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.