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When and why did Hindemith compose Trauermusik?

How the death of George V led Hindemith to compose Trauermusik in just six hours

When and why did Hindemith compose Trauermusik?

With George V lying gravely ill and slipping in and out of consciousness, his physician reached for his bag. ‘I decided to determine the end,’ recalled Lord Bertrand Dawson’s diary entry for 20 January 1936, ‘and injected morphia gr. 3/4 and shortly afterwards cocaine gr. 1 into the distended jugular vein.’ Delaying the inevitable would only cause further suffering, he reasoned. And by bringing about the King’s death before midnight, he could ensure that it would be reported in the morning papers rather than the evening editions.

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It was a decision that would play havoc with Paul Hindemith’s agenda. The German composer and violist had recently arrived in London where, on 22 January, he and the BBC Orchestra were due to perform the UK premiere of his Der Schwanendreher, a work based on a folksong about a cook’s assistant turning a swan on a spit. Clearly, in such circumstances, such a frivolous subject would now be highly inappropriate. Or, as Hindemith put it in a letter to his friend and publisher Willy Strecker, ‘you will have noticed that the swan could not be roasted due to a dead king’.

Swan might be off the menu, but Edward Clark, music director of the BBC, and conductor Adrian Boult were adamant that the BBC Orchestra’s concert should still go ahead, and that they wanted Hindemith to be part of it. No amount of rifling through the library, however, could unearth a work for viola and orchestra suitable for the occasion. With time pressing, only one option remained: setting aside an office at the BBC, and providing him with all the music copyists he needed, Clark and Boult set the composer to work at what he did best. ‘From 11 to 5 [on 21 January], I did some fairly hefty mourning,’ Hindemith told Strecker. ‘I turned out a nice piece, in the style of Mathis [der Maler] and Schwanendreher with a Bach chorale at the end.’

The piece in question was an eight-minute gem called Trauermusik (‘Music for mourning’), in which, over four short movements, the wistful viola solo weaves sinuously above an aptly restrained string orchestra accompaniment. That concluding chorale – ‘Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit’ – would, Hindemith later discovered, have sounded fairly familiar to British ears due to its similarity to the popular hymn tune ‘The Old Hundredth’. Following a day of rehearsal on 22 January, it was performed for the first time that evening in a radio broadcast.

Mournfulness was a mindset that probably came all-too-naturally to Hindemith at the time, as the political scene in his home country was growing increasingly hostile. Though not a Jew himself, he had strong connections to Jewish musicians and so rapidly found himself at odds with the Nazi hierarchy – his Mathis der Maler Symphony was banned soon after its premiere and he himself was described (inaccurately) by Goebbels as ‘an atonal noisemaker’.

Nonetheless, Hindemith’s trademark dry humour remained intact. What’s more, he reckoned that the story of his Trauermusik commission might regain him some standing if circulated back in Germany, pointing to Strecker that ‘it is after all no everyday occurrence when the BBC gets a foreigner to write a piece on the death of their king and sends it out over the complete network.
I’m now going to specialise in corpses – maybe there will be some more opportunities.’

Recommended recording: Hindemith: Complete Viola Works Volume 1 (buy from Amazon)

Read our reviews of the latest Hindemith recordings here

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