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Concert Music for Brass and Strings, Op. 50

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Paul Hindemith
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Midori, violin Feb. 23 - 25, 2006
© Richard Freed
Hindemith composed this work in December 1930 under a commission for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which gave the premiere under Serge Koussevitzky on April 3, 1931. The National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of the work were conducted by Howard Mitchell on November 28-30, 1972; the most recent ones were conducted by Myung-Whun Chung on January 17-20, 1984.

The score calls for 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, and strings. Duration, 18 minutes.

Hindemith was one of several distinguished compmosers invited to write new works in celebration of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's fiftieth anniversary, which occurred in 1931. Igor Stravinsky created his Symphony of Psalms for the occasion, Aaron Copland contributed his Symphonic Ode, and among those represented by symphonies were Howard Hanson (No. 2, the "Romantic"), Arthur Honegger (No. 1), Sergei Prokofiev (No. 4, original version) and Albert Roussel (No. 3). Hindemith's contribution, by a happy coincidence labeled Op. 50, was the Concert Music for Strings and Brass, which he composed in a single month but in two different locations: Part I in Berlin, Part II in the Swiss town of Andermatt. His next orchestral work, as it happened, was another one for a great orchestra celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, his Philharmonic Concerto for the Berlin Philharmonic.

The Concert Music for Boston was the last score to which Hindemith affixed an opus number, as if by that gesture confirming that it marked the end of his rich "first period." It maked also the end of a series of works bearing the same general heading. In the 1920s Hindemith composed his famous Kammermusik cycle, seven works, each for a different combination of instruments numbering a dozen or so. As that series drew to its close Hindemith began a similar one for larger ensembles, headed Konzertmusik; in this series, too, each work is for a different instrumentation: the first (Op. 41, 1927) for wind band, the next (Op. 49, 1930) for piano, brass and two harps, and the last (the present work) for "the strongest possible string quartet [i.e., a very full-sized orchestral string section], four horns, four trumpets, three trombones and tuba."

It is not quite accurate to refer to the two "movements" of this work: Hindemith specified two major divisions (Parts I and II), and each comprises subsections sometimes regarded as individual movements. The two sections of Part I correspond more or less to the opening Allegro and succeeding slow movement of a symphony, but they are played without pause, the one flowing all but imperceptibly into the other. In the fast section the brass and string groups are contrasted, each having its own say in alternation with the other; in the "slow movement" the strings and horns are heard together at times, with the lowder brass serving a continuo function.

In Part II the subsections are still more directly connected: here we have a sort of scherzo with an extended trio in slower tempo, and then a return of the scherzo proper to serve as finale. Norman Del Mar, the British conductor, biographer of Richard Strauss, and frequent commentator on 20th-century music, noted that the "embracing scherzo or finale-like sections of [Part II] are built on a lively fugato, the subject of which contains more than a hint of the parallel fugue subject of the last movement of Walton's First Symphony (1935)."

Whether or not Walton consciously borrowed from this work in composing his Symphony, it may be noted that he and Hindemith were friends of long standing. Hindemith, a prominent violist for many years, gave the premiere of Walton's Viola Concerto in London the year before he composed his own Op. 50; nine months before Hindemith's death, Walton's orchestral Variations on a Theme by Hindemith (the theme taken from the Cello Concerto of 1940) was introduced in London.