Feature Article by Robert Schulslaper, Fanfare Magazine, Issue 42:1 Sept/Oct 2018


Swiss pianist Esther Walker’s scintillating and lyrical performances have been praised by critics and enjoyed by audiences around the world. An admired soloist and chamber musician, her repertoire embraces a wide range of both classical and contemporary music. Of late she’s pursued her affinity for Hindemith by recording her interpretation of his Ludus Tonalis, paired with Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Sonata “27 April 1945.” Cheerful, outgoing, dedicated to her art, she proved a charming guide to the intricacies and emotional variety of Hindemith’s greatest solo work, while at the same time unflinchingly confronting the traumatic reflections arising from the historical horrors that provoked Hartmann’s artistic testament.

Take us back, if you will, to those early days when you first fell in love with the piano.

I was the fifth of six children, born into a musical family. All my siblings as well as my parents played music. My father was a trained pianist and conductor, but as a young father a few years after the war he did not dare to pursue an artistic career, and so he decided to become a teacher.

For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to become a professional musician. Just the question of which instrument wasn’t always very clear. My first wish and love was (and still is) to play the piano. But unfortunately, for unknown reasons, playing the piano was generally forbidden in my family.

I remember—I was about three years old—I really wanted to play the piano. But I did not want just to try, nor to play by ear (which I probably did before). I wanted to play all the music which I saw everywhere in the living room around the piano. And for this, I had to learn to read the music. So I asked my sister, who was 10 years older, to help me. She took colored felt-tips, the music of I don’t remember which piano piece, marked in the music the different notes with different colors and in the same color the related keys on my father’s Steinway grand piano. I was very happy. My father, when he came home in the evening, wasn’t, and from that day on the piano was locked with the key.

Some years later, when I was allowed to choose an instrument I wanted to learn—“any instrument except the piano”—I chose the violin. Later I also played the viola, in particular for chamber music and in the high school orchestra. At one time I wanted to be a singer (I often went to the opera when I was a child), and took some singing lessons. Yet even then I knew that the violin wasn’t really “my” instrument, despite the fact that when I was a teenager my path to becoming a professional violinist was predestined. But I never forgot my first love—the piano—and when I was 17, I was strong enough to break through the “piano prohibition.” Almost immediately, I left school, entered the music conservatory and practiced “until I dropped.” I had the feeling that I must catch up all the missed years without the piano….

At an age when young pianists play concerts and begin to prepare international piano competitions, I played string quartets and tried my first scales on a keyboard. Today there are still some remnants of my years as a violinist; sometimes it happens that I add bowing marks to my piano music. The inner imagination of the gestures involved in string playing can influence my gestures at the keyboard and therefore help me to find the right timbre. I don’t know if today all this is an advantage or not. Everything has two sides ... but I don’t know, and will never know, how it feels to approach the music and the piano as a “pure” pianist who was educated on his instrument and music from a very young age.

Somewhat late, I had a 100 percent “normal” training as a pianist; my first and long-time teacher was the Swiss pianist Brigitte Meyer at the Conservatory of Lausanne, but my chamber music teacher Walter Levin from the LaSalle Quartet was just as important, and later also the Russian pianist Vitaly Margulis, whom I didn’t see very often. But my very best and most important teacher still is and will always be myself!

Have you ever given a thought to composition or improvisation?

I don’t compose and I don’t improvise. I adore and admire musicians who are able to improvise! I am completely unable but personally don’t feel the need to improvise. I’m a complete performer geek who brings music from the past, written by others, to the present. That’s what I want, what I’m able to do, and what I dedicate my whole life to every day (and what I apparently even wanted at the age of three). Composition and improvisation is quite another matter.

As a listener, have you ever attended any concerts that had an overwhelming effect upon you?

One of my greatest musical experiences took place a long time ago, when I had the opportunity to hear Wagner’s Parsifal in Bayreuth. I didn’t know Wagner at this time—but had plenty of negative prejudices against him and his music—and I went there with a really bad attitude. But immediately after the very first notes I was completely enchanted. The legendary acoustic of this opera house and its incredible orchestral sound and timbre are absolutely indescribable and unique—the most sensual sound experience you can imagine. And when you hear this music for the very first time in your life, in this place, that will be engraved on your memory forever.

