Like many others before me, I too, in my youth and student days, grew into an unconsciously assumed, hardened and prejudiced  (pre)conception of Hindemith. But the very few encounters which I had with this composer as a young pianist – whether it was through occasionally playing one of the Kammermusiks (op. 11) or hearing an orchestral work – forced me each time to cast doubt on this picture which I had of Hindemith. But some years ago, when it happened that I had to study four of Hindemith’s works (the Suite “1922”, the Kammermusik No. 1, The Four Temperaments and the Double Bass Sonata) in a relatively short period of time, I was forced to engage with this music in a much more intensive way than before and was really able to jettison my sometimes unconscious prejudices. My active interest in Hindemith was aroused.

Of course there are true Hindemith specialists who devote themselves to this composer and who consequently have a deep access to his output and a profound and unprejudiced knowledge of his life and work. 

Since I don’t exactly move in these specialist circles, I believe I can say that, unfortunately even today – especially in Latin countries – Hindemith’s music has the reputation, surely somewhat exaggerated, of being the product of an austere, nonsensical and emotionally-impoverished intellectuality, schoolmasterly and accordingly of little artistic worth.

Even Alfred Brendel, one of the great musical personalities of our time, who is so open, interested and intelligent, and who is able to exert a lasting influence on the next generation, refers to Hindemith in his two books Reflections on Music and Music Taken at his Word in only three passing comments, in which there is no mistaking a rather negative attitude to the composer. In an interview at the end of one of the books Hindemith is quoted in just one sentence, and to quote him so cursorily is usually dangerous, since a little later he would often contradict his pithy, sometimes provocative utterances, or at least qualify them.

It goes without saying that I would not deny anyone the right to have his entirely personal taste, but in the case of Hindemith it seems to me that this “personal taste” is often coloured by ignorance, superficial knowledge and borrowed prejudices. That was also the case for me in my younger years.

Likewise, it must be pointed out that such persistently pervasive prejudices, held over such a long period, only rarely emerge completely from thin air. The outward appearance of a few of Hindemith’s works may seem at first glance to be somewhat intellectually colourless and schoolmasterly. But when one delves more deeply into his world one can quickly appreciate the music’s individual components.  Admittedly, the so-often expressed reservations do not simply vanish into thin air, but they do retreat into the background, so that they become less important and are hardly worth mentioning.

In spite of all these remarks there is certainly no need to take up the cudgels on Hindemith’s behalf. There are very many Hindemith researchers, connoisseurs and enthusiasts and much literature on the composer and his oeuvre. The Hindemith Institute in Frankfurt is huge, influential and active. For a long time now one has encountered Hindemith’s music on the concert platform far more often even than that of his great contemporary Karl Amadeus Hartmann, whom I much revere. At some time or another, every musician has played Hindemith, every audience has heard him. Everyone knows him. But what exactly does “to know” mean in this instance? If we discount the established specialists this “knowledge”  is mostly biased and fragmentary, especially when applied to the realm of pianists and Hindemith’s piano literature.


Without exception every pianist knows of the existence of Ludus tonalis; but very, very few actually perform it. I have never yet seen this work in a concert programme. (Which of course doesn’t mean that it is never performed). Every so often a student somewhere will play an excerpt: a fugue before which he will perhaps play an interlude. 

Above all in this work, which lasts almost an hour, it seems to me that Hindemith’s maxim – that music should move our spirit both intellectually and emotionally in equal measure and his totally unconditional quest for perfect proportions -  has been particularly successfully achieved. If one simply extracts one or two pieces from this cycle, as happens once in a while, these proportions are completely destroyed and the pieces are diminished accordingly. 

If one then considers that Hindemith called the pieces between the fugues Interludes – unlike Bach who in his Well-Tempered Clavier called his pieces Preludes –  then it is fundamentally impossible in principle to extract individual numbers from the complete work. However I must admit that I myself also occasionally play one of the Interludes as an encore; but the full power of this magnificent masterpiece can only be grasped and fully experienced, by both pianist and listeners alike, in a complete performance. Nevertheless, there is at least an awareness of the existence of Ludus tonalis. Every so often extracts are played and studied. 

There is yet another work which enjoys something of a reputation among pianists. This is the Suite “1922” which, even if it is albeit not absolutely representative of Hindemith’s creative output, is nevertheless very entertaining. This piece has actually made it to the concert platform. 

It is completely unlike anything else in the rest of Hindemith’s extensive output of piano works.

Of the existence of the three superb piano sonatas most pianists know next to nothing. Not even the often-quoted rave review of the “legendary and eccentric recording” made by Glenn Gould can alter that. The fact that these works were loved,  played and premièred by pianists of an earlier generation, such as Gieseking and Cherkassky, seems to be of little interest to the pianistic world of today. Yet these pieces deserve to step out from their shadowy existence and onto the concert stages of today. I am convinced that these works would appeal to audiences unfamiliar with Hindemith.

