I wrote this as a piece of journalism in 2010. The sources I used for it are no longer available on the Internet. This is why I am not well pleased with AP style.
I am planning listen to an intriguing piece of music this weekend, the rarely visited Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber by German composer Paul Hindemith. Hindemith composed it in 1943 in the U.S. Having adapted to his new home, he was displeased when the title was translated into German. Understanding why is key to enjoying this subversive and intelligent piece of music.
Rather than the familiar symphonic trope of variation on theme, this piece of pure modernism is indeed a metamorphosis. Hindemith never disrupts Weber’s melodies—rather he lifts them as whole passages—but he sabotages their orderliness in ways that are mocking, nightmarish, whispering, subversive, and finally brashly triumphant.
The secret of Hindemith’s appropriation and mocking of von Weber lies in the fact that the Nazis denounced Hindemith as a “degenerate” artist. Josef Goebbels called him an “atonal noise-maker” and his compositions “the foulest perversion of modern music.” The composer fled Nazi Germany for Switzerland and then the U.S. The Metamorphosis was his first American composition.
The Metamorphosis is a four-movement symphony that mirrors the stages of oppression, expatriation, and ultimately hope. In the first movement, Hindemith selects a straightforward Romantic dance composed by von Weber but adds, in a technique maintained throughout, a truly modernistic harmonic structure. Whereas music from periods both rational and popular is built on a three note chord structure, Hindemith adds a fourth note harmonic, fundamentally changing the character of the recreated melody into something at once hollow and fat, sinister and mocking, grounded and top heavy, dark and intellectually nimble. He even nods to his new American home and references jazz themes. His composition moves from the bankrupt Nazi emphasis on all things ordered to a gloriously free and fluttering alternative celebration of German creativity.
The second movement is again lifted from von Weber, but this melody will be familiar to fans of opera as it is also the basis for Puccini’s Turandot, the melodie Chinoise referenced by Enlightenment rationalist Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 17th century. The theme never finds denouement but is rather tested and restated using all compositional tools. Increasingly frenetic repetition and contentious inversion become a metaphor for a frightened idea (German art?) trapped and shrieking for escape. This butterfly (or more like a nighttime moth) exhausts itself against the bars of its brass cage. The pure frantic adrenaline and traded phrases leads one to believe that Hindemith visited the jazz clubs of Harlem, listening to proto-bebop’s reassertion of non-linear musical thinking. Will to power thus succumbed to coded dissent.
The slow third movement stands out for its relative calm, until one reflects that subversion is best served quietly. Mirroring von Weber’s own English-language opera Oberon, written for the King of England about the king of the fairies, Hindemith becomes Oberon’s Puck. He carries out von Weber’s vision but with a mischievous wit that ultimately subverts the will of the leader (Der Fuhrer?). Hindemith’s reworking of von Weber here is at its most subtle, perhaps walking the same perilous line as Hindemith did before he finally fled the Nazi scourge, having to whisper around corners when he found his expression barred and his life in danger in 1938 Berlin. Rather than frantically flying at the bars of his intellectual cage he quietly exited stage left to neutral ground.
The finale of the Metamorphosis (a march) playfully resurrects a historical double entendre and reflects a jazz influence. Its opening bears a striking resemblance to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 (“The Tragic”). Some critics argue that Mahler also took elements from the music of von Weber. And, Mahler had been forced to flee from the Nazis in 1933 because he was Jewish, and his music was similarly denounced as “degenerate.” This tragedy is a dirge, yet the symphony concludes with a rousing, nearly martial triumph. The march is not of saints into heaven, however. Whereas Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 captures Napoleonic imperialism, Hindemith represents the Wehrmacht as it goose-stepped over Poland.
The tide of World War II turned in 1943. The North Africa campaign ended in a Nazi defeat, Allied forces invaded Europe through Italy, and the Battle of Kursk halted the German army outside Moscow and began its retreat to Berlin. With the ebullience and solidarity of a fight song, but undercut by a feverish snare drum reminiscent of machine-gun bursts, the Metamorphosis ends with triumph brought by military victory, the defeat of evil, and winged victory escaping the foolish consistency demanded by small minds.