The booklet notes claim that you love to perform music by Mozart, Schubert, and Schumann, but that your greatest enthusiasm is for contemporary music. Would you care to expound on that?

The booklet notes are somewhat ambiguous in that regard and I must be more specific. For ages my greatest love was for the three composers mentioned above and later I developed a marked liking for the music of the 20th century, above all for the music of the first half of the 20th century, for instance Hindemith or Hartmann. And one can hardly call their music contemporary! In fact I do play real contemporary music once in a while, but only rarely.

But for me the subject of repertoire and programming is of crucial importance. The piano repertoire is almost infinitely large; unlike for example violists or wind players, we pianists are actually permanently spoilt for choice. On the one hand that is good of course, since all doors are open to us, while on the other hand one would be well advised as a pianist to concentrate on a specific repertoire, otherwise one spreads oneself too thin and sooner or later the quality will suffer.

I deliberately say “concentrate” and not “specialize”! To concentrate on a specific repertoire means getting to grips with it in an intensive way, to come back to it time and time again and to keep on deepening it, but without excluding other repertoire. The exclusion of other repertoire seems to me to be more likely the case if one specializes. This point is important for me. We interpreters of classical music are constantly playing pieces from the more recent or more distant past. This past concerns us all; it is the heritage of us all and it is our great good fortune, through music, to be able to keep on undertaking journeys into times past. Perhaps there are hidden corners still to discover; to shine a new light on what is seen and heard, to live through something again.

This is why it is for me absolutely impossible to choose some time, let’s say in 1920 when tonality was laid to rest, or when a few decades later the avant-garde and serial music announced themselves, and simply shut the door and say “from this point music will no longer be of interest to me.” Then I would remove myself from the passage of time and from my vitality both as a person and a musician. To be able to come through music from the past into the present day—that is what lies closest to my heart.

When I go to concerts simply as a listener, the programs I usually prefer are those that create fascinating, intelligent, and emotional connections between different composers and epochs. I find it a great shame that the music of the last 100 years, and above all that of the last few decades, is becoming increasingly the concern of specialists and is unfortunately played all too rarely in “traditional” concerts.

A few years ago I attended a concert given by an ensemble for contemporary music. Needless to say, it was contemporary music the whole evening. Included in the program was a performance of Luigi Nono’s piece Ricorda cosa hanno fatto in Auschwitz for voices and tape. It is an intense feeling to experience this work in the concert hall, and when it was over I had an overwhelming desire to hear the Mozart Requiem. Were this work by Nono to be followed by the Mozart Requiem I am certain that it would be an unforgettable experience for the whole audience! But for the time being this must remain a dream.

But in smaller, more manageable spaces, instead of beginning a piano recital absolutely traditionally with a Haydn sonata as an “opener,” why not shake the audience awake, challenge it and begin, for instance, with Schoenberg or Ives, followed then by Haydn? Not only will the listener begin to hear with fresh ears music that he probably doesn’t know, but after Ives the Haydn will reveal itself to him in a completely different and new light. To emphasize the main features, provoke extremes, reveal undetected connections, to remain courageous and above all ever-curious in one’s program-planning—that is an ideal which I comply with whenever possible.

Speaking of contemporary music, would you say there is a particularly friendly attitude towards it in Switzerland? I’m thinking of the influence conductor and philanthropist Paul Sacher might have had on Swiss musical culture, although I know there are certainly many other Swiss musicians with similar interests.

I don’t think that things are inherently different in Switzerland from elsewhere in the world. As it happens, Basle is something of an exception because of the long tradition and charisma of the Sacher Foundation. The greater openness towards new music rubs off over the years onto all musical and cultural institutions such as colleges of music. Of course efforts in this direction are being made in other cities in Switzerland, but at the present time these remain (still) somewhat marginal. It needs much patience and a healthy portion of idealism to tease out from all those involved in music curiosity and open-mindedness when faced with the unknown.

Luckily, you yourself don’t possess a parochial mind-set but have embraced the wider world of music. Was this admirable characteristic to some extent inherited from any of your teachers?

No. My love of classical music in general, and for Mozart and Schubert in particular, was formed for me in the cradle. I undertook my voyages of discovery into the 20th century only later, and alone, and these grew out of my natural curiosity and love of life.

