Hindemith: Our Musical Savior?

logoIn the midst of the Baroque, Johann Fux found himself in a troubling position.  He was a composer in a time when conventions of music were vague and composers were regarded as expendable.  That is why he took it upon himself to write a treatise on the craft of composition, for he felt that if something was not done, music would devolve into a meaningless mishmash of fads.  As he writes in the forward to his seminal work Gradus ad Parnassum:

Perhaps some will wonder at my undertaking to write about music, when there are at hand the opinions of so many excellent men who have written learnedly and sufficiently about it, and particularly at my doing so at a time when Music has become an almost arbitrary matter, and composers will no longer be bound by laws and rules, but avoid the names of School and Law as they would Death itself…

Fux, in this treatise, was almost certainly reacting against the complexities of the new instrumental music and the abandonment of the contrapuntal principles set forth by Palestrina.

It is for similar purposes that Paul Hindemith, nearly two centuries later, would publish his own compositional treatise.  His life as a composer and educator would prove to be a struggle against what he saw to be a similar degradation of the craft of music.  But was his legacy to music just as important as that of Johann Fux in saving music from near-sighted “revolutionaries”?

Hindemith’s career as a teacher was defined by his philosophical viewpoints on music in general.  He believed first and foremost that music must be understood as a means of communication between the composer and the audience.  Abstract music, he held, was not viable because it held value only to its composer.   Hindemith felt that it was the composer’s responsibility to ascertain the needs and desires of the audience and to gratify them to the best of his ability.

With the intent of narrowing the gap between composer and amateur performer, Hindemith wrote some music specifically for amateurs, like Spielmusik (1927) and Sing und Spielmusiken fur Liebhaber und Musikfreunde (Vocal and instrumental music for amateurs and music-lovers; 1930).   This music was to be performed for enjoyment, for fun, and for play.  Somehow, the word gebrauchsmusik (music for use)—a term Hindemith despised—became associated with works of this kind.

Hindemith’s philosophy also encompassed more theoretical matters, and in fact he wrote a series of books on that subject, beginning in 1937 with The Craft of Musical Composition.  The first book (out of three) puts forward in great detail Hindemith’s theories on the nature and organization of sound.  In it, he makes the case for tonally-based works, and in particular, the great importance of the major triad as a unifying element:

Music, as long as it exists, will always take its departure from the major triad and return to it. The musician cannot escape it any more than the painter his primary colors or the architect his three dimensions.  In composition, the triad or its direct extensions can never be avoided for more than a short time without completely confusing the listener.  If the whim of an architect should produce a building in which all those parts which are normally vertical and horizontal (the floors, the walls, the ceiling) were at an oblique angle, a visitor would not tarry long in this perhaps “interesting” but useless structure.  It is the force of gravity, and no will of ours, that makes us adjust ourselves horizontally and vertically.  In the world of tones, the triad corresponds to the force of gravity.  It serves as our constant guiding point, our unit of measure, and our goal, even in those sections of compositions which avoid it.

To support his assertions that music is essentially “lost” without a tonal center, he argues that the overtone series, a naturally-occurring acoustical phenomena which does indeed generate the major triad among its first (and most powerful) tones, ultimately governs all music and, therefore, can never truly be separated from it.

Hindemith even goes so far as to dispute the very existence of “atonality:

We have seen that tonal relations are founded in Nature, in the characteristics of sounding materials and of the ear, as well as in the pure relations of abstract numerical groups.  We cannot escape the relationship of tones.  Whenever two tones sound, either simultaneously or successively, they create a certain interval-value; whenever chords or intervals are connected, they enter into a more or less close relationship.  And whenever the relationships of tones are played off one against another, tonal coherence appears.  Tonality is a natural force, like gravity.  Indeed, when we consider that the root of a chord, because of its most favorable vibration-ratio to the other tones, and the lowest tone of the chord, because of the actually greater dimension and weight of its wave, have greater importance than the other tones, we recognize at once that it is gravitation itself that draws the tones towards their roots and towards the bass line, and that relates a multiplicity of chords to the strongest among them.  If we omit from consideration the widely held notion that everything in which the ear and the understanding are not at once completely at home is atonal (a poor excuse for a lack of musical training and for following the path of least resistance), we may assert that there are but two kinds of music:  good music, in which tonal relations are handled intelligently and skillfully, and bad music, which disregards them and consequently mixes them in aimless fashion.

Clearly, then, Hindemith and his theories were anathema to the new wave of trends in modern music, atonality being chief among them.  It is interesting to note, however, that even Arnold Schoenberg, the patriarch of serialism, admitted to the powerful gravitational influence of the overtone series in his own treatise, Theory of Harmony.  It is evidence, perhaps, of the rapidly growing pluralism that was taking place in the first half of the twentieth century between those that held tightly to tonality (the Neo-Classicists, among them Hindemith) and those that thought abandonment of said tonality was not only theoretically possible, but an absolute artistic necessity.

Most likely, it is exactly that atmosphere of pluralism which provoked Hindemith into writing his books (and perhaps similar circumstances that inspired Fux to write his).  Thus, Hindemith saw himself not just as a practicing composer, but as someone charged by destiny to bring order to a chaos-filled world.  However, that his work enjoyed the same influence as Fux’s is doubtful.  Most of his contemporaries disregarded his theories and even Hindemith himself was not always able to employ his own theories without significant exceptions.

Could Hindemith have realistically, all by himself, turned the artistic tide in music?  It is dubious at best.  Not only was music being effected by radical changes of attitudes and approaches, but so were the other arts.  Increasingly, tonality and objectivism in general were seen as “old hat”—too worn out to be of any use to the “serious” composer.

In the end, what can be said of Paul Hindemith?  That his music is of lasting value has already been demonstrated–his works continue to be studied and performed today.  Will his theoretical works, however, come to be viewed more seriously by a wider spectrum of composers?  Will Hindemith be our Fux?   Or have we become so accustomed to the open-ended styles of our time that such ideas will only apply to a narrow band of aesthetic interests?  Indeed, does our music even need “saving”?

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