Hindemith – Rachmaninov

Universal Harmony

Written byBart de Vries


Sinfonieorchester Basel
11 March 2021

Marek Janowski, Conductor

(Original Program - Concert was canceled due to Covid-19)
Paul Hindemith - Die Harmonie der Welt
Sergei Rachmaninov - Piano concerto No.3

Building on last month’s piece by Domenico Melchiorre, in which the movement of the planets is put to music, this month we will hear Paul Hindemith’s symphony Die Harmonie der Welt. In this highly intellectual work, the composer translates the life and ideas of a renowned astronomer into an alluring musical narrative.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) felt deeply intrigued by the German astronomer and physicist Johannes Kepler who adhered to Copernicus’ principle of a sun-centered universe, an idea still rejected by the church around 1700. Three laws underlying the planetary motions are the fruit of Kepler’s research, the last one being laid down in his book Harmonices Mundi (The Harmony of the Universe). Also a theologist, Kepler believed the Creator, in designing the universe, expressed some form of musical harmony. He therefore called his third law a harmonious law. Sadly, his laws showed that the orbital motions were elliptical, not quite as harmonious (circular), as he had dreamt. Similarly, Kepler’s life was far from harmonious. A protestant in a predominantly catholic environment during the (fundamentally religious) Thirty Years’ War, it was sometimes hard for him to find or keep work. Later in his career he had to draw horoscopes – against his own beliefs – for a field commander who had offered him a job after several years of unemployment. Moreover, six of his eleven children died, as did his first wife. He also spent a lot of effort to free his mother from imprisonment on charges of witchcraft.

Hindemith’s symphony, just as his eponymous opera, is named after Kepler’s book. The opera, more than the symphony, recounts the astronomer’s life and work. The idea for the opera had been brewing in the composer’s mind for a long time, when Paul Sacher, the legendary founder and conductor of the Basler Kammerorchester, commissioned a work from him to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the orchestra in 1951. Hindemith suggested a preview suite of the opera, which Sacher accepted. The preview is what we now call the symphony Die Harmonie der Welt. (The opera wasn’t finished until 1957.)

Following the classical, Pythagorean ideas, the symphony is divided into three movements of increasing abstraction, musical and astronomical symbolism and, if you will, purity. The first movement, Musica instrumentalis depicts music such as played by human beings. Musica Humana explores the harmony between the human body and soul, while in the last movement, Musica Mundana, music or consonance is an all-encompassing cosmic force of universal harmony.

The first movement of the symphony begins with what later became the overture of the opera. The first ornamental notes, Mi Fa Mi, in the trumpets were, according to Kepler, the tones of the earth’s orbit. The following opening theme of the symphony consists of a sequence of notes, again played by the trumpets and later repeated by several other instruments, making up the “circle of fifth”, a visual representation of how the twelve notes of the chromatic scale are related to each other. It is just one of Hindemith’s ways to picture the planets orbiting neatly and harmoniously around the sun.

Although certain themes and melodies of the symphony are the same as (or similar to) the ones found in the opera, and are thus connected to Kepler’s story, the symphony’s aim is rather to create different ways for the listener to experience universal harmony.

These English program notes have been published in the magazine of the Sinfonieorchester Basel.

Main photo: Die Harmonie der Welt, Jim Harris.


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