all the resources of the piano and the pianist.  It is a tour-de-force of melodic inventiveness and contrapuntal wizardry.  The lilting melodies of the opening movement are reminiscent of English folksongs.  As they grow, they accumulate waves of sound, then gradually vanish.  Sensitive passages in parallel harmonies lend an impressionistic touch rare in Hindemith. 

In total contrast, the second movement interrupts with a compulsive scherzo and a fleet-fingered trio.

There is no slow movement.  Instead, Hindemith writes a movement whose determined tread and tenor range remind us of a labor union march (possibly suggesting the composer's proletarian sympathies). Its middle and concluding sections, in the "piccolo" register of the piano, offer a vision of hope.  In between, there appears a shadowy fugato that is later integrated into the final movement. 

The Sonata, and indeed, the cycle of the three sonatas, culminates with a magnificent triple fugue.  At its conclusion, the entire piano vibrates with a radiant B-flat major chord, affirming Hindemith’s philosophy of music and life. 

Almost all the major keyboard composers have been pianists who wrote for their own performances.  Hindemith was a notable exception.  For several years, he was the violist in the distinguished Amar String Quartet, but he could play all the orchestral instruments and reportedly never composed anything he could not perform himself.

He intuitively understood the piano and the natural movement of the hands.  His writing sounds particularly rich because it is built on the resonant intervals of the overtone series.  His scores are clearly marked with dynamics and phrasing, but he trusts the performer to determine pedaling and fingering.  Even in virtuoso passages, he never indulges in empty display, preferring always to subordinate ego to content. 

But these are details.  The larger case I urge is that Hindemith belongs in the pantheon of twentieth-century composers and that his art is important to us today, inside and outside the concert hall.  The proof is in the music. 

                        Copyright 2009