What gave you the idea to pair the Hartmann Sonata with Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis?

After a concert which included the Hartmann Sonata, a friendly conductor encouraged me very strongly to record this piece (it was he who referred me to First Hand Records). Actually that was never an intention of mine, since I always thought of playing this piece—if at all—only in concerts and not in the recording studio. We spoke about it and I was finally persuaded. But then I needed another piece in order to fill a complete CD and chose Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis. It really appealed to me to juxtapose the most important piano works of these two great German composers. The two composers, who had a very high regard for one another—in spite of their very similar origins and almost identical birth and death dates—could hardly be more different.

You’ve already recorded many of Hindemith’s works for piano, with more to come. What is it about him that you find so fascinating?

Hindemith is undoubtedly one of the most colorful, most interesting, and most fascinating personalities in musical history. As soon as you begin to busy yourself with him, you can hardly get away from him. I love his multifacetedness, his contradictions, his humor, his idealism, his enthusiasm, and much more. He was what is called in German a “full-blooded” musician. It is impossible to describe in a few sentences what Hindemith really represents. Whoever would like to learn more of my personal story with Hindemith will find on my homepage a longer article summarizing somewhat more precisely my thoughts on him. Of course these are highly subjective and are thoughts seen through the eyes of an interpreter and not those of a music historian.

When did you discover Hartmann’s music and have you performed more of it?

The very first piece of Hartmann which I got to know was the Concerto funèbre for violin and string orchestra. And without wishing to detract from this important and moving piece, I had a real shock when I heard his First Symphony for the first time. For me personally this work ranks as among the 10 greatest and most important works in the whole of music history. I would put it on the same level as, for example, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, or Mozart’s C-Minor Mass, or Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It was only natural that I would seek out piano works by Hartmann after this. Among the solo piano works it seems to me that the Sonata “27 April 1945” stands out from the other earlier pieces and (for the time being) it is the only piece of his which I play. Unfortunately there is no chamber music which includes the piano. There is a Concerto for Piano, Winds, and Percussion from 1953, which I would love to play; as of yet I haven’t had the opportunity. There are also two earlier concertante works with piano, but I don’t know them. There is still much to discover!

You, like Hindemith, are an accomplished violinist/violist, as well as a pianist. Of course the emphasis was reversed in Hindemith’s case, as he was more of a violist than a pianist, but still someone who played the piano very well. Does playing a stringed instrument give you any additional insight into his music? Do you ever play his music for violin?

I have never played any Hindemith as a violinist. However I am often asked if my past life as a string player is an advantage, not only in relation to Hindemith. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. But I do believe that every piece of music exists also independently of its instrumentality—as a purely spiritual matter, as it were. And the longer one is involved with music the more one probes these areas, and the issue of the instrument fades into the background. Bach wrote his Art of Fugue without specifying what instruments should play it.

Where does Ludus Tonalis fall within Hindemith’s oeuvre?

Ludus Tonalis dates from 1942, at the time that Hindemith was teaching at Yale University. The subheading reads “Studies in Counterpoint, Tonal Organization and Piano Playing,” and in it are realized Hindemith’s complex thoughts and principles of tonality and tonal relationships between the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. The piece should be seen as both entertaining and instructive. Even in the 1920s Hindemith reinvigorated such Baroque forms as the suite and various fugal forms. See for example the Suite 1922 or even the very Impressionistic piano cycle In einer Nacht, whose last movement is labeled “Double fugue with stretti.” He felt that polyphonic objectivity was up-to-date, and one frequently finds fugues across the whole of his output.

Ludus Tonalis is thought of as a companion work to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. But while Bach in his cycle put into practice the then new means of well-tempered tuning a good 200 years earlier, so Hindemith’s newly discovered “Series 1” underpins his cycle.

At what point in his career did he embrace the idea of an expanded tonality? Was this a purely individual conception or did he adapt others’ ideas? How are his ideas woven through Ludus Tonalis?

Hindemith wrote his unique and very comprehensive textbook, Unterweisung im Tonsatz, at the end of the 1930s (the English edition, The Craft of Musical Composition, appeared in 1942). Even in the 1920s he lamented the fact that increasing chaos in the compositional style of new music would break out, and he was firmly of the opinion that in the foreseeable future one should put composition on a solid footing again. As with the new Vienna school around Schoenberg, Hindemith set about breaking through the by this time outdated and exhausted system of the traditional teaching of harmony, with its major-minor polarities and its typically resultant modulations, and superseding it with something new and contemporary.

