Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Born in November 1895 in Hanau, Paul Hindemith engaged with music at a young age. Starting with playing the violin, Hindemith later attended Frankfurt’s Hoch’sche Konservatorium, where he studied violin performance with Adolf Rebner. Further to this, Hindemith also studied composition with Arnold Mendelssohn and Bernhard Sekles. In 1917, Hindemith was sent to join the German army, where he played the bass drum in the regiment band, and he also formed a string quartet. In May 1918, his diary entries showed he only survived grenade attacks “by good luck” whilst serving as a sentry in Flanders.
After returning from war, Hindemith founded the Amar Quartet, where he played viola. He began travelling quite extensively, both on tour, and through his other musical projects. From Germany to Egypt to Turkey and France, Hindemith ended up a very well-traveled man. In 1946, Hindemith became a US citizen, although he returned to Europe in 1953, where he lived in Zurich. In the last few years of his life, Hindemith began to conduct more, namely his own compositions, which were then recorded. After a decline in his physical health, Hindemith died on 28th December 1963, age 68.
Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber was composed in 1943. As the title suggests, Symphonic Metamorphosis takes various melodies from different works by Weber. The idea came from choreographer Léonide Massine, who suggested to Hindemith that he should arrange music by Weber for a ballet. After sketching out some movements for the ballet, the project fell through after Hindemith and Massine had too many ‘artistic differences.’ Massine felt that Hindemith’s score was “too personal.”
Therefore, in 1943, Hindemith took the music sketches from this ballet and created Symphonic Metamorphosis, a bright, lavish composition for orchestra. After being premiered in 1944, Symphonic Metamorphosis gained instant success and praise from audiences in New York. Today, it has remained Hindemith’s most popular work.
Why Carl Maria von Weber, though? Well, Weber (1786-1826) was a very important figure in the development of German opera in the classical era. Further to this, his music also had a small influence on the beginning of Romanticism. Weber retained importance and a legacy with later composers, which is interesting considering in today’s concert halls, it is actually quite rare to hear a piece by Weber.
Hindemith took various melodies from some of Weber’s more obscure piano works. In homage to the composer, Hindemith preserves the themes pretty much exactly as Weber composed them, as well as retaining the structure of the works as well. However, to balance this out, and ‘making it his own’, Hindemith changed everything else, which includes the harmony, extending melodic phrases and the development of the work as a whole.
If you listen to Weber’s works next to Hindemith’s, you can hear the melodies and how little they have been changed.
Symphonic Metamorphosis is in four movements:
Movement 1 – Allegro
The first movement, Allegro, is upbeat and militaristic. It is based on Weber’s Piano Sonata for Four Hands, which Hindemith used to play to his wife. Hindemith makes this melody into a fully fledged orchestral movement. The A and B sections highlight the two principal themes, which are threaded throughout this movement.
There is a certain intensity felt throughout this short movement, with the ‘end product’, if you will, being the cadences. Hindemith develops Weber’s sonata by expanding the cadences, decorations and harmonic movement, making it an exciting interpretation.
Movement II – Scherzo
The second movement, a scherzo, explores the incidental music that Weber originally composed for a play called Turandot. This play was set in ancient China, and the first melody heard is resonant of Chinese musical tradition. This movement highlights the moving between different eras, starting at baroque, and ending in twentieth-Century America. Hindemith’s orchestration shows the light and shade between instruments with extremities in pitches.
The conversations between the instruments create isorhythmic patterns, which become noticeably denser as the movement progresses. Hindemith also utilises counterpoint, which shows the influence of the baroque era. The end brings thunderous drumming and the main Turandot melody, and it has been said these last phrases signal its survival.
Movement III – Andantino
The slow third movement is based on Weber’s Piano Duet Op. 3 No. 2. The serenity within this movement is more than welcome after the tumultuous second movement. The melodies are smoother, the rhythms are set in a balanced 2 throughout most of the movement. The upper woodwinds glimmer like sunshine throughout, and the complex harmonic accompaniment supports this.
Movement IV – Marsch
The fourth movement, which is set as a march, is based on another piano work (op. 70). Hindemith has expanded this material to essentially show off every instrument of the orchestra. In a strong ABA structure, this movement utilises Weber’s melodic material fully. Although in a strict march at the beginning, the fourth movement becomes whimsical in places, with the instruments really milking Weber’s luscious melodies.
Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, is a powerful work which highlights not only Weber’s wonderful melodies, but Hindemith’s keen eye for orchestration and the development of small kernels of music.
*This blog is part of the ‘German-Speaking Musical Greats Project’ 2019-20.