In many ways I feel that Paul Hindemith’s (1895-1963) Trauermusik for solo viola (or cello) ought to be an honorary member of the Land of Lost Content portfolio. It is one of those works that seems to be more English than much that has been written in Albion. I would want to speak of this piece in the same breath as Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Michael Tippet’s Double Concerto and Vaughan William’s Tallis Fantasia. But of course we all know that Hindemith was a German and is hardly entitled to become a member of this distinguished club!
Yet the history of the work gives my point of a view certain validity. It is probably reasonably well-known that the composer wrote this work at the time of the death of King George V. Originally his new Viola Concerto was to have featured at a Queen’s Hall concert. The day before the performance the monarch died: it was felt that a somewhat more funereal mood ought to prevail at the event. Yet Edward Clark, head of the BBC Music Department insisted that Hindemith should take part. The Trauermusik was given to the world after only six hours of composition – Hindemith himself described it as being written ‘after some fairly hefty mourning.’ And the rest is history.
This music is full of mourning and grief –yet I sometimes wonder if it less for the man than for the realm he left behind. It cannot have been lost on the composer that dark days for his country and the new King Edward (as it was before the abdication) were going to be monstrous times. Hindemith was opposed to the rise of Nazism and eventually became at odds with the regime. He refused to deny friendship with a number of Jewish artists and writers. Finally he fled Germany in the 1930s.
Trauermusik was composed in four very short movements. From the very first bar of the opening ‘langsam’ the mood of grief and mourning is apparent. The strings introduce a theme with an almost Elgarian concentration. Quieter music leads to an unbelievably intense climax for such a short opening movement of an equally brief ‘concerto’. The soloist calms things down to the lead to the end of the movement. The second movement is less than a minute in length. It is written as Ruhig bewegt – with calm movement – and is really an interlude. The third is only slightly longer, but somehow time seems slippery here. The soloist and the string orchestra alternate. However, the heart of the work is surely the last movement. This is an exposition of the German chorale Fur deinen Thron tret ich heirmit (“Here I stand before Thy throne”) the piece is constructed as an alternation between the phrases of the chorale and intense reflection by the soloist. The movement and the work ends in peace and with total control and serenity.
A good recording of this work can be heard on ECM 439611