At this point it would be too much to explain in detail the differences between Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique and Hindemith’s notion of “extended tonality” or “free tonality.” To put it simply, it was Schoenberg’s aim to achieve absolute equality between the 12 notes of the scale, whereas what underlies Hindemith’s tonal language is also a 12-note series, but one based on a clear keynote. Furthermore Hindemith remains closely allied to the idea of tonality.

Although Hindemith recognized and appreciated the invaluable worth for keyboard instruments of the division of the scale into 12 equal semitones, at the same time he also felt that tempered tuning was artificial and feared as a result that the ear would lose its sensitivity to natural sounds—an accusation which, incidentally, one hears increasingly today from specialists of historic instruments and of “authentic” performance practice. In The Craft of Musical Composition Hindemith writes: “Fortunately however, the instrumental and vocal parts which are capable of producing pure intervals, as opposed to the keyboard instruments, form the main body, and it is scarcely imaginable that musical sensibility could sink so far as to allow the keyboard instruments to have total control.” He tried to establish the chromatic scale as new and “natural,” and to this end he undertook increasingly extensive voyages of discovery from the tonic note of C into the realm of overtones. Out of this emerged his note rows including the, in his eyes, revolutionary discovery of “Series 1,” which formed the basis of Ludus Tonalis.

It is completely impossible for me here to explain more precisely this complicated process of the derivation of Hindemith’s note rows from the overtones. In the first place I have the greatest difficulty in really understanding it myself, and secondly Hindemith himself needed 10 pages to set out his explanations....But if someone wants to engage with it more closely and with Hindemith’s notion of “free tonality,” I would most warmly recommend a study of the first volume of The Craft of Musical Composition.

Was he ever tempted by Schoenberg’s theory of “composition with 12 tones”?

Hindemith was a fierce critic of the atonal 12-tone technique. Among other things, he felt that the division of the scale into 12 equal semitones was “false” and “unnatural.” As a result he could only reject a system which is based on these 12 unnatural notes, which almost glorifies them, and which gives the same significance to each note.

How does the booklet illustration of musical notes on a curvilinear staff relate to the piece?

The musical “note-snail” shows Hindemith’s “Series 1.” The fugues are prescribed according to this sequence of notes rather than ascending chromatically as in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. This means that the first fugue is in C, the second in F, the third in A, and so on up to the final fugue in F♯. One of the fascinating aspects of Ludus Tonalis is that the Prelude anticipates this tonal progression from C to F♯, and the Postlude, which is a palindrome (retrograde inversion) of the Prelude, then goes back from F♯ to C.

Needless to say, it is impossible for the listener and also for the interpreter to grasp immediately and consciously all these complex structures. For that one must analyze the piece in depth. But even if one has not (yet) gone through the process of a detailed analysis, it is my opinion that, if one concentrates very hard, the absolute perfection of this masterwork is perceptible; one can even become aware of a sort of “golden section.”

If I may return to the illustrations for a second, besides the “note-snail” there are a number of humorous lion sketches scattered throughout the booklet. To paraphrase Richard Whitehouse, these personify the spirit of play embodied in the music. Would you agree?

Yes, absolutely! Hindemith’s illustration of the score is utterly wonderful! Every musician who delves into Ludus Tonalis MUST become acquainted with these illustrations! His capacity for fantasy also as a draughtsman seems limitless. Each of the many little lions is drawn with so much love, humor, and fantasy! All the fugues are metaphorically analyzed with the lions. Each thematic device is a lion. When a theme is inverted the lion stands on its head. When it’s in retrograde the lion looks backwards, etc.

All the Interludes too are correspondingly illustrated with lions. That can be very inspirational. For instance the Interlude between Fugues 10 and 11 only really makes sense to me if one plays it like the lion illustrated at the beginning of the piece—blind drunk. If it is simply played in a strongly rhythmic manner, then to be honest I find the piece really unendurable. Or consider the slow middle section of the Fourth Fugue, marked slow, grazioso, which one plays with a quite different approach if one has seen the love-struck lion which, surrounded by butterflies, picks such beautiful flowers for his Dulcinée. Each note is a fragrant bloom, a very delicate butterfly....

