Der Schwanendreher

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            Hindemith is without question one of the most significant composers of the first half of the twentieth century, and one who stands almost alone in the breadth of his achievement.   He espoused a musical philosophy that was founded in deep reverence of discipline, musicality, craftsmanship, mastery and respect for past musical traditions, and commitment to the education and training of students.  He composed in almost every musical genre, and while certainly a “modern” composer, whose compositions explore a shifting degree of dissonance, his works draw upon almost every genre and compositional technique in music history.  He emphasized fundamentals of musicianship for all, and demonstrated that in his pedagogical works and in his own formidable performance skills.   He wrote as solicitously and appropriately for young children as he did for professional performers. Trained primarily as a violinist—later switching to viola—he played in professional string quartets, and remarkably taught himself to play credibly on most of the orchestral instruments, the better to compose the series of solo sonatas that he wrote for most of them.

            During the thirties he fell into disfavor with the Nazi government and emigrated; his wife was part Jewish and his earlier musical style was rather dissonant, both bad in National Socialists’ eyes.  Ironically, by the time he fled, his style was really couched in a more conservative, acceptable idiom, but no matter.   Ultimately he took a position at Yale University in 1940, became an American citizen, and established an influential career as a teacher of theory and composition—even leading the early music ensemble.  His music—though part of the standard repertoire of the century—came to be viewed as somewhat passé by the young Turks of the fifties.  When apprised that they had referred to his works as “old iron,” he famously observed that it was better to be “old iron” than “new bull s---.”  In 1953 he retired to a small village in Switzerland, where he lived until his death in 1963. Never a controversial figure, he was the epitome of a solid musical citizen of genius who cultivated a dedicated artistic engagement with his public.  He was dedicated to musical craftsmanship and reaching out to his public, no matter its level of musical sophistication.   Interesting enough, for a man who had devised a complete “system” for modern composition and wrote fairly consistently therein, his music garnered much acclaim and popular appeal.

            During his lifetime he was interested in composing in almost every genre, even opera, and left behind a very large corpus of compositions whose popularity with almost all musicians and performing groups still flourishes.   His chamber music is an impressive and important contribution, for he wrote for an amazing variety of small ensembles.  While his music has been evergreen of faculty and student performances in colleges and conservatories since his arrival in this country at the beginning of World War II, his contributions to large ensembles, including opera, while respected, is of somewhat lesser importance.  In 1951 he did make a major contribution to the repertoire of the concert band in his Symphony in Bb, commissioned by the US Army Band. But, symphonic audiences know him best for his symphony, “Mathis der Mahler,” (1935) extracted from the opera of the same name, and for the suite, Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.

            The complete musician, he began his career as a professional violinist, performing in well-known string quartets, as well as a solo artist with symphony orchestras.  However, by the end of the 1930s he began to perform more and more as a violist, and soon concentrated on that instrument alone.  The concerto for viola and orchestra, or “Der Schwanendreher,” dates to 1935—the third year of Nazi power—and in some ways is a harbinger of his flight from their disfavor of him.  He didn’t actually emigrate until late in 1938, but he was on thin ice from the beginning. 

            Hindemith composed in widely varying musical styles, and the viola concerto is a cogent example of his lifelong penchant for weaving old, traditional techniques and melodies into a modern, often dense and dissonant context; here, in Der Schwanendreher, all three movements are based in various ways on old German folksongs.  For some observers, the titles of these songs are clever allusions to his peril and his unhappiness with life in the Third Reich.  In addition to entitling the three movements with the names of the songs contained therein, he also quoted songs with titles like “Have a Difficult Day,” and “Happiness lies in all Paths.” 

            The title of the concerto, Der Schwanendreher (The Swan Turner), is from an ancient song that, while seeming to allude to the kitchen scullion who turns a swan on a roasting spit, more probably refers to the strolling street musician who cranks a hurdy-gurdy.  Hindemith helpfully includes the following in the score:


A minstrel, joining a merry company, displays what he has brought back from foreign lands: songs serious and gay, including a dance piece. Being a true musician, he expands and embellishes the melodies, preluding and improvising according to his fancy and ability. This medieval scene was the inspiration of the composition.


             Hindemith scored the work for a small wind section and a string section that completely omits the violins and violas.  Thus, the mellow tone of the viola stands in clear contrast to its accompaniment.  The composer, himself, played the première in Amsterdam in November of 1935.

            The first movement, based upon the tune “Between Mountain and deep Valley” begins with a brief, rather melancholy, cadenza for the soloist, followed by the orchestra clearly playing the old German tune, in style reminiscent of the sixteenth century.  Virtuoso, original material for the soloist then continues to alternate with statements of the tune.  The movement gradually grows in dramatic intensity and rhythmic activity, ending almost unexpectedly with a nice, clean major chord in the brass.  Hindemith fashions the second movement into a simple ABA form, with the viola beginning in a meditative, lyrical vein, followed, after a while, with an exchange with the old tune, “Leaf out little Linden Tree,” performed in chorale style by the orchestra.   A spritely middle section based on “The Cuckoo Sat on the Fence” is a fugato (rather like a round), with the woodwinds taking the lead, one at a time, until the viola joins them, building to a climax at the end of the section.  A return to the opening ideas—but varied (the old melody now appears as a kind of cantus firmus)—ends the movement.   The last movement of Der Schwanendreher starts off with a jolly statement of the borrowed tune by the full orchestra. Twelve variations follow, but, you won’t always be able to track them easily, for Hindemith pulls out all the stops in the variation technique, constantly changing almost every aspect of composition as the bustling variations unfold.  They start somewhat simply, led by the woodwinds, but gradually become more complex.  Soon, all the activity yields to somewhat softer, more lyrical ideas—lightly scored.   But, the bustle soon resumes with a happy race to the quick, emphatic conclusion.  It all goes very well without the violins.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan