Music Appreciation: March (Symphonic Metamorphosis) by Paul Hindemith
And now we move to a completely different style of march – the fourth movement of Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (sometimes seen as “Symphonic Metamorphoses”). The piece has four movements, and while I’d love to talk about all four, today I’ll concentrate on just the march. I may eventually talk about the others because there’s a ton of incredible music in there, but the march is the most well-known.
Symphonic Metamorphosis was inspired by some piano duets and other music composed more than a century earlier by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826). While Hindemith retains much of Weber’s melodies, he puts his own distinctive spin on them. Hindemith composed the work in the early 1940s. It was originally intended to be used as ballet music, but he and his collaborator, Léonide Massine, parted ways. Not letting good music go to waste, Hindemith re-imagined the work into an orchestral suite. The suite remains popular with both orchestras and wind bands thanks to a transcription by Keith Wilson, Hindemith’s fellow Yale professor.
(the original video I linked to got deleted, so let’s try this one instead 9/26/13)
Intensity and Activity
There are three words that come to mind when I hear (or play) this piece. Two of them are “intensity” and “activity”, which I think you’ll notice early on in the piece. I’ll fill you in on the third word later.
We begin with a short brass fanfare that’s powerful, yet at the same time, subdued. The trumpets and trombones announce themselves then quickly retreat, leaving us to hear a muted chord in the horns. This happens a second time (with a different melodic progression) before going into the main theme of the piece.
The main theme begins in the oboe, English horn, and bass clarinet (0:09), with a bouncy accompaniment in the strings. Bouncy, but not necessarily cheerful sounding. To me, this first section sounds rather eerie. The flutes and clarinets join in with the melody at 0:16 and we continue on, building a bit in volume. We taper as we reach the end of the theme, culminating in another muted horn chord at 0:33. There’s some back-and-forth between the clarinets, bassoons and oboes, then the trumpets and trombones interject their two cents, leading us back into a repeat of the main theme (0:42).
This time through, we continue the back-and-forth, bickering on louder and louder until 1:18, where we get a recap of the opening fanfare. However, instead of a muted horn chord, the woodwinds add a statement of their own, borrowing the fanfare’s rhythm. The brass make one more statement, then the strings give us a flurry of activity that leads us what sounds like the main theme (1:25). Here, the strings have the melody, the woodwinds have the bouncy accompaniment, and the low brass adds some rhythmic chords to support it all. But we don’t get the full theme. We only get a few seconds of it before Hindemith takes us off into a new direction. And while we hear a soft chord again, this time it’s the flutes and clarinets – not the horns (1:36). There’s some back-and-forth between the drums and woodwinds, then the strings give us a neat phrase that leads us to our next section.
A Silver Lining
Here, we start to hear some happiness poke through (1:46). We have the woodwinds fluttering around above with triplets – they’re very busy up there. But they’re just the accompaniment. The melody lies below in the horns. They play through their theme once, then it’s repeated with accents from the trumpets and additional accompaniment from the strings. A cool, two-note phrase in the low brass at 2:10 helps get us into the development section of the piece.
At 2:11, Hindemith plays around with the horn theme. The upper woodwinds take over, but you’ll hear that it’s not the same melody that the horns were playing. The rhythm is similar, and the melody sounds kind of the same at first, but it quickly morphs into other melodic content. Meanwhile, the strings are sawing away below in triplets. This builds up to 2:21, when the strings take over the melodic line and the woodwinds and brass do a lot more triplet-ing. The horns come blazing in at 2:27, continuing to build until…
We repeat back to the quieter bit that we were hearing at 2:11 (but now we’re at 2:31). We go through this section again, and the horns again take over and build us up…
But Hindemith knocks us back down to piano with a haunting, sustained phrase in the woodwinds at 2:52. That sounds an awful lot like a slower version of the opening fanfare, doesn’t it? While the winds move on to the second part of the fanfare theme, the low strings enter with a haunting line of their own. At 2:55, try to listen for the lowest note. Waaaay down there. Lower. Hear it? That’s a contrabassoon. It’s awesome.
We return to the first theme, this time with trombones (3:04). The strings are plucking away at the bouncy accompaniment, and the clarinets and bass clarinet comment in triplets. We feel a bit eerie again. But Hindemith hasn’t forgotten the happier sound from 1:46. The trombones start the second phrase of the theme, but instead of staying in unison, they break out into a beautiful major chord (3:18). It doesn’t last long, but I love that part.
The theme continues, but doesn’t get to finish. Hindemith stalls by repeating an idea: from 3:23 to 3:26, he essentially repeats that idea (with different notes) three times. By the way, listen for the oboe at 3:24 – you’ll hear the fanfare again! Then he moves forward at 3:33-ish, but he doesn’t rush to a resolution. He continues to build and grow, then places a very effective rest (silence) that leaves you holding your breath in anticipation for the next note. (See, kids, once again it’s just as important to end your notes with purpose as begin them!)
Triumphant. That’s my third word.
Man, this last section never fails to get my emotions stirring. It’s so bold, so triumphant and heroic; it’s an amazing bit of music. Here we have full brass on the main melodic material, with the woodwinds and strings flying around in triplets. The horns are playing their hearts out, adding some neat flourishes to the theme (specifically 3:43-44 and 3:46-48). Then they get one of the best lines ever written for horn – a basic, yet extremely effective, chromatic scale that builds from 3:52-57.
We get one last run through the horn theme, still on full power, but it doesn’t immediately finish up. The first part of the fanfare theme comes back again at 4:12 as a call-and-response between the horns and trumpets, with some flourishes in the woodwinds and strings. We hear it twice, then Hindemith takes us through one final buildup to the end, giving us a last bit of fanfare (4:24). The brass hold on to that fanfare while the strings and winds flurry up to the final, decisive statements of the piece.
What a ride!
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Absolutely one of my favorite pieces. This is an ear-worm that I don’t tire of very easily. As a horn player, I can get a bit focused on all the juicy horn parts. It’s nice to take a moment to notice the other neat things that Hindemith puts in there.
Other instruments get good parts too, you know 😉