Hindemith, String Quartet No. 4, Op. 22

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

String Quartet No. 4, Op. 22, 1921

Paul HindemithThe chamber music of Paul Hindemith is rare on the concert stage these days. This is somewhat ironic, perhaps doubly so. For most of his life in the first half of the 20th century, Hindemith was considered one of Germany’s greatest composers. In addition, one of his chief aesthetic concerns was Gebrauchsmusik, music for use in everyday life with a practical purpose. In opposition to the increasingly arcane and alienating music from a musical ivory tower pursing “art for art’s sake,” Hindemith hoped to engage the common man, fulfilling his need to make and enjoy music as a natural capacity. Nonetheless, after his death, Hindemith and his prolific output have seemed to largely elude both the avant-garde and the man on the street.

Hindemith was an immensely gifted and multifaceted musician. Showing early promise and becoming a working professional by his early teens, he eventually learned to play just about every instrument in the orchestra, performed as a soloist (viola and violin), toured with a string quartet for several years (the original Amar Quartet which he founded), conducted, taught, became a pioneer in early music performance, wrote numerous books and still managed to compose prolifically and skillfully in every standard musical genre.

Given his prowess as a string player and a working stint in a travelling quartet, it is no wonder that the string quartet figures prominently in his catalog of nearly 60 chamber music works. Hindemith composed 7 numbered string quartets. His 3rd string quartet, Op. 16, established his international reputation while the 4th, Op. 22, written one year later, is regarded as his first string quartet to display his mature, advanced style. Op. 22 was the most frequently played Hindemith quartet by the original Amar Quartet and has generally been the one most firmly established in the repertoire. As a curious note, Op. 22 was once regarded as Hindemith’s String Quartet No. 3 until an earlier quartet was unearthed bumping the sequence number of all subsequent quartets up by one.

Op. 22 comprises five movements though the first two movements are played without a pause (attacca), as are the fourth and fifth movements forming a composite intro-finale. Characteristic for much of Hindemith’s music, it largely evades a standard tonality by avoiding strong harmonic cadences with a linear style that is primarily polyphonic, or, when stacked vertically, in unisons or wide intervals without strong harmonic suggestion. The quartet opens with a “fugato”, essentially a fugue in three-part design where the middle rises to a dynamic climax before reprising the exposition with fresh scoring. The second movement is a forceful if not brutal presto that seems part Bartók, part Psycho. The central movement is a calm, lyrical slow movement featuring the violin as soloist with delicate accompaniment by the remaining ensemble. The 4th movement is a brief, emphatic cello recitative reinforced by collective outbursts leading right into the finale, a perky rondo with a main refrain one commentator aptly calls a Bach two-part invention, had Bach lived in 1921.

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