Musical neglect

by abbamoses

Paul Hindemith, 1895-1963

After a longish break, I’ve taken up the clarinet again, and to celebrate got myself a couple of new pieces to work on. One of them is Hindemith’s 1939 Clarinet Sonata, and it’s a gem: tuneful, interesting, and challenging without being hopelessly beyond the reach of an amateur.

Hindemith is, I think, an unjustly neglected figure in 20th-century music. He developed a modernist style that still left room for melody and for movement between dissonance and consonance. His style is sometimes called ‘neo-classical’, though his love of counterpoint might make ‘neo-baroque’ a better description. Though he was well-known in the concert-music world in the 1940s, his popularity declined even in his own lifetime. I suspect that musical politics played a role: Hindemith was publicly hostile to the serialism of Schoenberg and his circle, at a time when serialism was thought to be the future of music — rather than the unpopular dead end that it turned out to be. Thus Hindemith was shunted aside as a reactionary by those who might otherwise have been his natural allies.

Fortunately, Hindemith continues to be played, often by amateurs like me. He was a believer in ‘music for use,’ and much of his large output of chamber music was written with the serious amateur in mind. He wrote chamber pieces for a very wide range of instruments — even a tuba sonata, for which tuba players must be endlessly grateful. But while the amateurs keep his chamber pieces in circulation, much of his choral and symphonic music is little performed (or recorded, as I found when I looked for recordings on Amazon).

How does a fine composer (or novelist, or poet) come to be neglected? The ups and downs of fashion always play a role: at one time Ben Jonson (who?) was generally considered a greater playwright than Shakespeare. Fifty years ago, T. S. Eliot was much more popular than he is now. Sometimes a forgotten artist will find a champion, a critic or fellow-artist who knows and publicizes his work. A stroke of luck may come along: Anthony Trollope was nearly forgotten until a very popular television adaptation of his Barchester Towers sent him zooming back into the canon of English literature.

This nice summary of Hindemith’s work suggests that he is still waiting for an advocate to restore his musical reputation to its proper place:

Since his death, no one has taken up advocacy of Hindemith’s work, in the same way that Craft has done for Stravinsky or Boulez for Schoenberg and his followers. Still, much of Hindemith’s work remains in instrumentalists’ repertoires. Even more important, adventurous amateurs tackle him, which seems to me the key to most composers’ survival. A mountain of noble, witty, and powerful scores awaits rediscovery.(emphasis added)

We’re still close enough to the 20th century that it’s difficult to put its artists’ work in perspective. Within the narrow, innovation-obsessed world of modernist music, Hindemith, though not at all a traditionalist, eventually suffered the fate of those not considered sufficiently cutting-edge, and has yet to recover. (Remember that in the classical era Bach was considered a relic of the past.) Sometimes only the passage of time will rectify these trendy opinions.

I wonder how many great writers and composers, perhaps some of the greatest, remain obscure through the accidents of history?