There was a kind of “Hindemith Moment” in the 1980s or ’90s—I’m not sure when; I just know I started listening to him around the tail end of it, and that happened to coincide with my musical coming of age. At any rate, there was a point in my life when I carried out my own personal Hindemith-Rummel—Kleine Kammermusik, Mathis der Maler, Symphonic Metamorphosis, the Oktett . . . you name it, I couldn’t get enough.
But then . . . what? I grew out of it? At a certain point it all started to sound terse, square, and, well, lame. And because of my association with violists in those days, I heard a lot of it. What’s worse, I became acutely aware of all the new music I was hearing that sounded “Hindemithian.” By the way, that had become a term of derision within my circle—it meant stuffy, angular, scant of tune, and (worst of all) German.
(In fact, some of my friends and I had a whole bit we used to do called the “Dancing Square.” You can do it, too! First, hold up one hand with your index finger extended as if to proclaim “We’re #1!” at a sporting event. Then extend your middle finger [“tall man”] straight out so as to be perpendicular to your index finger—the 90˚ angle is key here—keeping your thumb folded over your fourth and fifth fingers. Mirror that with the opposite hand. Now carefully bring your hands together to meet, joining index finger to index finger, middle finger to middle finger. You should have made a neat little outline of a box. Now . . . make him dance! Something jaunty! Side to side!! The Dancing Square would make his appearance at concerts, stealthily bumping along on his little jig during angular bits of music—old or new didn’t matter; it’s all the same to the Dancing Square! Sometimes a simple flash of the square to one’s friends, gangsta style, is enough to indicate your attitude about a given passage. Hint: he likes fugati the best. You’ll see!)
So why am I writing about der arme Paul now? Have I come back around to liking Hindemith? Yes and no. I’ve come to realize something that I find fascinating, which is this: that while I generally still think of Hindemith as a composer I’m not that interested in, when I hear an individual work of his, I actually do like it. In other words, it’s as if I don’t care for the overall output of the composer, but I seem to find things to like—even love—in the individual works. Hmmm. I know. It makes little sense. But here’s a thought experiment for you:
Would you rather listen to some Hindemith, or listen to any other composer who ever lived, anywhere . . . ever? If you’re like me, it’s the latter. But, oh, wait! Now you’re in your office; the internet is down; you have nothing to listen to except this one Hindemith disc that you somehow have (I don’t know, maybe you’re in someone else’s office, it’s not important!), and it’s got this piece on it:
Wow! That’s Hindemith? I like that! It’s not square. It’s passionate. It goes somewhere. Yes, there’s a fugato (hit up around 02:17). But it’s not angular and predictable. It’s . . . creepy and weird! It’s awesome!!
So now you’re thinking, “Wait a minute. You can’t fool me. That was an early work, still under the heady influence of Brahms & co. Sooner or later he’s going to bust out one of his dry sets of variations or some sort of passacaglia. Play me something of his that’s a little later and we’ll make that Dancing Square come out.”
Okay, fair enough. Here’s another (later) quartet, rife with fugue:
What did you think of that? It was squarish, right? But wasn’t it also a little exciting? (Not sure what those two little guys Frenchin’ was all about, but whatever!) The Dancing Square was out, but he was head banging.
What’s all this supposed to prove? Nothing. Except perhaps that, even though we might outgrow something, occasionally we discover that there’s still some love left there. We still might need to really test that love—I’m thinking Konzertmusik, op. 50. If you find something to love in that, then perhaps you should re-consider your stance vis-à-vis Paul Hindemith. I know I will.