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Remembering a Musical Master
Paul Hindemith, one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century, was once asked for an analysis of his compositions. “I cannot give analyses of my works,” he replied. “I’d rather use the time in writing a new one.”
It was a typical response from a person who once rejected a biographer with the admonition that he stick to the “essential and inevitable facts”—those of his musical upbringing. Hindemith left to others the work of analyzing and interpreting his music, life, and persona—with the result that, 100 years after his birth, he remains one of the most influential yet least understood figures in modern music.
This year’s centenary is giving the classical music world a rare opportunity to explore—and perhaps reassess—the legacy of Hindemith, and much of that process is taking place at Yale, where the composer served as a member of the Music School faculty from 1940 to 1953. In his honor, the School is hosting an international Hindemith symposium (October 20-22) that will include presentations by authors, scholars, and former students, as well as performances of many of Hindemith’s most important works. (The Yale program will highlight a series of Hindemith observances that began last January when conductor Robert Shaw held a five-day choral workshop in New York largely devoted to Hindemith’s Requiem for Those We Love. The New York City Opera produced Hindemith’s major opera, Mathis der Maler, last month, the first time that an American opera company had produced the work in New York.)
Significant as they are in themselves, the Yale celebrations are also serving as both a welcome and an opportunity for the Music School’s new dean, Robert Blocker, who came to Yale this fall from UCLA, where he had been dean of the School of Arts and Architecture. According to Blocker, Hindemith’s legacy provides a timely starting place for nothing less than an examination of the role of the artist in contemporary society.
That legacy is as varied as it is rich. Hindemith composed almost 300 major pieces, some of which have become concert-hall staples throughout the world (his sonatas are part of the standard repertoire in the training of instrumentalists), and he wrote works in nearly every classical form—concerto, sonata, symphony, opera, oratorio, and ballet. His teaching not only established Yale as one of the leading music schools in the country, it also formed a foundation for the contemporary study of music theory and composition.
Hindemith himself was a virtuoso on the viola and a talented player of virtually every other orchestral instrument. His focus on Renaissance and Baroque music had much to do with the revival of interest in those periods in this country. And his work as a conductor during the last ten years of his life created an artistic link between the European and American musical traditions. A radical in his youth, he became steadily more interested in traditional forms, and as a teacher remained devoted to the idea that music should be made and enjoyed by the general public as well as the intelligentsia.
Even with a legacy of international stature, Hindemith is often described as “underrated,” “misunderstood,” and “troubling.” While his name may be cited along with that of Stravinsky, Bartok, and Schoenberg, his music has found less public acceptance than that of his contemporaries. The reasons for the paradoxical nature of Hindemith’s public image seem to lie in the contradictions and struggles within the man himself. He despised the methods of one of his most influential teachers, yet adopted many of those characteristics himself; he decried musical showmanship, commercialism, and fame, yet seems to have privately seethed over his lack of acceptance in the musical mainstream; he mercilessly criticized his students' work, yet took the same students out for pizza. Not for nothing have scholars referred to “the two Hindemiths.”
This musical and psychological enigma was born on November 16, 1895, in Hanau, Germany, a town near Frankfurt best known as the home of the Brothers Grimm (of fairy-tale fame). He was one of three children whose father forced music on his children—sometimes under the threat of physical punishment. Hindemith began violin lessons at age 9 and had already begun composing by the time, at 13, he enrolled in Frankfurt’s conservatory.
As a student, Hindemith and his brother, Rudolf, played in taverns and cinemas to earn extra money, and these early experiences may account for Hindemith’s insistence as a teacher that his composition students understand their intended audience—where and when their music was to be played, before or after what other works—before they set pen to paper.
Hindemith’s father was killed in World War I and, to help support his family, the son took a job as first violinist in the orchestra of the Frankfurt Opera. After only three months, at the age of 20, he was made the orchestra’s leader. In that same year, 1915, he was drafted into the German army, but was spared the battlefield, playing bass drum in a military band and entertaining his superiors by playing in a string quartet.
Hindemith left the army in 1919, returning to Frankfurt and—the very night of his arrival—resuming his position at the Frankfurt Opera. Between 1919 and 1921 he composed a series of operas that launched him, inadvertently, to fame among the German avant-garde. One of these early works, Das Nusch-Nuschi, was built around a story that included a castration and included what many Germans interpreted as an insulting musical quotation from Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, then considered the near-sacred work of a favorite son. Another opera, Sancta Susanna, featured a sex-obsessed nun. Largely on the strength of such unorthodox works, Hindemith was quickly marked as a rebel by the musical establishment, but just as quickly became a darling of the German intellectual community.
During this period, Hindemith began to play exclusively modern, expressionistic music. He also produced a festival that showcased the works of such radical young composers as Bartok, Ravel, Delius, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg. But his own musical direction soon began to change, and he entered a neoclassical phase in which he combined increasingly traditional forms with modern polyphony, unfamiliar tonal relationships, and jazz phrasings. Many scholars consider this to be Hindemith’s most interesting period, marked by his early Kammermusik pieces and Das Marienleben, a song cycle set to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.