The colourful collection of small pieces In einer Nacht (op. 15) – very disparate numbers, yet full of variety, with obvious evocations of Debussy, virtuosic interludes, parodies of popular music from operas, melancholy recollections and even something fashionable – a foxtrot – and, to round everything off, an epic “double fugue with stretti” with a good pinch of irony thrown in – would offer the listener (as well as the pianist!) a pleasant change. 

The true reason for preferring the Suite “1922” to the Dance Pieces op. 19 is really not obvious to me.

Among other works is the extremely difficult to play “Piano Music” op. 37. I must confess that I myself have not yet really found a way in to these pieces; but to exclude these works so completely from the repertoire of pianists is certainly not justifiable. 

So why are these pieces so rarely played? Obviously one can only speculate about that. 

First of all should be mentioned the universally-familiar weight of habit and tradition. This applies equally to all parties concerned:  performers, listeners and concert organisations. Pianists always want to play the same repertoire, the public always wants to hear the same things and organisations always want to programme the same music. It is quite normal to want to repeat good and beautiful experiences but, especially in the area of (classical) music, it would be just as desirable to take a risk now and again, to embark on discovering something which up to now has been unknown to us and so perhaps be enriched by a beautiful new experience. 

Of the above-mentioned triumvirate – performer, listener and organiser – in my estimation it is the listener by the way who is the most open and risk-taking of the group, even if the other two repeatedly assert the opposite. I am convinced that, in general, listeners are grateful for programmes in which less familiar, as well as newer music, is played in small doses  alongside the traditional classical repertoire.

But I believe that the main responsibility lies with us interpreters. When we give concerts we are the intermediaries between composer and public, so in the end it lies in our own hands to programme our concerts in such a way that they become a unique experience for the listener. 

A further point, not to be overlooked, is the fact that most of Hindemith’s works for piano place great demands on performers, from both a musical and pianistic perspective, and detailed study of them is very time-consuming. Works by Hindemith are rarely part of the repertoire of younger pianists since in general they are not encouraged to play them since they are deemed not relevant to their general situations - college exams, scholarship auditions or music competitions. Later on, often because of varying commitments, there is simply no time to study such complex works. Furthermore – and as we are on the subject once more – there is (as yet) no tradition, so the assurance of success for concert pianists playing Hindemith – the result of the risks of the calculation between “expenditure and return” becomes unrewarding.

The person least responsible for the absence of Hindemith’s piano works from concert life is the composer himself. I find that, when performed in concerts, most of his pieces are not too difficult for the listener to assimilate. Ludus tonalis is indeed very long – only a very few piano works last a solid hour – but for the listener it is a colourful, rare and enduring experience, full of variety. 

Hindemith says: “In our own times performers outnumber composers to a degree never known before, and their abilities, attitudes, and tastes are perhaps the strongest power in determining the development of our musical life. Even the style of emotional expression in our compositions (as well as their outward technical form of appearance) is largely determined by the performer’s talents and demands, so that in many cases the composer has become but a purveyor of sound effects for pianists, string players, orchestras, and so forth.”

Hindemith gets to the truth of the matter by asserting that it is “unfair and dangerous” to lionize the “substation” (the performer) who is placed between the music generator and the music consumer.. He obviously was very afraid that his pieces would slip into “agreeably sounding inanities” and “uninhibited frivolity” in the hands of performers. 

We interpreters will be called to account and have been warned! 

At the same time Hindemith had the greatest respect for his interpreters and their welfare was very close to his heart. 

Walter Gieseking, who was scheduled to give the première of Hindemith’s Piano Sonata No. 1, could apparently find no way into the second movement of the piece and voiced his qualms on the matter. Thereupon Hindemith, without further ado, sent his publisher a new second movement with a note saying that he wished “...the helpful Gieseking would have fun playing.” (The original second movement, a set of very difficult “variations”, was published years later as a stand-alone work). 

Likewise Hindemith’s letters to Paul Wittgenstein, who commissioned the Piano Music with Orchestra, bear witness to the composer’s wish that the work should “bring pleasure” to his interpreter. 

Hindemith writes: “I would be sorry if the piece were to bring you no pleasure ­ ­- perhaps at first it was a little strange to your ears – but I wrote it with much love and am very fond of it.”

And in a later letter: “ Please find enclosed the last three movements of your piece and I hope that, after you have looked through the score, you will set aside your fears. It is a simple, altogether unproblematic piece and I certainly believe that it will eventually give you pleasure. (Perhaps at first you were a little horrified, but that doesn’t matter.) You will definitely make sense of it – and if you should have any concerns I am always here to give you specific information.” 

