This week, I had the opportunity to conduct 5 movements of Hindemith’s Acht Stücke. This was really a ball for me as the last time I had programmed the work was 12 or 13 years ago when I was at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland. At the time, I had a group perform it for our Music Performance Adjudication and they did a great job with it. About the same time, I had an opportunity to write a couple of chapters for the GIA publication, Teaching Music Through Performance in Orchestra and one of the chapters that I wrote was on this wonderful work for string or chamber orchestra.
It had been a while since I had spent much time with this piece and I had a hunch that after 10 or 12 years, that I would have some new takes on the work. That has certainly turned out to be true, so I thought I would share some of my thoughts while there are fresh in my mind today.
For the performance this week, we did movements 1,2,3,4, and 8. These five movements take about a total of 7 minutes to perform up to tempo. Hindemith wrote the the work while teaching at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik, in Berlin in 1927. I would describe this work at “neo-Baroque” in that he employs a great deal of baroque concepts in the work including detache style bowing, terraced dynamics, and a generally contrapuntal language. Harmonically, however, there is a great deal of dissonant sounds which ultimately resolve to consonance at the end of each movement. Each of the 5 movements that we performed is listed as “schnell” or quickly. Some have other designations such as mäßig schnell (moderately fast), lustig (animato), and munter (cheerful). So, in general, this is an up-tempo work with a general spirit of happiness and positivity. Another generalization about the work is that all movements are written without a defined key signature. At first glance, my students all thought that each movement was in either C major or A minor. It was only upon further discussion that they realized that there really isn’t a specified “key” for any of the movements. Rather, there is more of an opening sense of tonality and tonal center and an ending sense of tonality and tonal center for each movement.
The problem with teaching it to a student group is that the dance-like quality of the work can only be achieved after the notes and passages have been adequately mastered. And, with the overall dissonant sonority of the work, this can be a steep hurdle to overcome. I must have used the term “ponderous” a hundred times over the past week in rehearsals. While working slowly to help the students master numerous unexpected harmonies and chromatic passages, the early part of the process of learning each movement would at times sound like the slow, heavy, sounds of a German prison camp. However, they trusted me as we navigated the work together and in the end, we were able to make each movement sparkle as I believe Hindemith intended.
Movement I (mäßig schnell) is a short, quick introduction in 4 beats per measure. It feels a bit like a fanfare to me. Opening with an A minor feel and quickly incorporating C sharps and ideas of A major, eventually ending on an A major triad , there are numerous opportunities for teaching detaché bowing style, phrasing and direction of line (much like in Baroque playing), and real tuning of whole and half steps. While the entire movement is marked as forte, there are many opportunities for dynamic nuance in the 30 second movement. One interesting aspect of the work is that all of the parts may be played in first position, but there are several spots in the work that work much better in other positions. We worked to use the warmth and/or brightness of various string selections when making those decisions.
Movement II (schnell) is a study in terraced dynamics. With two distinct dynamic voices, there is never a dull moment in this movement. In 4/4 time, the movement begins with a sense of F minor, but ends with an open fifth on F. There are opportunities to focus on precise releases of notes, maintaining energy in bow style while playing “piano,” and, as always in this work, precise intonation and direction of line.
Movement III (mäßig schnell) takes on a dance-like quality in 2/4 time. I actually like this movement to be played off the string with a spiccato stroke. A melodic theme starts the piece in the first violins and reappears throughout the movement, giving it a fugue-like quality. While not a fugue in the purest sense, the orchestra must give the listener the sense that the opening theme is the primary idea in the work and each appearance of that theme in every voice is what is most important. The piece seems to begin in G major, but one’s sense of tonality is quickly confused. There is a difficult passage in the first violins that, while possible in first position, really works best crawling down by ½ steps from 3rd position to first. This entire movement must be light and dance-like and push right to the last G minor triad in the upper strings only with no ritard.
Movement IV (lustig, mäßig schnell) is a fast movement, written in 3/8, but felt in one beat per measure. I find that the measures are grouped in distinct sets of 4,3 or 2 and the phrasing is much more understandable when that is made clear to the performers. Beginning with a sense of D major, this movement maintains that sense of tonality throughout and, even though it ends rather abruptly, it still ends on a strong measure of D major. There are opportunities here for work on concepts surrounding momentum, playing off of the strong pulse, groupings of measures and phrasing, and simply playing in a scherzo-like tempo structure. There is also a magnificent hemiola toward the end of the movement that provides a real rhythmic surprise and further interest.
Movement VIII (mäßig schnell, munter) is a closing movement in a moderate 3/4 time, although the 16th note undercurrent makes it feel pretty darn fast. It is in an A-B-A form with the A section employing two different short primary themes. The A section opens with a D major sound with a bit of a dominant feel. It is lively and has a bit of a carnivalistic feel. The B section features a walking bass line in the celli with a haunting ostinato in the violas. The first violins chime in with a beautiful rambling melody and the second violins eventually join the violas allowing the ostinato to further dominate the sonority of the section. Eventually, however, the original A section carnival theme returns and all is back to “normal.” The entire work ends with the first violins fading out, giving the impression of the carnival parade disappearing over the horizon as the whole event comes to an end.
What fun! It isn’t easy to get young people to buy into this music initially. But, once they get the feel of the spirit of the work, they will truly enjoy it and audiences will love it. This isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you are looking for a new type of musical and sonic challenge for your students, I recommend it highly. It was well worth my time this summer and I have been truly gratified by the responses that I have received from my students and audience since the performance.