By the mid-1920s Hindemith had begun to seek even more order and purity in his writing, and he quickly disowned many of his earlier works as “naïve.” He wrote his first full-length opera, Cardillac, in 1926 and a year later took a job as a composition teacher at a state music school in Berlin. It was there that he became interested in developing an entirely new form of music, eventually called Sing und Spielmusik (Music to Sing and Play), that was written specifically to be performed by students and amateurs. Much of Hindemith’s writing during this time took on qualities that sprang from this interest in amateur music—simpler lines and more traditional harmonies. By the late 1920s, Hindemith was widely considered the leading German composer of his generation.
Behind the shift in Hindemith’s sensibilities lay his belief that contemporary music (particularly the 12-tone school of Schoenberg) had become too experimental and had lost touch with the public. Sing und Spielmusik was his attempt to pull things back together—a recognition of music as a social activity rather than as an exclusively artistic undertaking. He once wrote, “making music is better than listening to it.” Not all of his listeners found his approach appealing, however, and a number of critics labeled his efforts, condescendingly, Gebrauchsmusik, or, roughly, “utility music.”
While Hindemith’s musical conservatism deepened in the early 1930s, his earlier works came back to haunt him. Indeed, he soon found himself a target of the Nazis, who labeled him a “cultural Bolshevist” and condemned his work as “spiritually non-Aryan.” Hitler reportedly walked out of a production of Hindemith’s 1929 opera, Neues vom Tage, disgusted by a scene in which a nude soprano sang in a bathtub; and there were reports that Hindemith had made anti-Nazi remarks while traveling in Switzerland. True or not, he had spent much of his time there completing his book, The Craft of Musical Composition, which attempted in a practical way to identify the natural order of music, define good and bad music based on tonal relationships, and provide a sort of “manual” by which students could learn how to compose. But the Nazis preferred to dwell on his earlier radicalism, and his case was not helped by the fact that his wife Gertrud was part Jewish.
Hindemith was not actually forced out of Germany, yet in 1940, after a brief period in Switzerland, he voluntarily joined the mass emigration that brought such artistic luminaries as Josef Albers, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe to the United States. Hindemith began the American phase of his life teaching at the University of Buffalo. At the time, the music program at Yale was in turmoil, and a planned reorganization had stalled for lack of focus. Hindemith was invited to the School as a guest lecturer in the spring of 1940, and a year later was asked to join the faculty as a full-time professor.
Although a newcomer to the School, Hindemith immediately proposed a bold plan to reorganize its 85-year-old teaching program on the model of his former school in Berlin. While the plan was rejected, it served as the catalyst for a compromise reorganization that resulted in the creation of separate music programs at Yale—a graduate music department and a conservatory-style school that over time accepted only advanced students.
Many of Hindemith’s other ideas found their way into the School’s curriculum and organization. The study of composition was separated from that of music theory; every composition student was required to participate in music-making; a liberal arts requirement was added to the initial degree programs; and the School developed one of the world’s strongest programs in the history of music theory.
Hindemith’s presence alone soon began to attract top students to Yale and eventually gave the School a worldwide visibility that many say would have been impossible without him. Its full-time and visiting faculty has since included composer Quincy Porter, noted for his chamber music; Normand Lockwood, a composer of tonal pieces and expressive vocal works; composer, conductor, and teacher Gunther Schuller; jazz pianist and composer Mel Powell; the prolific composer Elliott Carter, a creator of ballets, and orchestral, vocal, and chamber music; and Anthony Davis, virtuoso pianist and composer of dance and operatic works. Among the school’s more notable alumni are Hindemith students Norman Dello Joio, a composer and teacher whose bold works include opera, Catholic church music, and jazz; and Lukas Foss, a diverse composer-conductor whose works range from early music to the improvisational and electronic.
Some 400 students took classes with Hindemith during his 13 years at Yale. Many were not regular students, but attended one or more of his open lectures. Those who studied directly with him took part in every class he taught, spending as much as 16 hours a week in the classroom with him.
By all accounts, Hindemith was a tough, impassioned teacher who stressed the importance of musical craftsmanship over artistic self-fulfillment. His students remember equally his sense of humor, his extraordinary ability to compose pieces on the spot in class, and the mercilessness with which he criticized their work. Howard Boatwright, now a professor of music at Syracuse, recalls that “if a student came in and said, 'Mr. Hindemith, look at this piece I’ve just written,' he'd tear it apart. He figured that if you weren’t able to stand that kind of criticism you probably didn’t have the stuff to make it anyway.”
Many complained that they weren’t allowed to write freely enough in their own style; a good number crumbled under his tutelage and left music altogether. But he was no less hard on himself. Boatwright recalls that Hindemith “even talked down his own music in class. He was as impersonal as if he hadn’t written it.”
Whatever his shortcomings, Hindemith’s passion and commitment to his work inspired the same in most of his students. Composer Mel Powell, in an article in The New Yorker, recalled that Hindemith “had the greatest pedagogical mind I’ve ever been in contact with. My style of teaching derived from him Our work was as serious as if we were surgeons in a lab.”
