Paul Hindemith: Trauermusik


Trauermusik was composed on the 21st January 1936 at very short notice in memory of King George V, who had passed away the previous night. The English translation of the title is ‘Funeral Music’, although it is always known by its German name. On the 19th January 1936 Hindemith travelled to London intending to premiere his new viola concerto Der Schwanendreher with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on the 22nd January. This was to be the UK premiere of the work.

This did not go to plan, however. On the 20th January King George V died, therefore the concert was cancelled. However, BBC Music Producer Edward Clark and conductor Adrian Boult still wanted Hindemith to be involved in the music that was going to be broadcast instead of the original concert. After much deliberation it was decided that Hindemith should compose a new work. The BBC gave him a quiet office for six hours as Hindemith composed Trauermusik. 

The Music

Composed for viola and string orchestra, Trauermusik was performed in a live broadcast from a BBC radio studio with Adrian Boult conducting and Hindemith as the soloist. The work consists of four short movements, with the fourth being the real heart and soul of the piece. 

Movement I – Langsam

The lamenting first movement shows Hindemith’s flair for sonorous string writing. The orchestral opening sets the scene for the solemn viola soloist who plays dotted quaver based theme. Hindemith’s writing for the viola is dynamic and heart-wrenching at times, and this is also reflected in his rich string writing. 

Movement II – Ruhig bewegt

Shifting into a 12/8 beat, the second movement moves the themes along in a very short space of time. The flowing movement from the accompaniment supports the movement of the soloist to the point where the lines are in a call and response dialogue. 

Movement III – Lebhaft

The fastest, but also the shortest of all the movements, the third movement keeps the 12/8 time signature, but the tempo has increased. There is an increased amount of viola interludes in this movement, with the soloist laying the foundations of this movement.

Movement IV – Choral “Für deinen Thron tret ich hiermit”

Quoting the chorale “Für deinen Thron tret ich hiermit” (“Here I Stand Before Thy Throne”) was also known to the British as “All People that on Earth Do Dwell”. Hindemith commented on this choice saying that is was “very suitable for kings”. As the soloist plays their last interlude, the accompanying parts slowly die away to a peaceful end. 


Final Thoughts

Throughout Trauermusik, Hindemith echoes previous works such as Schwanendreher and Mathis der Maler. After composed the new work Hindemith was no apologetic about his use of previous material: “At that speed I couldn’t set out on a voyage of discovery!”. He knew that few composers could have done as well as he did under those kinds of pressures. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Rebecca Clarke: Sonata for Viola & Piano


*This blog is part of the ‘German-Speaking Musical Greats Project’ 2019-20

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