Have you seen other examples of Hindemith’s graphic art?

Yes, Hindemith drew everywhere and very frequently. Allegedly, so I have read, he was undecided in his youth about whether he would prefer to become a musician or a painter. Manuscript paper, paper napkins, greeting cards, menus ... all were illustrated mostly with very amusing, but sometimes also facetious, images. Luckily, many of his drawings have survived and today are housed in the Hindemith Institute in Frankfurt. There have also been posthumous exhibitions, which Hindemith himself would never have had in mind, and to mark the centenary of his birth the Atlantis publishing house issued a book entitled The Composer as Illustrator, containing drawings by the composer.

Does Hindemith specify key signatures in Ludus?

What Hindemith was doing with his new system, with its rows and “free tonality,” was to break up the classical major-minor model. That is why for him there is no “C Major” or “G Minor” in the sense in which we have known it for the last 200 years. Admittedly, specific fugues in Ludus are “in C” or “in A♭” or whatever. But not “Major” or “Minor,” and so because of that there is no key signature at the beginning of the piece to denote the tonality. But I cannot give here a precise and detailed elucidation of “free tonality.” I would instead recommend a thorough study of the The Craft of Musical Composition.

Fuga octava in D is described as “A dance in 5/4 notated in 4/4.” That struck me as odd, to say the least. But as I thought about it, I realized you could stretch the theme over the bar lines to accommodate the fifth quarter note. Still, why bother when 5/4 is a perfectly acceptable metrical signature?

Yes. It is as you say. The fugal theme goes over the bar line. But a fugue does not just consist of the theme. And if you have a closer look at the piece, as well as how the voice which plays the actual theme each time, continues, then the 4/4 seems more than logical. Incidentally, I feel the piece entirely in 2 and not in 4.

Another little detail to stretch the mind: The notes describe “Fuga tertia in F” as “A retrograde fugue.” Does that mean that the entire body of the fugue reverses direction at some point?

Yes, exactly. The second half of the fugue is an exact mirror image of the first half. On my recording it sounds very precise: When played, the first half ends at 1:20 and the mirror image begins at 1:22. Have a try at concentrating on just one voice at this point; then perhaps you will hear the moment when the mirror image begins. Or, you could have a look at the score and the lion illustrations. Naturally this moment is illustrated very clearly.

Should Hindemith’s fugal excursions be seen as a continuation of one of Bach’s favorite preoccupations, several centuries on?

Of course. Although fugues and early forms of them were composed even before the Baroque, it was Bach who became the unsurpassed grandmaster of this form. Thereafter the form was regarded as outdated, but time and again composers from Mozart to Schubert, Mendelssohn to Reger, have devoted themselves to the composition of fugues, and it remains always a link to the past and to the great “father figure of the fugue,” J. S. Bach.

That Hindemith took up the subject again so explicitly has also to do with the fact that he wanted “to bring order to the compositional chaos at the beginning of the 20th century.” Also, fugues fulfilled his need for a certain objectivity. To bring his personal feelings in terms of Romanticism into music were far from his mind. And in a fugue it is objectivity and order which dominate.

Richard Whitehouse refers to Hindemith as the more “inclusive” of the two composers while claiming that Hartmann “more fully reflected the cultural concerns of his time.” Are you of the same opinion?

To tell the truth, I have never understood what he means in this sentence. One would have to ask him in person about it. I can only speculate.

What is clear is that what made both composers tick was fundamentally different. As a composer Hindemith certainly had a much more practical side than Hartmann. Hindemith felt that the job of a composer, at least up to a certain point, was not exclusively artistic but that it was definitely also a skilled trade. The composer should write (also) music for daily use and with a practical aim. Among other things Hindemith himself wrote film music, pieces for children, music for performance in schools, and music for amateurs (who, incidentally, were very close to his heart). Or when he heard that the pianist Walter Gieseking, who was due to give the first performance of his Piano Sonata No. 1, could not find his way into the (original) second movement of the work, Hindemith immediately wrote him a completely new, entirely different, second movement. In the end, he thought that “the helpful Gieseking should have fun playing.” So Hindemith wrote in an almost crazy tempo, in part fulfilling the composer’s “practical side.”

