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Views And Reviews: Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber

...The story of the Metamorphoses began in 1934, when Hindemith had fallen foul of the National Socialist régime for his “cultural Bolshevism”. For speaking out against Totalitarianism through his opera Mathis der Maler, he had been denounced by Goebbels as an “atonal noise-maker”...

Paul Serotsky introduces us to one of Hindemith’s greatest works.

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Have you ever been duped by “received wisdom” – something that “everybody” knows, but which turns out to be poorly acquainted with the truth? For instance we’ve all been told, at some time, that “Brahms is stodgy”. During my youth, I similarly “thought” that Hindemith was irredeemably dense and dull. Then, one day, my innocent ears stumbled across some stunningly brilliant music on the radio. Having already been stirred, I was shaken to find that it was Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber”. Of course, I knew of the work, but on its own that hefty title had unfortunately reinforced my “received” opinion.

The story of the Metamorphoses began in 1934, when Hindemith had fallen foul of the National Socialist régime for his “cultural Bolshevism”. For speaking out against Totalitarianism through his opera Mathis der Maler, he had been denounced by Goebbels as an “atonal noise-maker”. In 1938, as a parting shot before fleeing to Switzerland, Hindemith collaborated with the choreographer Léonide Massine on a ballet, “Nobilissima Visione”, based on the subject of Saint Francis of Assisi.

In 1940, Hindemith moved to the USA, where he was again approached by Massine, with an idea for another ballet, based on orchestrations of Weber piano pieces. However, Hindemith’s draft was far too complicated for Massine’s purpose, the project came to naught, and Hindemith was left with music on his hands. Possibly prompted by Weber’s classically tonal idiom, and certainly by the virtuoso American orchestral style, he re-worked it into the present orchestral “showpiece”.

These are, though, more than mere dressings-up in dazzling orchestral garb. Hindemith did a characteristically thorough job. He re-composed entire movements, expanding the forms, modifying the melodies, spicing the harmonies, working wonders with trills, and running riot with the rhythms. Ideally, any performance should be prefaced by the Weber originals but, as three of them are piano duets, this tends to be a non-starter! The other is orchestral and, at a mere four minutes long, it could reasonably form a prelude at once instructive and entertaining*. Anyway, should you fancy chasing them up yourself later, I’ve noted the Weber sources:

1. Allegro [Piano Duet, op. 60 no. 4]. Fired by shrill trills, a cauldron of counterpoint quickly begins to bubble. This would surely signal the academic “toil and trouble” implicit in the work’s title, were it not for the music’s extraordinary textures and prevalent mood. Setting the scene with a rollicking rhythmic figure and shaking a psychedelic kaleidoscope, Hindemith bestows a delicious air of inebriate festivity.

The movement is over half-way through before it settles onto anything sounding even remotely attributable to Weber. The seeming source of all the shenanigans, this nice, polite oboe tune is soon sucked into the party, with the re-emergent opening tune sounding – rather appropriately – as though played on blown beer-bottles!

2. Scherzo: Moderato – Lebhaft [Overture to “Turandot”]. Weber’s simple march*, starting on drum and flute, straightforwardly alternates soft and loud. Whilst retaining the introductory flute, Hindemith replaces the drum by ethereal orchestral expectancy, “chromaticises” Weber’s overtly pentatonic tune, and creates a succession of three astonishing crescendi.

Firstly, exotic percussion ignite a sort of “Boléro on LSD”: the tune marches around the orchestra, haloed by hosts of tingling trills. Secondly, the brass tweak the tune in two opposing ways, giving it a decidedly transatlantic, jazzy kink whilst invoking that most academic of forms, the fugue! The woodwind’s “take” is supplanted by the exotic percussion, inviting a summarial crescendo to an explosive climax that leaves the exotic percussion to weave a weird farewell.

3. Andantino [Piano Duet, op. 10 no. 2] – A disarming, classically contoured, and deceptively simple moment of repose. Four times, a gentle refrain passes between clarinet and bassoon, its mood mellowed by congenial string cadences – and spiced by trills. Germinating on horn and clarinet, violins bring it to full bloom, from whence cellos lead off a trio section, stately yet sinuous and also flowering briefly – prompting a solo flute to emulate a loquacious songbird all the way through the main section’s reprise.

4. Marsch [Piano Duet, op. 60 no. 7]. Declamatory brass launch and conjoin a sturdy march, enlivened by some of those ubiquitous trills. Thrice round the loop we go, each time arriving at an expectant pivot. The third statement is abbreviated but sonically enriched, and finally the expectancy is broken – by a doleful droop on unison strings!

This neat bit of “wool-pulling” primes the charge: skittering woodwind carpet the horns-led entry of the spring-loaded counter-subject. The rest, as they say, is a right old romp. As the merry music reaches its crunching conclusion, I do have to wonder: what would Carl Maria have made of it all?

© Paul Serotsky

* Recordings of opp. 10 and 60 aren’t exactly thick on the ground, but the overture is readily – and cheaply! – available, as one of the fill-ups on a CD of Weber’s two symphonies: Naxos 8.550928

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