Paul Hindemith and the Sonata for Flute and Piano from 1936



by Anja Weinberger

Hindemith was born in Hanau in 1895. That already says a lot about the general conditions of his life.

He was 19 years old at the beginning of World War 1 and 44 years old at the beginning of World War 2. He lived in a time of uncertainty.

The collapse of the German Empire, inflation, later National Socialism, the stock market crash in New York, and the complexity of the postwar situation created an extremely fragile environment that, of course, had to be overcome by the entire generation.

The family structure was also unusual and probably even unique. Hindemith’s father came from a family of merchants and craftsmen, who forbade the young Rudolf Hindemith to turn to music as a career. Conversely, when he himself founded a family, he determined the musical profession for the three surviving children Paul, Antonie and Rudolf Jr. very early on. The musical education was consistently enforced with unyielding drill.

At the same time, the father Rudolf Hindemith was never able to secure a carefree existence for his family; some years they even lived in bitter poverty.

Although in the previous generations no artistic-musical talent was to be noticed anywhere, all three children developed extraordinarily, especially the youngest son Rudolf seems to have been a child prodigy. He subsequently made a very early career as a cellist, and later became a conductor and composer. His music is close to jazz, rather freitonal and little constructed.

The three siblings were sent around the country by their father as a Frankfurt children’s trio, and young Paul’s first compositions date from this time. In order to contribute to the family’s livelihood, he soon played the violin in the Frankfurt orchestra of the Neues Theater. And from 1912 he took composition lessons at the Hoch’schen Conservatory in Frankfurt, where his talent was quickly recognized.

His father Rudolf was killed at the front of the 1st World War at the age of 45. Paul himself was drafted in 1917 and was stationed as a drummer of the regimental music in Flanders and Alsace.


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His diary shows that throughout the war he tried not to be overwhelmed by the horrible impressions. He created a counter-world for himself by composing and making music. Many works were written.

After the end of the war, Hindemith switched from the violin to the viola and finally began to trust his talent as a composer, and even to perceive himself as such.

He achieved a spectacular breakthrough with several successful premieres, including one at the 1st Donaueschingen Music Festival in 1921. One of these premieres was the String Quartet No.3 op.16, for which the Amar Quartet was founded, in which Paul and Rudolf Hindemith played together with Licco Amar and Walter Caspar. A legend was born.

From 1923 he was finally under general contract with the SCHOTT publishing house in Mainz.

In 1924 Paul married the actress and singer Gertrud Rottenberger. The couple lived together very harmoniously, Gertud took care of a large part of the correspondence, accompanied her husband on many trips and took a lively interest in his work. She hardly pursued her own profession, as she suffered from severe stage fright.

In 1927 Hindemith took over a composition class at the Berlin Musikhochschule. He was the ideal teacher and, for lack of good teaching material, began to work on music theory himself.

So now he was considered the leading German composer of his generation and was also extremely successful as a solo violist.

However, after the National Socialists came to power, many of his works were banned as being cultural Bolshevist.

In the summer of 1933, he began work on Mathis der Maler. The opera about the painter Mathias Grünewald shows the entanglements of an artist in politics and society. Almost as expected, the National Socialist government prevented the premiere. However, Hindemith compiled parts of the music for the symphony Mathis der Maler, whose premiere on March 12, 1934 by Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic became an unprecedented success.

In 1937, a ban on the performance of all his works was issued, whereupon Hindemith resigned from the Hochschule.


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That year he set out on his first trip to the United States to explore the possibilities of emigration as a conductor and violist. The first impressions were probably not convincing.

Then, in 1938, the world premiere of his ballet Nobilissima Visione took place in Zurich, which he conducted himself. Together with the dancer and choreographer Leonide Massine, Hindemith had worked out this work, inspired by the Florentine Giotto frescoes about Francis of Assisi.

In September Hindemiths decided to live in Switzerland. The composer intensified his music-theoretical work, and this resulted in 1935 in instruction in composition, which SCHOTT published.

Only after insistent requests from friends did he move to the USA in 1940.

Gertrud had to stay behind for the time being for financial reasons, which was very stressful for both of them. Paul threw himself into lectures at Yale University of Music, among others, to which he attached a Collegium Musicum. With this, he performed music from Gregorian chant to the late Baroque as faithfully as possible to give the students an approximate idea of sound.

More and more he felt accepted in the New World, and in 1945 he took American citizenship.

After the war ended, Hindemith returned to Europe for visits with mixed feelings.

He was dismayed to find that few of the kindnesses extended to him were to him as a human being, but most were to him as a famous artist. Only in 1951 was he able to bring himself to accept a teaching position for musicology in Zurich. In 1953 he moved back to Switzerland completely.

From then on he traveled all over Europe as a guest conductor, also South America and Japan. In the 60’s he also conducted in the USA again, after some time of rather undercooled mutual perception.

In 1963 Paul Hindemith died relatively unexpectedly in Frankfurt from a series of strokes. His brother Rudolf survived him by 11 years.


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In 1936, that is in Berlin, Hindemith composed the Sonata for Flute and Piano. It was part of a series of sonatas for all orchestral instruments.

To his publisher he wrote: “You will be surprised that I sonate the whole wind instrument. I had always intended to do a whole series of these pieces. First of all, there is nothing sensible for these instruments, with the exception of a few classical pieces, so it is not from the current business point of view, but in the long run it is worthwhile to enrich this literature. And secondly, now that I am so extensively interested in wind instruments, I have a great desire for these pieces”.

With this, Hindemith had, of course, touched a sore spot in the flutist’s soul. In fact, the repertoire from the earlier classical period onwards is quite manageable, and a new phase of flute music was just beginning, especially in France.

Gustav Scheck and Walter Gieseking were supposed to premiere the sonata here in Germany, but this event fell victim to the ruling regime. It was then premiered on Hindemith’s first trip to America in April 1937 by George Barrère (flute) and Jesús Maria Sanromá (piano).

The three-movement sonata with the march at the end, which seems almost like a fourth movement, immediately became part of the standard repertoire of flutists, as did all of Hindemith’s other sonatas for other instruments. Hindemith added a large number of top-class pieces, especially to the viola literature.


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Paul Hindemith enjoyed making music at home with his wife and friends. He mastered all instruments except the harp. In the 30s, when hardly any concerts were possible, this was his form of survival.


Adorjan, Andras (Hrsg.) u.a.: Lexikon der Flöte, Laaber 2009
Finscher, Ludwig (Hrsg.): Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Kassel 2003
Schubert, Giselher:  Paul Hindemith in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten, Reinbek 1981

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