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Poet’s Corner 2: Six Chansons

08
May

Six Chansons

Music by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), poems by Ranier Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

Ranier Maria Rilke

Ranier Maria Rilke

 Although Rilke wrote primarily in German, the poems in Six Chansons – “The Doe”, “A Swan”, “Since All is Passing”, “Springtime”, “In Winter”, and “Orchard”, were written in French, in a beautiful lyrical style.  Hindemith’s settings echo the lyricism of the poetry.  They are wonderful to sing – each one is different in character and mood. You can easily see the swan gliding majestically over a glassy pond, and the doe bounding gracefully through the forest. We tend to think of Hindemith in terms of his later instrumental music, but these earlier a cappella pieces are anything but atonal.

I have not been able to discover how Hindemith became aware of the poems, part of a larger set of over 400 poems written by Rilke in French between his emigration to Switzerland in 1923 and his death from leukemia in 1926.  Hindemith also wrote the music in Switzerland after he and his wife escaped from Germany in 1938, before they emigrated to the US in 1940.

There is much material on both Hindemith and Rilke online (links below).

Portrait of Rilke by Leonid Pasternak - 1928

Portrait of Rilke by Leonid Pasternak – 1928

I do find some interesting parallels in their lives. Both Hindemith and Rilke were of German origin, born 20 years apart. Both traveled around Europe, although Rilke possibly more extensively – to Russia, where he met Tolstoy, to Africa, Spain, Italy and to France, where Rodin played an extremely important part in Rilke’s artistic development. Hindemith made several tours to the US, and spent time in Turkey.  At the invitation of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, he reorganized Turkish music education and had a hand in the establishment of the Turkish State Opera and Ballet, as well as the Ankara State Conservatory. Both escaped Germany to Switzerland, where their paths crossed in poetry and music.

And both were considered to be transitional figures, both using and evolving their own art forms as a means of expression.

Rilke wrote primarily in German, and is, like Baudelaire, an influential figure in the transition between traditional/romantic and modern poetry. His themes were existential, a search for a way to express meaning in life through his art. Initially “impressionistic”, his writings evolved (partially as a consequence of of Rodin’s influence) to the expression of ideas with “physical, rather than intellectual symbols” (W.H. Auden). Rilke’s lyrical style is apparent in the six poems we are singing.

Paul Hindemith at 28

Paul Hindemith at 28

Hindemith spent his early career in Germany. An accomplished violinist, he became the deputy leader of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra in 1914, and the leader 3 years later. By 1922 his compositions were being played at various festivals. In 1928, he wrote the score for, and acted in, an avant-garde film by Hans Richter. His early works were in the romantic style, often based on folk music. His style evolved over time, becoming more expressionist with the development his own unique tonal system.

And finally – an aside – Hindemith also composed something called “Gebrauchsmusik” (Music for Use). These pieces were written for a specific purpose, sometimes to be played by amateurs, and include works for a day of community music making and an opera for eight year olds.

Check out the links below . . . and come and enjoy Six Chansons in person!

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/rainer-maria-rilke
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Hindemith
http://www.allmusic.com/composition/chansons-6-on-poems-by-rilke-for-chorus-mc0002408803