When one looks at Hartmann and his work, one encounters an entirely different temperament. Unfortunately, the book Kleine Schriften (Little Writings) which Schott published shortly after the composer’s death is out of print; but anyone who is interested in Hartmann and understands German should try at all costs to find somewhere a second-hand copy. In it the composer compiled and recorded all those thoughts and reminiscences which he had had over the years.

Hartmann composed very slowly and revised all his works over and over again. Every single note, every smallest pause, is felt to the very end. Everything must be just so, and not any other way.

Unlike Hindemith, who left Nazi Germany at the end of the 1930s and lived first in Switzerland and then in the USA, where he even became an American citizen, the ardent anti-Fascist Hartmann remained in Germany throughout the war years. Because of his political views he was forced into “internal emigration.” Of course he continued to compose, but his works were never performed in Germany and—apart from a few quite small concerts abroad—Hartmann composed exclusively for the bottom drawer in these years. All his works dating from this dark time are imbued with visions of horror and the most painful visions of the war years.

In an article, Hartmann wrote that, “An artist must not live in the everyday world without having spoken. If my music of late has often been called ‘confessional music,’ then I see in that only an endorsement of my intention. It was important for me to communicate my view of life, aimed at humanity, in an artistic organism....” In a certain sense Hartmann was far more personal than Hindemith.

Does this idea of “inclusion” reflect Hindemith’s allegiance to the techniques and styles of the past? His intense interest in counterpoint, for example?

I don’t know, maybe. But that is only an external aspect. I think that Hindemith’s big, idealistic idea, which he realized in The Craft of Musical Composition, was to confront what he saw as an increasingly rampant chaos in music with a new system, in keeping with the period and with clear rules, which composers of the future could follow: That would be a good definition of the idea of “inclusion.” Hartmann had other ideals and thoughts, which perhaps describe him as “more exclusive.”

Whitehouse seems to imply that Hartmann’s interest in jazz somehow sets him apart from Hindemith, but so far as I know, Hindemith indulged similar tastes earlier in his career. And the following quote from a website entitled “Music and the Holocaust” certainly seems to substantiate my conception of Hindemith’s very broad range of sympathies: “His expressionist operas showed the influences of atonal harmonies and especially jazz, but his compositions ran the gamut in terms of genre: he wrote children’s songs, chamber music, experimental theatre music, and Lieder.”

Yes—nobody was left untouched by the extremely lively 1920s—certainly not Hindemith and Hartmann. Hartmann, who at that time was in his 20s, fused, in his own words, “freewheeling futurism, Dada, jazz and other styles” in his works. However he later destroyed most of these early compositions. In Hindemith one finds movements such as “Shimmy,” “Boston,” and “Ragtime” in his Suite 1922. Or, in his piano cycle In einer Nacht, a foxtrot before the final “Double Fugue with stretti.”

When did Hindemith emigrate to the United States?

Hindemith left Germany in 1938. He then lived in Switzerland and, from 1940, in the USA, where he taught at Yale. In 1946 he took American citizenship. His status and influence in the USA were enormous. He was performed more often in the States than any other living composer and received many commissions. His music was invariably favorably reviewed in the press and he was frequently decorated and honored. Just to name a few examples: In 1947 the exclusive Institute of Arts and Letters made him an honorary member; he was made Doctor honoris causa by the Philadelphia Academy of Music in 1945 and by Columbia University in 1948, and on the occasion of his 50th birthday the Juilliard School of Music hosted a music festival lasting several days. Even in 1961, long after he had left America again, he received an invitation to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. It was in the States that Hindemith first became world-famous as a composer and several of his greatest works, including Ludus Tonalis and the stupendous Piano Concerto of 1945, date from his American years.

What’s it like to perform such a lengthy, demanding work as Ludus Tonalis in concert?

First and foremost, it is not the length of the work which presents a difficulty—the first book of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, for example, is of a similar length—but the fact that in Ludus, a work lasting about 55 minutes, there are 25 different pieces (which naturally together give it unity!). They are always over in a very short space of time and one is scarcely “in the zone” then it’s already over, a non-stop rollercoaster of feelings and characters.

