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.