Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

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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. 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 work stems from 1940, the time of the composer’s immigration to the United States, and stems from discussions with Leo Massine, a well-know figure in the ballet world.  Massine wanted a ballet suite based upon melodies by von Weber, but the initial efforts by Hindemith were stillborn and the collaboration was dropped.  Evidently, Massine wanted more von Weber and less of Hindemith—his pungent, modern style was too much for the traditionalist.  Moreover, Hindemith was not at all happy with Massine’s proposed sets and costumes based upon the art of Salvador Dali.  Luckily, the material was kept, and latter reworked by 1943 into four large movements for symphony orchestra.   The material (actually, Hindemith borrowed more than just “themes”) is derived primarily from piano duets by von Weber with which Hindemith was very familiar, having played them with his wife on more than one occasion.  Other material stems from von Weber’s incidental music for a play by Gozzi based upon the same Turandot legend made so famous in Puccini’s opera.  Later, others choreographed the new version of the work, but those attempts have never enjoyed the enthusiastic reception of the purely symphonic presentation.  It is probably the composer’s most popular composition.

            Cast in four movements, the first movement is a vigorous march whose melodies sound vaguely Shostakovichian at times, but certainly more turgid and complex.  Dissonant, thick textures alternate with simple little winsome tunes imaginatively orchestrated.  After all the modernity and harmonic complexity, it is a true Hindemith hallmark when the movement ends on a powerful, simple major triad.  The second movement—first heard in the solo flute--is based upon a real Chinese folk song—listen for the “black notes only” pentatonic scale.  Those of a “certain age” (you know who you are) may note its similarity to a novelty pop tune from 1960.  The tune is passed around the orchestra to almost every instrument or section, accompanied by an ever-changing weft of rhythms and secondary material, but the tune is always there and never hard to spot.  Near the middle, after a descending “vortex” like a musical whirlpool, Hindemith—always the contrapuntalist—changes the whole texture and weaves a fugato, begun by the solo trombone, followed by almost everyone sequentially, and even includes brilliant sections for percussion alone.  A solemn chord ends it all.

            The third movement quietly features a few straightforward themes cast in variety of textures, often featuring the woodwinds, with little of the searing modern dissonances of the first movement.  The last movement is rightly well known, and opens with a short energetic statement from the brass, and a mysterious procession starts, heard first in oboe.  Based originally on a funeral march, the composer uses the main tune at twice the original speed, but if you listen carefully the source mood is evident.  This mood doesn’t last long though, for a cascade of twittering notes accompanies a heroic theme of affirmation first heard in the horns.   The rousing drive to the end is led by virtuoso horn calls and celebratory support from all.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan