German-born Paul Hindemith began studying composition at the age of fourteen at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. In 1915 he was appointed leader of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra, a post he resigned in 1923 to travel with a successful string quartet in which he played viola. His compositions of this period are neoclassical in style, merely patterns of sounds, rather than expressions of human feeling. He was recognised for his skill in writing for a wide range of instruments:
"He does not write for these instruments he is these instruments, he transforms himself into them, he lives through them." (Paul Bekker, Frankfurter Zeitung, February 1925)
After 1930 his style changed and became more expressionistic. However, public performance of his music was banned by the Nazis, who considered it degenerate. In 1937 he left Germany to work as musical advisor to the Turkish government, later becoming Professor of Music Theory at Yale University and then Professor of Composition at Zürich University.
Hindemith was an advocate of "music for use" and usually wrote his chamber music with specific musicians in mind. His Sonata for Four Horns was no exception, as he told his publisher in November 1952: "I wrote it for the Salzburg Hornists, who greeted me once with a Ständchen early in the morning in my sleeping car." Waking friends with horn calls has also become something of a tradition on Arethusa tours!
The opening Fugato is extremely slow and the theme is played by each hornist in turn. The music builds to a climax, when the inherent dissonance is resolved with a concert E minor chord. The transforming of dissonance into consonance is something which permeates the whole sonata. Another recurring musical device is dialogue: the exchange of motifs or phrases between the horns. This occurs for the first time in the second movement, which has two themes. These are both heard in simple and compound times at different points in the music, making it sometimes rigid and then flowing and dance-like. In contrast to the rhythmic subtleties and complexities that this creates, the central section of the movement is metrically free and purely expressive.
The final movement comprises variations on an old love song "I Sound my Horn". The opening theme is marked "stately". This is followed by a complex Scherzando, in which the horns work, for the most part, in two pairs: sharing musical dialogue or with one player imitating the other. The next variation is in 6/8 time and is reminiscent of traditional hunting horn music; the lilting rhythm imitates horse riding. The love song is heard again, over the hunting background. The music then becomes more frantic, before finally subsiding. The sonata ends with ten slow chords. These begin darkly and mysteriously, transforming through richer but harder textures to the warm conclusion. PDR