But as we know today Herr Wittgenstein was apparently too “terrified” by the work and never played it in public.

To anyone who would like to read further, in the following pages may I draw a brief portrait of Hindemith, a fascinating, provocative, far-sighted artistic personality, led by high ideals. Needless to say this sketch is subjective and has no claim to completeness. The person who doesn’t know of Hindemith but who is interested in him will perhaps find amazing and unexpected things in it.

PAUL HINDEMITH (1895 – 1963)

Paul Hindemith was born in 1895 in Hanau near Frankfurt. Of course he is known first and foremost as a composer, but during his lifetime his activities as a violist and conductor, as well as his teaching activities in composition and music theory, occupied almost as important a place as composition. He left Nazi Germany in 1938 and moved initially to Switzerland before he emigrated to the United States of America in 1940 where a few years later he became an American citizen. In 1950 he returned to Switzerland and took a lectureship at the University of Zurich. Until his death in 1963 he lived at Blonay on Lake Geneva. 

When one delves into Hindemith’s work, in both music and words, one meets an original thinker. Everything that he undertakes he does so to the limit and without compromise. He composes mostly at a furious rate and is more prolific than almost anyone else. The demands that he makes on both himself and others are enormous: for instance, he gives a directive that a composer must be able to play ANY instrument! The musical and philosophical foundations, on which his work is based, are deeply rooted in the past: writings by Saint Augustine and Boethius from the fifth and sixth centuries respectively. In his enthusiastic writings one finds not only provocative theses but also complex ideas on subjects such as musical inspiration or the emotional perception of music. He blusters and fulminates about everything and anything – dodecaphony, conductors, performers, piano recitals, the music business. But he never engages in destructive criticism, he is always constructive, occasionally suggesting utopian proposals for the correction of injustices.

To illustrate this by way of an amusing example, may I describe for you the way in which he engaged with the critics on whom he was especially hard. 

He railed against the fact that the grievances of musicians against certain critics’ newspaper reviews went unheard, on the grounds that “it is the sacred right of critics” to write whatever they want. “Therefore it follows automatically” opines Hindemith “that is it ‘the sacred duty of musicians’ to be misjudged?”

He proposed his own “solution” to this problem: a permanent grievance- and advice-centre should be set up. Between five and seven members of one faction – the musicians – and the same number of critics and members of newspaper publishing houses from the other should form a committee which would be re-elected every three years. This committee would then sit twice a year to discuss the complaints which they had received. By this means insufferable critics could be removed, those on both sides wrongfully attacked could have their names cleared and furious musicians could be appeased. The aim of the whole enterprise would be to engender a greater scrupulousness and responsibleness among the critics and “the avoidance of acts of violence.” 

But only a few lines later he confesses to the utopian idea of the project. Musicians are dependent on critics and would be afraid of a damaging review, so such a committee would never be agreed to. “And anyway” - Hindemith wonders – “have five or seven musicians ever been in agreement with one another?”

Finally he urges: “Let the critic take a little from his self-awareness; give the musician the possibility of expressing his objections and grievances by legal means. In this way we would gain plenty of time and energy which until now has been needlessly wasted on attacks and resentment. The time could be more usefully spent on promoting music.”

Needless to say, this short example is not quite so important from a musico-historic point of view, but it does show Hindemith in a light in which we meet him time and time again across the whole range of his output: a vulnerable artist, radical, self-deprecating and humorous, with no fear of opposition, provocation or confrontation. Always struggling for specific solutions for realising his high ideals and deeply rooted in the practicalities of life, and always single-minded in the advancement of music. 

Naturally such a committee was never established and as for the awkward relationship between musicians and critics unfortunately nothing has changed to this day. 

But in other areas Hindemith’s ideas were truly visionary. This is what he wrote in his article “Gefühlsbetonte Musikwahrnehmung” (“Perceiving Music Emotionally”):

„Scientists, working in the field of musical research - philosophers, psychologists, musicologists - could have done much to clarify this muddled situation. Instead of asking hecatombs of average-minded Versuchspersonen how they listened to music and what their feelings were while perceiving it, would it not have been more instructive to ask the musician, particularly the creative musician, how he obtained this or that emotional reaction and what kind of stimulus he used ? 

Science seems to display exactly the same kind of diffidence when faced with music as musicians show towards science. Each seems to feel itself disturbed in its familiar hunting-grounds when the other is around... The answers to these questions will only be forthcoming when excellent scientists, interested in music instead of collecting data about music ( almost exclusively music of the past at that!), come into close collaboration with excellent musicians interested in science.“

The collaboration between art and science! An early postulation of an idea which today, decades after Hindemith’s death, is experiencing a real boom in the neurosciences. 