One of Hindemith’s maxims, that music should touch the intellect and the emotions in equal measure, is particularly well developed and realized in this work. Never to lose this equilibrium represents a special challenge. In addition, the demand on one’s memory, if one plays it by heart, is naturally exceedingly great.

Over and above all these reasons the process of learning Ludus is also extremely time consuming, and one actually has no time left to practice other pieces. The last time that I played Ludus in concert I combined it with a (short) contemporary piece and Schumann’s Fantasie, op. 17. That was too much! Back then I swore to myself that I would play Ludus only by itself in concerts, without any other works on the program. But you never know....

How does the Hartmann affect you in performance?

Playing the Hartmann Sonata is entirely different. Just as I can get completely into the spirit of Hindemith’s freshness and enthusiasm, so I can also plunge completely into Hartmann’s earnestness.

One cannot really compare Ludus with the Hartmann Sonata. To begin with, the Hartmann Sonata is a direct testimony to a dramatic, highly personal, circumstance. At the end of the war Hartmann was in hiding from the Nazis in Kemptenhausen on Lake Starnberg. He was there on April 27, 1945 and witnessed the SS driving a crowd of prisoners south from the Dachau concentration camp to their deaths. With the liberation of Dachau imminent, the SS wanted to prevent these people from falling into the (rescuing) hands of the Americans, so they “evacuated” them and slaughtered them in a secluded spot. Apparently Hartmann was able to deal with this terrible event only by immediately setting to work on the Sonata “27 April 1945.” He kept this very personal work under wraps for a long time and also resisted performance of it during the 1950s, so the work did not appear in print until 1983. The composer prefaced the work with these words: “On 27 and 28 April 1945 a stream of human beings, prisoners from Dachau, trudged past us, endless was the stream—endless was the misery—endless was the suffering.”

In order to play the piece, either in concert or at home, and even to hear the work, means that one must at the same time immerse oneself once more in this terrible time. One must be prepared for its devastating impact and at the same time be able to endure it. Whenever I practice the piece I have to stop work from time to time to have a cry; then I can carry on practicing.

In concerts it always seems very odd to me that the audience applauds at the end. I find that at that moment there is actually nothing to applaud and I find it disconcerting. But I had several discussions about it with friends and their opinions differed. “Applause brings one back into the here and now—that’s important.”

Of course there have been and continue to be many different ways of representing and reflecting upon the catastrophe of the holocaust in art. In films, too, there are fundamentally different approaches to the subject. One thinks of such different films as Benigni’s Life is beautiful, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, or Lanzmann’s Shoa. Maybe you can feel closer to one approach rather than the other. Documentary films speak to me personally the most, and I feel that the Hartmann Sonata is a vivid document of one of the greatest catastrophes in history and one which reveals to us one of the deepest abysses in human existence.

Is there anything you’d like to add to what you’ve already hinted at about the political stance taken by these composers? My question is prompted both by Hartmann’s preface to the sonata (see above) and by a statement I came across on the internet referring to Hindemith’s apolitical behavior and consequent “immunity” from the worst excesses of the Nazi regime.

Please let me answer this question with a quotation from Hartmann: “It seems to me that the classification of art into political and non-political, engaged and unengaged, is a little superficial, since no artist should flinch from an engagement with humanity, unless he is committed to nihilism. It is simply a matter of personal temperament and external circumstances how strongly the political relationship is realized in image and word.”

Why did you omit the Scherzo from the Hartmann Sonata? Was it because Hartmann himself removed it in his 1947 revision or for some other reason?

The booklet text is unfortunately somewhat confusing in this regard. As he did with all his works, Hartmann later revised the Sonata. The piece comes down to us in two calligraphically elaborate manuscripts with differing movement numbering and with different structures. Manuscript 1, from 1945, is in four movements, while Manuscript 2, from 1947, has only three movements. But Hartmann revised all the movements in the second version. The first movement in the second version differs from that of the first version only in a few small details, while he completely cut the second movement (the Scherzo) in the 1947 version. The Funeral March is quite different in both versions, and he recomposed long passages of the last movement in the 1947 version.

