Neoclassicism: Martinů, De Falla and Hindemith

There is more to say about Russia, and I’ll get there, but to give our ears some contrast, I will move to other parts of Europe during the interwar period. For today, we will discuss Germany, (formerly) Czechoslovakia, and Spain, and next time, France will get an article all its own.

In Germany, Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) made a unique harmonic language for himself and left no instrument untouched in his curiosity of different instruments’ capabilities. Meanwhile, in Spain, Manuel De Falla (1876–1946) became a national hero for his inventive settings of traditional folk song. Finally, Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) used his inspiration from Stranvinsky’s Neoclassical sound to create a sound all his own.

Bohuslav Martinů 

Born in Czechoslovakia but eventually making his life in Paris and United States, Bohuslav Martinů only returned to his native country late in his life. This is evident in the jazzy, cosmopolitain flavors that his music has. You can clearly hear the influence of Stravinsky’s playful, lively music in Martinů’s Serenade for two clarinets and string trio:

In addition to the upbeat, jazzy rhythmic figures, there is experimental harmony to appreciate. I would also recommend the Three Madrigals for violin and viola duet, a piece with plenty of contrast, interesting harmonies, and equally compelling parts for both instruments to play. The title “madrigal” is a direct reference to the renaissance song we discussed months ago here on this blog, and you’ll remember that Neoclassical music is so-called due to its nostalgia for the past. With these titles, you will be surprised at how modern the pieces sound, but the titles add an element of curiosity to the sounds that we hear. Do these sound like old-style music? Sometimes, yes, especially when “perfect” intervals (four or five notes apart) between pitches, old-style harmonies, and folksy rhythms. However, sometimes we are surprised by the modernity of the harmonies too.

Manuel De Falla

One of Spain’s major musical figures of the early 20th century, Manuel De Falla is known for creating evocative, exciting music that showcases folk song and is well-suited for staged performances of intrigue-filled stories. Indeed, De Falla’s most-performed works are either staged works with dancers and singers, or derivatives of these for smaller ensembles that tell stories in the form of song cycles. De Falla was neoclassical in that his music is based on a pleasantly tonal center, popular folksong and traditional sounds. Within this, though, he still adds elements of modernity in voicing, extended techniques, and evocative colors.

De Falla composed the music to the ballet The Three-Cornered Hat, which tells a tale of jealousy and intrigue. Its story is set in Spain, and the choreography employs elements of Spanish dance instead of traditional ballet. Here are two different versions of it; one is an orchestral suite of the most compelling instrumental moments in the ballet, and one is the fully choreographed version with soprano and dancers.

I included De Falla in this article not only to show the tendency toward simplicity and tonality in the Neoclassical era, but also the influence of nationalism on artists in the interwar period. This ballet was specifically choreographed with Spanish dance, and all singing is in Spanish. The orchestral part features castanets, robust rhythmic figures and colorful, strummed string sounds to emulate a guitar. In addition to the daring experimentalism and dissonance used by many interwar period composers, some chose to capitalize on their culture, and this choice made by De Falla made him a national icon.

Paul Hindemith

On the other side of the spectrum of tonality, we have Paul Hindemith, a German-born composer who made his life as much outside of Germany as he did in it, and his relationship with the Nazi party in Germany is cause for much curiosity among scholars today. Given his readiness to leave Germany at the height of the interwar period, to make his life in the United States, and to be head of an aid organization to help Turkish immigrants after the war, it’s safe to say Hindemith did not agree with the Nazi party. In fact, the Nazi party banned Hindemith’s music in much the same way that Stalin later banned Prokofiev’s, for much the same reasons: it was not beautiful enough. Hindemith was called an “atonal noisemaker” by Nazi the minister of culture in 1934. Yet other influential Nazis thought that Hindemith’s unique sound would exemplify modern German music, so Hindemith fell in and out of favor with the Nazis throughout his career. In 1938, Hindemith and his wife (who was of Jewish descent) emigrated to Switzerland and later the United States to avoid the worst of the Nazi regime.

So, what does an atonal noisemaker sound like? Here is an example of Hindemith’s creative harmonic language, a four-movement work for full orchestra based on his opera, Mathis der Maler (Matthew the Painter). It is based on an actual historical figure, Matthias Grünewald, who was a painter during the Protestant Reformation era (1500s). This is another blatant reference to the past, which makes this work a great example of Neoclassical sentiment. More than with Martinů, you will hear harmonies that do indeed sound old-world. This is because Hindemith preferred the open, almost pre-historic sounding open intervals of a fourth and a fifth (four and five notes apart between pitches), while conventional tonality focused on thirds and sixths. Even if this language is quite theoretical for your experience with music, you will hear a distinct medieval quality to Hindemith’s harmonies, and this is why.

Here is an example of Hindemith’s insatiable curiosity about every instrument of the orchestra. In particular, Hindemith wrote solo and sonata-style (with piano) works for the “endangered” instruments of the orchestra, such as the horn, trombone, bassoon and viola. Here is an extreme example of this, a trio for piano, viola and heckelphone, which is essentially a hybrid between an oboe and a bassoon. Perhaps Hindemith’s interest in this instrument stems from its resemblance to earlier, medieval precursors such as the shawm, and these fourth-and fifth-based harmonies suit it well. Remember that the trio sonata in itself was a popular early-music format. This is perhaps Hindemith’s Neoclassical commentary on old-style chamber music as well.

Hindemith is one of my favorite composers, probably because he wrote a substantial portion of the viola’s solo repertoire. Here is one last Hindemith selection (although I could go on), with the viola featured as the soloist. It is called Trauermusik, or “mourning music,” and it was written in a matter of hours to commemorate the death of King George V of England, who died just the previous night.

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