Music Appreciation

Hindemith’s Symphonic Dances

Music can be compared to travel. There are basically three kinds of trips one can take: a roller-coaster ride, an escorted tour, or a commute to a meeting. On the roller-coaster ride, the whole point is the thrill, fun and excitement of the ride itself. When the ride is completed, we are right back where we started. We don’t get on a roller coaster to get to a destination, or to stop and take in what there is to see along the way. On an escorted tour, the opposite is true. We get on a bus, and we expect to be taken to various points of interest, to stop, get off the bus, take in the sights, have them explained to us by a tour guide, and then get back on the bus to go and see something somewhere else. Eventually, we may end up back where we started, or we may end up at a different location for the next leg of our trip. The point of the escorted tour is to take things in along the way.

On a commute to a meeting, we want to get to a destination as quickly as possible. We don’t expect to enjoy any big thrills along the way, nor do we expect to do any sightseeing. We are starting at point A and want to arrive at point B in time for our meeting. That is all there is to that.

Music can be listened to as either a rollercoaster ride or as an escorted tour; and by listening I mean stopping all other activity and just dedicating ourselves to focusing on the music we are listening to, undistracted.  When it is listened to as a rollercoaster ride, we simply listen to the music from beginning to end, enjoying the emotional ups and downs the composer takes us on. When the music stops, we leave the concert hall or take off our ear buds, and go on to the next activity. We did not do anything or take any special training to prepare ourselves to listen to this music, we simply “got on,” gave ourselves up to the music and enjoyed what it brought to us, and then “got off” when the musical work was over. For many people, this is a wonderful way to enjoy and appreciate music, and I fully support anyone who wants to listen to classical music this way.

Music can also be listened to as an escorted tour. This is the way most teachers of music appreciation want their students to listen to music, and it is the way most symphony orchestras expect you to listen to them, as evidenced by the program notes they supply you with to read before you hear the concert. When listening to music this way, we have certain things we are listening for, just as we have certain sites we are to look for from the bus window as we go by them. In music, these sites are usually themes, motifs, extra-musical effects, developments of motifs, and so forth. They are the means by which a composer has crafted the music to which we listen. As with our escorted tour, when we listen to music this way, we generally need a tour guide to point things out to us. That’s where traditional music appreciation classes and program notes come in–that’s what they are supposed to accomplish. For those who like to know how things work, or who want to know more about the music than what first appears to the ear, this is a good approach to classical music listening. On this page, I will in turn offer you both approaches to listening.

First, I am going to ask you to listen as if on a roller coaster ride, while you enjoy experiencing some things as you put your whole being into the music. We are going to listen to Symphonic Dances by Paul Hindemith. Though these are dances, the parts are not labeled with dance names, like minuet or gigue. Instead, this is more of the ballet type of dance. As such, it is perfect for our roller coaster ride. We can move about as we please, as we are inspired, or directed, or carried by the ups and downs, the tensions and relaxations of the music. Let your physical body as well as your emotional self take over. Give yourself over to the music, just as you must give yourself over to the roller coaster once you are secured in your seat and the cars start moving.

Please leave a comment on your experience listening to this work.

Two orchestral works composed during the 1930s owe their existence to Hindemith’s collaboration with the dancer and choreograph Leonide Massine. In the summer of 1937 the two men drafted the plan for a ballet about St. Francis of Assisi. This subject had interested  Hindemith ever since he had seen the St. Francis frescoes of Giotto in Florence. He first composed two movement which were not ultimately used in the ballet music, but were to form an independent work together with two more movements – the Symphonic Dances.  Though titled and planned as a suite, this work is more symphony than suite. Indeed, some consider it to be Hindemith’s second symphony. Aside from its genesis in ballet, listen for how the various themes in each movement are developed through changing fragments and altering instrumentation. For those who have found Hindemith challenging to enjoy, this is a very accessible work that is in many ways more conventional than some while still retaining those aspects of Hindemith’s style that make it fresh and exciting, even almost 90 years after it was written. I hope you enjoy this wonderful music as much as I do.

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