For me personally the question never arose whether or not I should play the Scherzo, or whether I should choose the first or second version of the last movement. I only asked myself whether to play version 1 or 2. I have even heard pianists who amalgamate the two versions. But if one knows Hartmann’s integrity and modus operandi that seems to me to be somewhat nonsensical. Hartmann knew exactly what he was doing. In the end I decided on Manuscript 2, above all because of the earth shattering, slow, interpolated intermediate section in the last movement, which allows us to divine the limitlessness of the heavens, before the inexorable machinery of war brings us back to earth with a bang.

Do you hear any similarity between Hindemith’s and Hartmann’s music (at least in these two pieces) or do you agree with Whitehouse’s remark that the two pieces are “contemporaneous but aesthetically very different pieces”?

I can really find no common ground in the two works recorded here. On the other hand, the Funeral March from Hindemith’s First Piano Sonata is, to some extent, the model for Hartmann’s “Marcia funebre” in this sonata. The similarities between these two movements are unmistakable. I know, too, that each composer had a high opinion of the other. But in truth, I feel myself somewhat overtaxed by this question. I am not a musicologist, and here words fail me. But could I recommend to anyone who would like to know more on this topic the book (in English) by Guy Rickards with the simple title Hindemith, Hartmann and Henze.

Have you heard Henze’s orchestration of the Hartmann Sonata?

The young Hans Werner Henze, for whom Hartmann was a sort of father figure, and with whom he remained in “brotherly friendship” all his life, was shown the sonata in the year it was composed and immediately planned to orchestrate the work. But it took him almost 50 years to realize his plan and his Three Pieces for Orchestra on a Piano Piece by Karl Amadeus Hartmann was premiered in 1996. Unfortunately, I have not yet heard the piece. It is said to be a free arrangement of the sonata.

In a talk on what would have been Hartmann’s 75th birthday, Henze said: “The life story of Karl Amadeus Hartmann is that of a personal engagement with, and of a career in, the war against Fascism. The story of his life has made him for us, his younger colleagues, respectable, endearing and exemplary.”

Strangely enough, certain of the quicker movements in the Ludus reminded me of Poulenc. Do you find that an odd association?

I am now not entirely sure that this comparison would not perhaps make Hindemith turn in his grave [lol]. Almost all the developments and innovations in the music of the 20th century passed Poulenc by without a trace, and his intellectual aspirations were not exactly elevated. Not really after Hindemith’s gusto....But I must say that I personally hold Poulenc’s music in extraordinarily high regard. I really adore playing his music and can quite understand how you can come to this comparison. Poulenc’s piano pieces are all very short and sparkle with so much lively wit, humor, and charm, and it is precisely these qualities that one definitely finds in some pieces in Ludus. So you have my blessing for your comparison!

I’m curious about the instrument you’ve chosen for the recording? Is it an older Steinway?

That’s funny! Does the piano sound to you like an old Steinway? Perhaps you have become accustomed to much more brilliant, lighter instruments in America. No, it’s quite new. I don’t know exactly how old it is—perhaps a few years. It’s a very special instrument with very special qualities, which is why I chose it, but it also has some weaknesses which infuriated me at times during the recording. The piano has a wonderful, very warm basic timbre, but it is not very brilliant, occasionally a bit sluggish, and the mechanism is rather slow to react. But in spite of a few blemishes I find it very suitable for this repertoire. But a 100 percent perfect piano? Where does that even exist? Only once in my life have I played “my” perfect piano! It was in Mexico City and I thought: “Wow! It was exactly for that that I practiced for years.” But that was already many years ago and since then unfortunately I have not come across such perfection.

Are you planning any forthcoming recordings?

My next recording project is something else entirely. It is Mendelssohn. But there is still some organizing to do, so it’s not absolutely official yet. But it will be super!

I hadn’t heard of First Hand Records until now, but it’s my opinion that they’ve served you very well.

FHR is a young British label that publishes a lot of interesting new recordings and previously unreleased rare historical material; have a look into their catalog!

For this current CD my special thanks go to my sound editor Malgorzata Albinska-Frank, with whom I have collaborated for many years. Her great musicality, allied to her extensive technical know-how, as well as her patience and skill in managing my regular crises during the recording sessions and in the post-production processes, are exceptional.

And of course I would also like to offer my heartfelt thanks to David Murphy of FHR for the wonderful design of the booklet and for the extremely congenial collaboration. One feels that the whole label is permeated by his love of music and that’s good. 

© Esther Walker 2013