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Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1939)

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Paul Hindemith
© Richard Freed
Willem Mengelberg, who had been one of Mahler's friends and organized the earliest festivals of his music, commissioned this concerto from Hindemith in 1939; he conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in the work's premiere, with Ferdinand Helmann as soloist, on March 14, 1940. The National Symphony Orchestra's only performances of this work prior to the present concerts were given on November 19, 20 and 21, 1974, with György Pauk as soloist and James De Preist conducting.

In addition to the solo violin, the score calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, triangle, small and large cymbals, large gong, and strings. Duration, 27 minutes.


Hindemith composed two concertos for violin. An earlier one was produced in 1925 as the fourth work in his cycle of Kammermusiken for varied instrumental combinations; the later one, which we hear in the present concerts, is more broadly proportioned and more richly scored, and has become one of this composer's most firmly established concert works. It is also one of his most expressive and outgoing works, reminding us of how especially "at home" Hindemith was when writing for any stringed instrument. He was first violinist in a string quartet made up of soldiers during the First World War, and later became an outstanding violist. For several years he was a member of the Amar-Hindemith String Quartet, which toured Europe in a repertory that ranged from Haydn to its own time. He was the soloist in the premiere of his friend William Walton's Viola Concerto, and naturally he composed numerous works intended for himself--some for viola, some for viola d'amore, ranging from unaccompanied solo pieces to the ingratiating concerto for viola and small orchestra he called Der Schwanendreher (after one of the German folk songs cited in the score).

Der Schwanendreher, introduced in 1935, does not reflect any of the difficulties or frustrations Hindemith was experiencing in that troubled time. During the previous year, when the planned premiere of his opera Mathis der Maler was prohibited by the new Nazi regime, and the Kulturgemeinde instituted a boycott on the composer's other works as well. While that did not have quite the force of a ruling by the official Reichsmusikkamer, it was serious enough to provoke Wilhelm Furtwängler, who conducted the powerful symphony Hindemith composed on materials from that opera, to resign from his prestigious posts. Hindemith was allowed to continue teaching at the Hochschule für Musik, and thought he might be able to adapt to the new regime, but came to understand it would be impossible. He began spending more time on tour, visiting the United States, making an arrangement with the Turkish government to oversee the strengthening of that country's musical life; eventually he gave up his faculty position in Berlin and settled in Switzerland, where he was based when he received Mengelberg's commission for the Violin Concerto. By the time the work was introduced in Amsterdam, Hindemith had moved to the United States, where he was to become an influential presence and teacher of numerous American composers. When World War II ended he was an American citizen, and Mengelberg, who had been one of the world's most respected musicians for more than 50 years, saw his own reputation destroyed by his accommodating relationship with the Nazis.

The Concerto composed against that background is informed with an urgency and drama not far removed from the character of the Symphony Mathis der Maler, in this case expressed on a more intimate scale. The intimacy is a matter of content, rather than of means: the orchestra, in contrast to the 30 players required for the Kammermusik Concerto of 1925, is a very full one, but in this music he might be said to be expressing himself on a personal level, in contrast to the symbolic drama of Mathis. He attached no "program" or descriptive title to the Concerto, but that general sense of urgency can hardly fail to make itself felt.

The contrapuntal style Hindemith had made such a feature of the music he composed in the fifteen years prior to this work is by no means abandoned here, but it is of secondary interest. What strikes the listener in the very opening is the abundant, unfettered lyricism of the solo writing--expansive, flowing, unabashedly tuneful. There is a good deal of melodic inventiveness in the moderately paced first movement, and it is all neatly sewn up at the end by a brass restatement of the violin's opening material.

The expansive slow movement is the dramatic heart of the work, and it would not be farfetched to assume it reflects Hindemith's feelings and leaving his troubled homeland for a new life. Here the violin soliloquizes in a free, lyric style, with minimal comments from the orchestra--and these for the most part from solo winds or tiny groups of strings--until the middle of the movement, when gradually the entire aggregation makes its presence felt and the music becomes demonstratively agitated. For a brief but stirring moment we do glimpse the world of Mathis der Maler, and then the lyrical soliloquy resumes as before to end the movement on a melancholy but tranquil note.

The concluding movement is animated and outgoing. What distinguishes it from the typical concerto finale is largely a matter of dimensions: it is as long as the opening movement, and every bit as substantial beneath its brilliance. Even the exuberance here has a personal feeling to it, as if the composer, having meditated on his decision, had resolved to embrace his new life with confidence and vigor. The cadenza, near the end, is itself of considerable proportions and makes use of materials from the preceding movements.