Saturday, 10 March 2012

Trautonium fever

It's time for me to finally mount a hobby-horse of mine that I've intended to ride since the start of this blog. I love the music of Paul Hindemith. Before getting into my full stride in future posts, I want to recommend a rarity by the composer in the hope that it will win you over to him straight away.

Part of the reason for its rarity (even by the standards of the much-neglected Hindemith) is that trautoniums are not easy to come by and few learn to play them - especially to the standard demanded by concert works like this. You may never even have heard of them. Before hearing this piece, neither had I. The trautonium is an electronic instrument that was created around 1929 but never really caught on in a big way. There were several such instruments born around that time, the best known of which are the ondes martenot (as famously used in Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony) and the theremin. Like the ondes martenot and the theremin, the trautonium can sound unearthly and disembodied, which makes it - and the others - natural choices for film composers seeking to conjure up an eerie atmosphere. The theremin has sent shivers up the spine in Spellbound, The Day the Earth Stood Still and (on TV) Midsomer Murders, while the ondes martenot has spooked the viewers of Ghostbusters, among many other films. The trautonium's most famous outing was in Hitchcock's The Birds (sadly no link for this one, but a picture above to compensate).  

In Hindemith's Concertino the trautonium sounds at different times like various conventional instruments, usually the clarinet, but at others is as electronic-sounding as can be. It is a chameleon that continually changes colour. 

The work's opening movement begins with its strange star playing the role of a lyric tenor against a gentle string accompaniment. He sings a characteristic Hindemith melody. (Hindemith is a great tunesmith. His tunes are highly individual though and often go off at unusual tangents.) The pace soon quickens abruptly and neo-Classical good humour enters with another fine melody, with other good tunes to follow - including one whose vaguely jazzy character reminds me of the sort of themes you get in Shostakovich's lighter works. (The influence of Hindemith on Shostakovich is underestimated. The more you know of Hindemith's music - especially the early music - and the more you see that certain aspects of the Shostakovich style which we think of as being 'pure Shostakovich' must have been learned from the then-highly-well-known German master.) Nothing is recapitulated, so on we go into the slow movement - a lyric gem, full of beauty, that involves the strings as much as the soloist in the singing of the song. The central episode worries about things a bit but beauty remains and Hindemith-style serenity soon flows back in. The finale then returns to neo-Classical high spirits and brings more good tunes - some jaunty, some lyrical.

An engaging piece then, full of memorable themes and fine craftsmanship, which grows ever more delightful the more familiar you become with it. This Concertino encapsulates why I love Hindemith's music. Of course, there are other sides to his music that need exploring too - but the memorable themes and fine craftsmanship are a constant. 

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