Composing in Wartime
During the Second World War, which also strongly influenced musical life in the United States as regards politics and propaganda and pushed the music of German immigrants to the sidelines, Hindemith wrote to his wife on 16 February 1940 that he wished «to get through the horrific contemporary events with satisfactory work.» Whilst writing effective, extroverted, formally always original works for the concert hall, he was also composing extremely artistic, complex music difficult to access, and even privately motivated works that at first remained unpublished.
The first group of works included the Cello Concerto (1940) and especially the Symphony in E-flat (1940), a imaginary portrait of Hindemith's much-admired Boston Symphony Orchestra which transforms Brucknerian pathos into athleticism. The Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by C.M. von Weber (1943), in which Hindemith re-composes music of Weber in his own musical language, has remained one of his most successful compositions of all, with its brilliant orchestral writing. Hindemith also uses music by another composer in the Symphonia Serena (1946), in this case a march by Beethoven.
On the other hand, the chamber works are generally cast in the strictest forms. The Sonata for Two Pianos, Four Hands (1942) contains a slow movement designed as a double canon and also uses a double fugue as a finale. The final movement of the Sixth String Quartet in E-flat (1943) is also in the form of a fugue, during the course of which the most important themes of the previous movements are simultaneously taken up again as a thematic summing-up. The final movement of the 7th String Quartet in E-flat (1945), written for music-making at home, is again canonically worked out for the most part; in addition, parts of the music are presented in retrograde motion.
For this domestic home music-making, Hindemith wrote duos in various combinations as well as songs with piano accompaniment to German (Eichendorff, Keller, Brentano, C.F. Meyer), French (Rilke, Baudelaire, Mallarm‚) and English (Shelley, Thompson, Moore, Whitman) texts, including, for the first time during the Christmas season of 1940, motets to Latin texts of the Gospels of Christmastime according to the earlier Catholic order of service.
His occupation with Early Music also had a direct influence on his compositions. In the Sonata for alto horn and piano (1943) Hindemith made use of the medieval compositional principle of «isorhythm;» the finale of the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1945) consists of variations on the medieval dance ‹Tre fontane,› heard in its original form only at the end of the movement.
The central composition of this period was Ludus tonalis (1942) for piano, a sequence of 12 three-part fugues representing all conceivable arts of fugal writing as in a baroque «art book.» Between these fugues Hindemith inserts succinctly characterful Interludes. The work opens with a Prelude that also concludes the work as a Postlude by turning the note text by 180°. Hindemith felt the very arduous composition of this extremely skilful work to be a «moral conquest,» which he wanted to see detached from the musically cheap yet high-profile propaganda in American and Soviet symphonies of the wartime period. He wished, as he stated, to «show those who have not yet hopelessly slipped away» what «composition is,» and reckoned with failure. Hindemith was wrong, however; the first edition of the work was sold out in just three months.