Thomas Stevens

The Hindemith Trumpet Sonata-Whatever Works?

  • For Trumpeters Only

Did Hindemith Write Program Music?

As a trumpeter whose primary training period was during the 1950s-early 60s, I have always felt a particular kinship with the Hindemith Trumpet Sonata. It is not a profoundly significant musical work, and the trumpet writing, while idiomatic, is not all that technically challenging or impressive; however at the time it was one of only a handful of solo/chamber music pieces* (“classical”) trumpeters could play in virtually any recital/concert** venue, even at the world-class level, without being criticized, indeed, ridiculed, for playing brass junk-music***.

There is no shortage of acceptable solo/chamber repertoire for the trumpet today, but the Hindemith Sonata remains as one of the trumpeter’s more respectable musical works. And as would be expected, with this extended life has come the predictable array of interpretation issues that inevitably plague all musical works that endure.

One of the most curious items to emerge from certain quarters of the performance community (typically, and as always, after the defenseless composer’s death) has been the contention Hindemith wrote “program” music, and that this is particularly in evidence in the trumpet sonata. I would posit that anyone who has ever read Hindemith’s writings, observed his work (either in-person and/or on film), or spent even a modicum of time in the company of some of his students or ex-colleagues, as have I, would find this assertion difficult to accept.

In the Hindemith Sonata for Trumpet and Piano, a good example of presumed program content and programmatic interpretation would be the episode (beginning in the piano in measure 34) leading to the trumpet statement of the second subject in the first movement, which some musicians have claimed represents the marching drum cadences/motifs of the Nazi German Wehrmacht in its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939-the same year in which the piece was composed. (I have yet to encounter one Hindemith scholar/aficionado who thinks the German army reference is legitimate.)

As one who is guilty of having committed more than one interpretive misdemeanor against the Sonata (Quotable: “Excuse me- I have been young once”-Maestro Kurt Sanderling), I believe it could be fairly stated that Hindemith is one of a small minority of composers**** whose music should be interpreted more strictly in accordance with its creator’s wishes than might otherwise be the case.

All of the above notwithstanding, and despite such erudition, as a teacher I have found that programmatic approaches, such as in the case of the army marching drum reference, can be very effective, even when dealing with so-called “absolute” music like that of Paul Hindemith. With particular respect to the trumpet piece, I tell students about the German army story, advise them that it is nonsense, and admonish them not to think of the episode in such a context. And like good students everywhere, they probably give the matter a nanosecond of thought before ignoring my advice and doing it anyway. There is a saying in the legal profession that “one cannot unring a bell,” and this would appear to be the case here because after one has heard the story, it’s difficult not to think about that particular musical section in any other context since this is exactly what it sounds like-which probably explains both the genesis and continued acceptance of the controversial tale.

Quotable I(previously cited): “There are no answers in music…..[There are] only questions…….” Leonard Bernstein (1981)

Quotable II: “.....[W]hatever works.....” (one the most important lessons in music performance)-Bernstein (1981)

* Some musicological purists insist that, since it is written for trumpet and piano rather than being for trumpet with piano accompaniment, the “trumpet” sonata is actually chamber music and as such, both players should be reading the music during performances and performing it as an ensemble piece.

** During the mid-1950s, the National Association of Schools of Music (U.S.), realizing the dearth of serious trumpet and trombone repertoire, commissioned a few solo works from various composers. The well-known Kent Kennan Sonata was one of those commissions.

*** Back in the “bad old days,” when the San Francisco Symphony was on strike during a labor dispute, a brass ensemble played a concert in support of the striking musicians at a local cathedral. Unfortunately, due to the very public nature of the dispute, the concert attracted a number of the Bay Area’s top music critics. Quoting here two excerpts: “exit major composers, enter minor ones,” “perhaps the program [which included the Ewald Quintet #1] should have been titled, “Eine Kleine Junkmusik.” (I had saved the complete original reviews but now they are nowhere to be found).

**** In 1959, while conducting a rehearsal of the Hindemith “Concert Music for Piano, Brass and Harps” for a Monday Evening Concert in Los Angeles, Stravinsky collaborator, Ingolf Dahl, commented that even Stravinsky came in second to Hindemith when it came to composing performer-proof music. A year later he made a similar statement, this time inverting the order of the composers.The point, however, was the same and well-taken.