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.

Last time, we listened to this fun work by Hindemith as a roller coaster ride. This time around, we are going to take an escorted tour. Listening to music this way moves us from a general impression and overview, to listening for specific landmarks or attractions along the way. Listeners use listening guides or program notes as tour guides, reading what to listen expect, and then directing attention to notice and enjoy those specific things. Here is your escorted tour for this work. It comes from Read the guide first, then listen to the music and refer to the guide occasionally to keep you focused on the attractions included in the tour.

An opening flourish on high strings is followed by an introductory slow march of measured tread and solemn mien, very much in the vein of Hindemith’s major work during this era. The importance of these opening bars cannot be overstated: the rhythm of the slow march forms an almost constant undercurrent throughout the four movements, even in the most energetic passages.

Hindemith follows this introduction with a somewhat surprising gesture, in which the main theme is stated fugally, its noble and long-breathed phrases heard first in unison strings. There is a folk-like, pastoral quality to the themes and their working-out, with plenty of solo opportunities for woodwinds and strings. Listeners who know well the sound world of such works as Hindemith’s Symphony: Mathis der Maler and Der Schwanendreher will find themselves on familiar ground with this music.

The second movement is a hell-for-leather scherzo, though not in triple time, in which a brusque tutti gesture from the orchestra sets off a brisk and somewhat terrifying allegro. The underlying pulse is broad and measured, but on this foundation there is much energetic contrapuntal activity. Percussion is to the fore here, with side drum, tambourine and timpani fueling a menacing episode with low brass that climaxes with militaristic trumpet and horn calls volleying above the orchestral tumult. A middle section finds violas and cellos declaiming in recitative style with rhetorical chords from the brass interjected. The opening allegro returns with even greater vehemence before a conclusion that reprises the battle calls from the brass.

A clarinet plays a supple theme against lamenting chords in the strings as the third movement, the shortest of the four, provides a brief respite from the hell’s kitchen that has preceded it. The slow march beat of the introduction is more obviously evoked here as a solo flute plays, against muted strings, a sombre melody that is taken up by the orchestra as an outcry of protest and defiance, before a return of the lament on the clarinet. The end is quiet, dignified, and free of sentiment.

A striving theme on unison strings opens the final movement, with the broad meter of the slow march again in evidence. Early on a chorale theme appears, first in woodwinds, then in low strings and brass; it will recur to good effect later. Meantime, the music proceeds with tough counterpoint, the opening theme developed with forceful statements from strings, alternating with hammering chords from brass and percussion. A climax of impressive power is answered by a return of the chorale theme, expressed first in woodwinds, underpinned by busy pizzicati, then with the force of the full orchestra, led by blazing brass.

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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