Inside 20th-century music

Like highway billboards that so easily become grafted onto the unnoticed everyday surface of life, certain key figures in music -- yes, even 20th-century music -- show up after a time rather in need of having a fresh look taken at them.The trouble is, sensitive though we are to consumer advertising, we are understandably reticent about involving major creative artists in relevance-for-today appraisals.

But it is important. We need, every now and then, to examine just who our cultural heroes and anathemas are, and why. This will soon be important, I think, for Paul Hindemith, because some talk is being heard these days of a revival of interest in his music. Over the years Hindemith has enjoyed a towering reputation, though many people, especially young people, may not be terribly sure as to why, or for what. Some thought will have to be given -- before the next Hindemith festival, I hope -- to what his music is all about.

What it is about in one sense, really, is system and productivity. Like everyone who flowered around World War I, Hindemith grew up with Modernism, the free-thinking turn-of-the-century breakthrough in all the arts. Like Schonberg, he felt a strong need for some controlling reins on the anything-goes nature of Modernist composing. But, unlike Schonberg, who turned atonality [music without a key center] into his 12-tone serial [numeric] method, Hindemith never abandoned tonality, thus guaranteeing his work a level of accessibility that serialism, by nature, never reached.

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But he was just as rigorous about applying principles of acoustics and rules of harmony to his work, giving the casual observer the impression that he was perhaps not only trying to separate beauty from chaos, but also to vindicate, defend . . . and legitimize? . . . what he produced.

He went through a brief period of interest in jazz, and many have long believed he was as committed as Kurt Weil and Ernst Krenek to the cabaret, music hall style. But it was as a "serious" concert music composer that he influenced countless other composers, in a couple of generations, with his distinctive style that became an important part of the "20th-century sound."

It is sometimes hard to tell, in parts of his music, just where Hindemith the theorist is leading, and where the composer. He certainly streamlined 20 th-century harmonic practice and codified other areas (like counterpoint) for modern times; and modern music's history owes such a large share to his archetypal approach to sound. (One can even point to certain harmonic or melodic passages occurring in a wide variety of music, and say, "This was made possible by Hindemith" -- made a part of the vocabulary of contemporary composing by his example.) But the old question about him does persist: is it primarily as a summarizerm that he should be known? What morem than consistency does his music itself offer to motivate listeners, now and in the future?

He is at his best when he is obviously transcending the patterns and rules of symmetry he wrote by so unswervingly, as in big pieces like the Mathis der Malerm symphony (1934), or the Symphonia Serenam (1949). He proved in those pieces, and a few others, that he was a major creative figure, capable of rising to the demands of the grand gesture and bringing it off.

But so much in Hindemith's music, no matter how much I have wanted -- and tried -- to like it over the years, is inescapably empty and devoid of any lasting impression. Few are the instruments, for example, for which Hindemith did not produce some music, and it is the sonatas for wind instruments especially that I find, as a body, simply so many empty notes. In the light of his zeal for producing a stream of music as a token of one dutiful composer's gratitude toward his community, I still hear pieces like the Sonata for Flute and Piano,m or the trombone or bassoon sonatas, as products of a misplaced optimism about their ultimate worth. One thing the last thirty years has taught us is that what the world needs is notm just more and more music, but music that engages the emotision, that is aurally, viscerally, stimulating.

Hindemith's early opera, Cardillacm (1926), was successful and still contains much whopping potential for repertory status, but its main drawback (for me) summarizes so much of The Problem: there is page upon page of "padding" -- writing in a glib, faceless, "modern" musical style that, outside its intense dramatic trappings, would have far less impact than it does.

The "mistakes" (as I hear them) in works like Cardillac,m the Horn Concertom ( 1949) and the wind sonatas are essentially typical, I am afraid, of what happens when a supersystematic personality, overly confident in his facility, persists in churning out acres of music. With Paul Hindemith, it is what happens when a vital, directed talent (listen to his piano suite "1922"m) becomes absorbed with philosophy and method.

It is painful to have to say such things about Hindemith, for so much in his music is likable and accessible. And he is to be looked up to as a man of strong ideals who insisted it was possible to be both modern andm accessible. But he is also to be learned from by remembering that being accessible is itself no substitute for being substantive and compelling as well.

A listening of Hindemith at his best:

* Mathis der Malerm (the opera andm the symphony).

* Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weberm (1943).

* Symphonia Serenam (1946).

* Requiem: "When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloom'dm (on Walt Whitman texts, 1946).

* Sonata, Op 11, no. 4, for Viola and Pianom (1919).

* Der Schwanendreherm (a concerto for viola and orchestra, 1935).

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