Observations on Hindemith's Pittsburgh Symphony, Second Movement

Matt Wuolle 1992

The Pittsburgh Symphony of 1958 could be described as a somewhat "experimental" later period work for Paul Hindemith. Its expanded use of texture and color is remarkable compared to his more conservative orchestrations of the middle and late style periods. This essay will focus on a particularly intriguing section of the Second Movement (measures 138-170, letter 'N').

The following three main elements are contained in this texture. The string section plays a swirling, screaming, directional gesture. The "Pennsylvania Dutch" folk melody, Hab lumbedruwwel mit me lumbeschatz, is played by Bass Clarinet, Bassoon, Contrabassoon, Tuba, and Double Bass. A fragmented harmonic chordal role in the Trombones complements the melody, and is reinforced below by Timpani and Tom-Tom. The Piccolo, Flute, Oboes, Clarinets, and Trumpets form a pointilistic 'micro' texture.

The strings in the high register produce an anguished sound quality. They actually play a dual role here: the soaring, expressive chromatic linear element is contrasted by a static harmonic field. The momentum is continuous: all strings play steady eighth note ostinati which criss-cross directionally, and each instrument articulates the open 'E' or 'A' string détaché on consecutive eighth notes. The cumulative result is a polyrhythm consisting of fast even eighth notes which seem unmetered, and a moderately paced accompanimental 'drone' in 5/8. This is an example of Hindemith's innovative orchestration in this work. On the macroscopic level, the result could be considered noise. The swirling storm cloud of chromaticism takes me in, only to throw me around and then dump me back out. The effect could be compared to some electronic or mechanical noises which have a tormented quality, an inner tension, as if something wants to break loose. This kind of tension in the listening experience acts as a vent for my own inner tension: release. Hindemith's use of musical tension is goal oriented and leads to resolution. He uses dissonance for much of the phrase length, but then resolves to consonance.

The simple folk tune in the mixolydian mode functions as the bass line, and stands in sharp contrast to the strings. The pairing of these two elements has an almost absurd effect. The plodding, square nature of the tune juxtaposed by the modernist string sound produces an anachronistic outcome. Considering his experience as a string player, I am sure Hindemith was aware of the chaotic result of the string writing. In his program notes he made the following observation of the tune's character: "In spite of its light weight, and its grotesque mood, I would like to consider this song the core of the Symphony." (Hindemith XVI). His orchestration of this tune compounds the "grotesque" character significantly. I believe Hindemith was well aware of the humorous consequence.

In measures 159-168 the texture becomes increasingly pointilistic. A dramatic rhythmic "timbrescape" is achieved by continuous change of orchestral color. For example, in measures 164-165 almost every eighth note contains a slightly different orchestration. Most instruments play only one or two-note fragments which constantly overlap and combine in new ways. The cumulative effect is that of a highly structured but 'chaotic' mechanism--a huge automated factory of sound. It is as if the previous 'string storm' dropped me into a carnival ride - rendering a sophisticated musical kaleidoscope. The string ostinato texture then returns, slowly and gently bringing the ride to a stop. This is achieved through a downward pitch directionality, a decrescendo, and the inclusion of increasingly consonant intervals.

Stress and tension is created throughout the entire texture by the free directionality of all the chromatic pitches. Most measures contain all twelve pitch classes which are tonally anchored by the bass line and open string drones. The strings play a five-note ostinato in which each sequence begins with a different pitch - with no repetition in an individual instrument part until all 12 pitch classes have been used. I investigated the possibility of serial compositional methods, since Hindemith himself stated that he based the Third Movement on an 8-note row (Hindemith XVI). I could find no specific row that Hindemith used systematically. Possible row relationships begin to appear for two measures at the most and then disappear.

The woodwinds reap the full twelve note chromatic spectrum via two-note fragments. In contrast to the string section analysis, the wind group shows no adherence to the passing of twelve pitch classes before repetition. There is also a unique timbral variety from m.138-153 created by no less than seventeen different instrumental combinations playing these fragments in unison, octave, or triple octave doublings. Additionally, the register of the fragments is unpredictable: high-middle, high-high, middle-high, high-middle, middle-high, middle-high/low-middle (contrary motion). Hindemith's organization of pitch class, timbre, and register is unique and in this example seems to be guided by his instinct rather than some of the dense theories of contemporary tonality that branded many of his works of the period.

Rhythmically this section of the Symphony is in constant temporal flux. Many polyrhythms are contained vertically. A steady 5/8 rhythm drives the string ostinato and the melody is in 4/4 with an occasional 3/4 or 5/4 bar. The wind fragments vary from 3/8 6/8 9/8 12/8, and from m.155-170 multiples of 2 and 3 are heard simultaneously. The trombones start in 4/4 with an occasional 3/4 until m.158 when asymmetric eighth patterns emerge (7/8 10/8 6/8 10/8 7/8 7/8 11/8). At m.159 the previous melodic bass line becomes accompaniment in quarter note patterns of 5/4 7/4 and 4/4. The horns now play a melodic fragment in 4/4, which becomes syncopated by m.165. Although these relationships may seem complicated, the lowest common denominator of all these rhythms is the eighth note - there are no triplets, quintuplets, septuplets or any sixteenth notes.

Elaborate sonic structures are achieved in this section via 4/4 melody, one and two-note fragments, effective registral placement, and equivalent unit subdivisions. Each part of this texture is in itself simple, but it is through the combination that an especially complex result is achieved. This section seems to have been a kind of excursion or anomaly for Hindemith. Rarely in his late period compositions do we witness him spreading the chromatic palette into the realm of noise or observe a "gestural" approach to melodic contour (rather than structural pitch oriented). Another plausible interpretation is that these techniques and orchestrations could have been an intentional parody of other contemporary styles. Hindemith was always skilled with such stylistic impressions, exemplified in his early period compositions which effectively touched on jazz, ragtime, and atonal idioms. Whether anomaly or the latter, this work stands out in Hindemith's late period which suggests he could have been laying the foundation of yet another, more experimental, stylistic period in his music. This we cannot confirm.


Works Cited

Hindemith, Paul. Samtliche Werke: Orchesterwerke 1958-60, Band II, 7. Mainz: B. Schott's Sohne, 1984.


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