Paul Hindemith was born in 1895 near Frankfurt and became one of the most important German composers at the height of his fame during the interwar years. After the Nazi Party banned many of his works, he travelled to Switzerland and then moved to the United States, where for a time in the 1940s he was the most performed composer living in the country. He taught a generation of young composers at Yale and at Tanglewood, but was seen as an irrelevant relic in postwar Europe.
Though Hindemith used a mostly tonal language, his music is often gruff, underpinned by an original harmonic theory he systematized in the mid-1930s. He was also extremely knowledgeable about the unique qualities of different instruments, and wrote a sonata for nearly every member of the orchestra.
The Sonata for Solo Cello dates to 1922, and Hindemith is said to have written most of it in a single day. It was published as part of his Op. 25 collection, which also includes a sonata for solo viola, a sonata for viola and piano, and an unusual sonata for viola d’amore (an obsolete Baroque instrument) and piano.
The solo cello sonata’s five movements are laid out in longer and shorter sections: the first, third, and fifth movements are each a few minutes long, while the second and fourth are extremely brief. “Lebhaft, sehr markiert,” (Lively, very marked) makes for a strident, brutish, introduction. “Mäßig schnell, Gemächlich” (Moderately fast, comfortable) flutters in its opening before elaborating in a folksy style; the movement also has a recurring chirp, like a quick skip in unexpected moments. “Langsam” (Slow) coaxes gossamer textures from the cello as it dwells on mysterious lines. “Lebhafte Viertel” (Lively, at the quarter note) scurries at a constant whisper—Hindemith instructs the cellist to play it “without expression.” The final movement, “Mäßig schnell” (Moderately fast), is a muscular conclusion, capped by a sturdy pizzicato. All five movements make dazzling use of the cello—including meaty chords, a menagerie of articulations, and a full display of the instrument’s range—and the music is angular and bracing.