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Clarinet Sonata in B-flat major

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Paul Hindemith
Program note originally written for the following performance:
The Kennedy Center Chamber Players: Mozart, Hindemith, Strauss Sun., Jun. 4, 2006, 2:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Between 1935, the year in which he left his native country in consequence of his run-ins with the Nazi authorities, and 1940, the year he began his residency in the United States, Hindemith, having written several earlier sonatas for the expected instruments--violin, viola, cello, etc.--undertook an ambitious plan to compose at least one sonata for every instrument in general use. He would compose still more sonatas for still more instruments after settling in America, but the European portion of this project was a very productive one: in the single year 1939 he produced no fewer than six sonatas, among them this one for clarinet and piano, which he wrote in just eight days. In this work, as in all his sonatas, Hindemith understood the various instruments on an exceptional level, and he brought to his sonata project a thorough re-exploration of each as he wrote for it, probing anew its character, its background, its expressive capacities. It has been said of his Clarinet Sonata that it has not become as popular as its substance deserves, because it is "a great work that requires more in the way of musical intelligence than of mere technique." Hindemith himself was on very sure ground in both respects.

The work is in four movements which add up to a little more than a quarter-hour in performance. The opening one, Mässig bewegt ("Moderately") is built on related motifs, one of which provides some of the substance of the remaining movements. The second movement, Lebhaft ("Lively"), is a very brief, scherzo-like piece, in which a syncopated figure is introduced by the piano and passed to the clarinet. The third movement, Sehr langsam ("Very slowly"), which accounts for nearly half the running time of the entire work, reverts to the opening movement for the basic material on which a canon is built; the end of this movement represents the composer at his most effortlessly and persuasively eloquent, an uncontrived gesture of serenity and assurance. The final movement’s character is made clear in its heading, Kleines Rondo, gemächlich ("Little Rondo, leisurely"). Its good-natured, unpretentious theme generates a colorful dialogue between the two instruments, and then the piece simply "coasts" to a quick and undemonstrative conclusion.