Today one can see in a somewhat different light his often casually-derided ideals of music as a peace-giving, people-uniting power. He writes: 

“Bad people have no songs – so they say. From an evolving amateur music movement it is possible that an active peace campaign could spread throughout the world. In spite of the global and borderless prevalence of sport it has not succeeded in achieving this, since it is always dependent on the element of competition, as opposed to the communal act of music-making, and so it can never be free of thoughts of conflict, war and the beating of an opponent.”

Furthermore Hindemith challenged the American and Russian regimes to come together once a week to participate in communal orchestral playing and choral singing in order to present to the world an example of harmony. “People who make music together cannot be enemies – at least for as long as the music lasts.” 

Many people smile at so much idealism but all applaud today when Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra travel through the concert halls of the world. 

Hindemith’s writings on all those subjects from far and wide which in some way relate to music are so numerous and intense that it is very difficult to arrive at a selection from them. I would like to refer to two points which seem to me to be particularly characteristic of this musician. 

Time and again Hindemith stresses the importance of amateur musicians. He regards the amateur musician, who involves himself seriously with musical matters, to be just as important a member of our musical life as the professional. The amateur is decidedly more important than the devoted listener who is a mere consumer of concerts and he invites the amateur musician to be conscious of his place in musical life. 

But he should not try to imitate the artist and want to appear in public on the concert podium. One should always distinguish between two opposing sorts of music-making: “Public and private performance. Public performance is the profession of the musician while private performance is the pursuit of the amateur. Both sorts are equally important for the development of music.”

On both sides - the professional musician as well as the amateur – there are however over-sophisticated and conceited examples which are to be condemned since they contribute nothing to the development of music. In addition he regrets that there is very little suitable repertoire for the amateur and wishes “...that the collaboration between practising musicians and those amateurs who are consuming music could be more intimate.”

Through an ongoing communal collaboration it would be possible for the composer to write literature of which the music-making amateur has need, in order to shape his taste, to encourage his musical education and thus be an even more important factor in musical life, as he already is today.

Hindemith himself complied with his own demand and wrote repeatedly for amateurs, as well as pieces for children. 

In conclusion I should like to address the topic in which Hindemith has achieved undisputed pioneer status: the historical performance practice of early music. 

The composer always had a keen interest in instruments of all sorts, from the completely new, yet rarely played, such as the trautonium and the heckelphone, to those old instruments no longer played in Hindemith’s time, such as gambas and theorbos. In the 1940s, with his students in America, he developed an entire repertoire of early music which was hardly played at that time, such as Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and performed it in as historically-informed and faithful a way as possible. For these performances old instruments were made available to him, on the one hand from the instrumental collection of Yale University or from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and, on the other – as recalled by one of his students, the German composer Gerhard Samuel, who had emigrated to America – Hindemith got his students to recreate these old instruments themselves so that later on they could play them in the concerts! A recording from 1954 published by Music and Arts documents one of these Monteverdi concerts.

For the end of this “portrait” – which really cannot be called any such a thing, since I have only briefly examined two or three small stones from a vast colourful mosaic -  I would invite you to read Hindemith’s concluding remarks from his book A Composer’s World.

“...He (the composer) will then know about musical inspiration and how to touch validly the intellectual and emotional depths of our soul. All the ethical power of music will be at his command and he will use it with a sense of severest moral responsibility. His further guides will be an inspiring creative ideal and the search for its realization; an unshakable conviction in the loftiness of our art; a power to evoke convincing and exalting forms and to address us with the language of purity. A life following such rules is bound to exemplarily persuade others to become associated. A life in and with music, being essentially a victory over external forces and a final allegiance to spiritual sovereignty, can only be a life of humility, of giving one’s best to one’s fellow men. This gift will not be like the alms passed on to the beggar: it will be the sharing of a man’s every possession with his friend.

To sum up, we could say that for the artistic problems of our time there is no such thing as a universal remedy -  as there is for the training of the creative talent. But just as on a journey through a tunnel a tiny pinprick of light holds the promise of the brightness and breadth of the day ahead, so we should in a single phrase throw light on the position and purpose of the composer. It is a summons, a request and an exhortation: think not of yourself but always ask, what can I give to my neighbour.

The ultimate reason for this humility will be the musician’s conviction that beyond all the rational knowledge he has amassed and all his dexterity as a craftsman there is a region of visionary irrationality in which the veiled secrets of art dwell, sensed but not understood, implored but not commanded, imparting but not yielding. He cannot enter this region, he can only pray to be elected one of its messengers. If his prayers are granted and he, armed with wisdom and gifted with reverence for the unknowable, is the man whom heaven has blessed with the genius of creation, we may see in him the donor of the precious present we all long for:  the great music of our time.”

It remains for me personally to wish him who would now like to sally forth and one day uncover the entire mosaic, a good journey. It would make me happy if we were to meet once again on this road.

English translation by David Stevens


© Esther Walker 2013