Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Weber
Composed: 1940; 1943
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, small cymbals, small gong, snare drum, tambourine, tenor drum, tom-tom, triangle), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 7, 1955, with Walter Hendl conducting
Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber began life in early 1940, when Hindemith first took up residence in the United States after several years of public and private jousting with the Nazi government of his native Germany. (The Nazis officially called his music “degenerate,” though they may also have been responding to his private, but hardly secret, expressions of detestation regarding their policies.)
Hindemith sketched a series of movements based on themes by Weber, to be used in a ballet for a dance company run by Léonide Massine, who had already collaborated with Hindemith on the ballet Nobilissima visione. The project died when Hindemith and Massine had one too many artistic differences (not to put too fine a point on it, Massine’s staging ideas, which would have used backdrops by Salvador Dalí, were too weird for Hindemith, and Massine thought Hindemith’s score “too personal,” whatever that means), and in 1943 Hindemith redid the music into the Metamorphosis, in the process turning it into a splashy, colorful orchestral piece of the sort that American audiences in particular seemed to like. It was an immediate success when it was premiered by Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic in January 1944. It has remained perhaps Hindemith’s most popular work, even if critics often feel compelled to denigrate it.
Weber (1786-1826), an important figure in the development of German opera and a seminal influence on Romanticism, retained an importance among later composers that we would scarcely guess from the limited exposure that he gets in modern concert halls. The themes Hindemith used are from some of Weber’s most obscure works, and came to Hindemith’s attention because they could all be found in one volume of piano duets that he owned. Hindemith not only retained all but one of the themes almost exactly as Weber wrote them, but also preserved much of the formal structure of the pieces as well, so that it is possible to follow the general outlines of Hindemith’s score while listening to Weber’s music, or vice versa, and have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. Hindemith alters nearly everything else, making radical changes to the harmony and adding to the music both vertically (with different harmonies and new countermelodies) and horizontally (extending phrases or entire sections).
The surprising thing is that Hindemith’s end product, while staying so close to Weber, sounds so little like the original. For example, in the first movement, based on the fourth of eight piano duets, Op. 60, there are few hints of the 19th century aside from the middle-section theme given to the oboe. (This is followed by one of Hindemith’s niftier touches: when the principal theme returns in the violas and clarinets, he has the flute play in parallel an octave and a fifth higher, and the piccolo in parallel two octaves and a third higher. They act much like mixture stops on an organ, and make the orchestra sound more than a little like a calliope.)
The second movement is based on Weber’s incidental music to Schiller’s adaptation of Turandot, the same Carlo Gozzi fantasy about China that Puccini used for his 1926 opera. Weber took his melody from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1767 Dictionaire de Musique. Rousseau had gotten it from a sinologist but, as perceptive a musicologist as he was a philosopher, cautioned that it had likely been adapted to Western ears in the transmission and its authenticity was therefore suspect. It was nonetheless as close as Weber was going to get to a real Chinese melody, and he used it almost exclusively in five of the six numbers he wrote for the play. It is the only tune that Hindemith alters significantly, but his insistent repetition of the tune is modeled on Weber’s Turandot overture. Hindemith repeats it eight times in different settings, building to a splashy climax. The brass then take a syncopated variant of the theme and turn it into a fugue.
The third movement retains most of the substance, and the ABA structure, of Weber’s Andantino con moto from Six Pièces for two pianos, Op. 10, No. 2. The dancing flute solo in the last third of the piece is solely Hindemith’s. The march finale is again from the Op. 60 duets, much expanded. The horn calls implicit in Weber’s trio section are made explicit in Hindemith’s version, and become the basis of the requisite big finish.
– Howard Posner plays lute and baroque guitar and practices appellate law in Los Angeles, though he rarely does those things at the same time. He writes a column in California Lawyer magazine in which he explains how lawyers can write like human beings.