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Hindemith, "Septet"



Born: 1895, Hanau, Germany

Composed: 1948

Duration: 17 minutes

As part of our "Immigrants I" program on October, UMWO will perform Hindemith's "Septet", a piece of extremely unique character and instrumentation, which was quite popular in Hindemith's own time. Hindemith wrote it as a newly minted American Citizen, but while traveling back to his homeland following the War. As such, this piece is the work of a true immigrant, presumably with his heart and mind in two contrasting worlds. Below are program notes used by the NY Phil.

Hindemith composed his Septet in 1948, during a visit to Europe that was largely given over to conducting engagements in England, Germany, and Italy. He later recalled:

I wrote the piece in Taormina in one of the most beautiful gardens anyone could pos- sible imagine, with the sea at my feet and the snow-capped Aetna in the back- ground. If one believes that one’s sur- roundings influence the quality of a composition in some indescribable way, then one would expect that only the finest ideas would be found in such a place.

The Septet is cast in five movements, although it is crafted so as to suggest a single, unified span divided into discrete sections. The opening movement, Lebhaft (Lively), is spirited and good humored. Its principal theme, which involves all the woodwinds trilling at once (but not the brasses), is so sarcastic that one might imagine it accompanying a cartoon film. The ensuing Intermezzo:Sehr langsam, frei (Very slow, free), sounds improvisatory, and, the composer’s direction that it should be played freely stretches it further toward the rhapsodic. Nine variations on a lyrical melody, each with a distinct rhythmic character, follow as the third movement. A second brief Intermezzo, as fluid as the first (again Sehr langsam), leads to a finale in which Hindemith melds the scholarly and popular sides of his musical personality. He casts it as a brainy Fugue — indeed, parts of it are a double fugue, with two subjects going on at once — but there’s a twinkle in the composer’s eye. Suddenly the trumpet lets loose with a chunky, four-square phrase of a piece identified as the “Old Bern March,” a tune then taken up and elaborated by other instruments, and even turned into a little fuguetto itself. After the whirlwind has gone on just long enough, Hindemith extinguishes everything with a couple of concluding chords, laughing all the way.

The Septet made rather little splash until four years after its premiere, when it was programmed on an all-Hindemith concert by the New Friends of Music chamber orchestra at New York’s Town Hall, on December 7, 1952. The New York Music Critics Circle named it 1952’s Best New Chamber Work of the Year. It was a curious selection, since the piece had already been premiered four years earlier — but no matter. Gertrud Hindemith wrote to their friend Willi Strecker, head of the Schott publishing firm:

We have no idea what the award really means, but congratulations are raining down on all sides. The Septet is suddenly on the lips of all grocers and fishmongers, who have now admitted us into the ranks of their most important customers.

Adapted for the NY Philharmonic from James M. Keller’s Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press)


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