Hindemith Der Schwanendreher Program Notes
Hindemith’s three-movement viola concerto (we perform the third movement today) is has an unusual instrumentation, omitting violins and violas. The only two mainstream pieces omitting violins are a Brahms Serenade and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms: it’s very rare. It instantly solves many issues of balance and projects, the main reason we hear relatively few viola concertos.
Der Schwanendreher reflects Hindemith’s interest in the cultural value old Germany at the time when current Germany (the 1930s) was filled with strife. It’s from the same year as the opera Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter), which he set in the 1520s during the Protestant Reformation. Der Schwanendreher is based on old German folk melodies. The third movement is a set of variations on the tune “Are You Not the Swan Turner?” By the time this tune was sung, a swan-turner was shorthand for a travelling musician, most likely playing a hurdy-gurdy, which has a turning wheel inside it. (The other swan-turner was the kitchen-hand turning the spit while a swan cooked over coals.)
The variations of this one melody are boisterous, contrasted with a lilting, barcarolle rhythm, and sometimes humorously rollicking. Der Schwanendreher is a tour-de-force of viola playing, proving a staple of solo viola repertoire ever since Hindemith, himself a virtuoso violist, premiered the piece with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 1935, conducted by Mengelberg.
Born: November 16, 1895, Hanau, Germany
Died: December 28, 1963, Frankfurt, Germany