Paul Hindemith: Kammermusik Nr. 2 (Klavierkonzert)

Written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Paul Hindemith’s Kammermusik Nr. 2, subtitled “Klavierkonzert,” is neither chamber music nor exactly a piano concerto, but the title does reflect Hindemith’s knack for recontextualization and revival—evoking something modern and old at the same time. It was part of a series of seven works for chamber orchestra and soloists he wrote through the 1920s in the mold of the Baroque concerto grosso. All the musicians get moments to shine, and they interact collaboratively with different sub-groupings frequently playing off one another.

Hindemith was born in Hanau, near Frankfurt, in 1895, played violin and viola professionally as a young man, and was drafted into the German Army in 1917, serving for a time in the trenches of Flanders. He gained notice as a composer in the interwar years, part of the same generation as Kurt Weill and Erich Korngold. Hindemith, however, began to push away from their late Romantic and Expressionist influences, embracing Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity)— the German version of Neoclassicism championed elsewhere by Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Francis Poulenc. In the mid-1930s, Hindemith struggled to accommodate the Nazi Party’s stylistic demands, but after most of his music was denounced and banned anyways, he fled to Switzerland and then immigrated to the United States in 1940, where he taught for a decade at Yale University.

Kammermusik Nr. 2 dates from 1924 and was written for Emma Lübbecke-Job, a pianist who shared a warm friendship with Hindemith and premiered several of his works. The solo part is clean and spritely—mostly contrapuntal with running notes in both hands, and with few chords, sonorous textures, or other hallmarks of typical modern piano virtuosity. The piece gained a second life in 1978, when it was choreographed by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet.

The first movement opens strikingly with Bach-like keyboard writing set against a droning low G in the orchestra, held steady for 16 measures. In Baroque music, a pedal point like this is often used to create a sense of tension and trajectory, but here it feels strangely disconnected from the changing harmonies of the solo line, an uncomfortable side-by-side that could only be modern. After a quick cadenza, the orchestra enters in a scramble of notes echoing the piano, and they jump back and forth in an intense call-and-response.

The second movement, by far the longest and most elaborate at around eight minutes, begins broodily with the strings and winds in dialogue. Then the piano adds a new element, decorating with trills while the strings play muscularly below and the winds chirp and lament in reply. The middle section is more pensive with gossamer textures, and a surprise up-tempo episode leads back to an ending much like the beginning.

Though Hindemith was known for gruffness in both his music and teaching (he acknowledged only one student over many years as having any talent), the third movement, “Small Potpourri,” suggests a sense of humor and good fun after all. The Finale takes it even farther with madcap counterpoint and fugue, running through a series of noisy variations on a lighthearted theme.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.