Deadly serious as he could be, Hindemith also had a memorable sense of humor, which emerged most strongly in the pantomimes and improvised theatrical sketches he and his wife put on at university parties. His annual Christmas cards, hand-drawn, displayed witty caricatures of Yale colleagues and friends. Hindemith’s sense of humor extended to his music as well. The score of one of his early plays included a thunderous chord that was to be played by sitting on the piano, and many of his pieces featured comical musical quotations.
The composer’s creative output while at Yale was prodigious, especially in light of the fact that he often taught for 12 hours a day. He composed 50 major pieces, including those most often performed today. They included a ballet, The Four Temperaments, written for George Balanchine; Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber; the oratorio When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd; and Die Harmonie der Welt, a symphony that later became an opera based on the life of astronomer Johannes Kepler. He also wrote two books, A Concentrated Course in Traditional Harmony and Elementary Training for Musicians.
While writing his own music, Hindemith also found time to expand on an earlier interest in Baroque and Renaissance music. He founded Yale’s Collegium Musicum, a group that studied works from the 12th to the 17th centuries and performed them on original instruments, many of which came from Yale’s own rich collection. Hindemith and the Collegium Musicum are widely credited with having started the early-music movement in this country.
Despite the good humor that Hindemith often showed during the time he was in New Haven, it was clear to those who knew him that he missed his native Germany. Letters written to his publishers in Europe betrayed a homesickness that never completely faded. Yet he remained bitter over his ostracism by the Nazis, and when, following the end of World War II, his music enjoyed a revival in Germany and he was invited to a number of prestigious conducting engagements, he declined them all, choosing Switzerland as the base for a European teaching and conducting tour in 1948 and 1949.
On his return, he was invited by Harvard to deliver the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton lectures, which later formed the basis of his book, A Composer’s World. In 1949 he returned to Switzerland for a teaching job in Zurich and began to spend alternate years there and at Yale. Hindemith finally resigned his Yale position in 1953 to concentrate on his conducting career in Europe. He spent the last ten years of his life primarily conducting music, although it was in this period that he composed some of his largest works—including the operas Die Harmonie der Welt and The Long Christmas Dinner, his often performed Oktett, and a Mass. Hindemith died on December 28, 1963, in Frankfurt.
Just what the composer left behind as an artistic legacy remains a matter of debate to this day. To many, it was simply his music—an extraordinarily wide and deep body of work that covers every genre of classical music. And within that body, loyalists point especially to the 30 sonatas that Hindemith wrote for nearly every instrument in the orchestra. “There isn’t a musician alive who hasn’t played one of the Hindemith sonatas,” says Boatwright.
The music remains one of his most puzzling assets, however—fascinating to some, ugly to others. “A lot of his music is misunderstood,” says Keith Wilson, who was conductor of the Yale band during much of Hindemith’s tenure at Yale. Pointing out that Hindemith’s notation was unusually spare, Wilson adds: “The people who play his music very straight are making a mistake. They need to feel it. So much of his music was played in such a dead way; even he said it was dull that way.”
To some, of course, the composer will be best remembered for the music he produced specifically for amateurs, to be played on social occasions rather than in concert halls. But that, too, is a mixed testament. Composer Lukas Foss said in a 1964 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company that Hindemith directed an “enormous output toward a dying-out species. The people he wrote (the music) for no longer exist. They play the hi-fi today.”
Hindemith’s influence on other composers is no easier to assess. Many of his students initially copied Hindemith’s style but later abandoned it in favor of their own emerging voices, and Hindemith left no “school” as, for example, Schoenberg did. Foss says the reason lies closer to the fact that Hindemith refused to allow his students to explore their own writing styles. “He used to say, 'don’t worry about it; if you have something to say, it will come out later.' Now the tragedy of his life as a teacher was that it did indeed come out later on. He has not left behind him young composers who really went on where he left off.”
Whatever the final judgment on Hindemith’s music, few would question his impact on academia, particularly in music theory. Indeed, his four textbooks are still used by students throughout the world. “The ingredients of what he pursued have been the cornerstone of our program, and this has been emulated all over the country,” says Forte, who today holds the same faculty position—Battell Professor of the Theory of Music—that Hindemith held while he was at Yale.
But the most enduring legacy of Hindemith may yet be the attitude with which he approached music-making, and the importance that he believed it held in society. Hindemith dedicated much of his life to encouraging people to make music, rather than to simply listen to it; he refused to allow music to be the sole province of the elite and insisted that it be practiced with the inspired precision of a fine craftsman. He also saw the value of music in bringing people together as a community. “As we go into the next century, we don’t have to look very far to see that people in the arts and humanities will have to be cultural leaders as well as artists,” Dean Blocker says. “The days are long gone when people say, 'Here’s a grant for $20,000; we wish you well.' We are going to have to impress upon people why it is important to have an artistic asset, what is the value of having a symphony orchestra. When we fail to do art, we fail to develop one side of the human psyche. Hindemith knew that.”
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