Invitation to the Prague Spring Festival

Paul Hindemith

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Conductor: François-Xavier Roth
Viola: Tabea Zimmermann
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln

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Paul Hindemith
Der Schwanendreher, concerto for viola and orchestra

Dates

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Wed 01/06/2022
8.00 pm
Obecní dům
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Programme

Leoš Janáček
The Fiddler's Child

Paul Hindemith
Der Schwanendreher, concerto for viola and orchestra

— Interval —

Richard Strauss
Ein Heldenleben Op. 40

Before the Second World War Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) had become the most significant composer in Germany. Nevertheless, with his internationally recognised, pacifist compositional and organisational endeavours, he was at the same time a thorn in the side for the Nazi regime, which considered him one of the chief symbols of Entartete Musik (degenerate music). His name was erased from the regulated German cultural scene; the persecution against Hindemith was not even averted by a defence published by conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler who – without success – used his authority to attempt to exonerate the composer in the eyes of the regime. Hindemith retreated to the seclusion of Lenzkirch, a mountain village in the Black Forest of Baden-Württemberg, to work on his magnum opus, the opera Mathis der Maler, set in medieval times. It was this creative atmosphere which also gave rise to his concerto for viola and chamber orchestra Der Schwanendreher (1935–1936), named after the old German folk song Seid ihr nicht der Schwanendreher, whose melody provides the main theme of the concerto’s final variation movement.

The word Schwanendreher, literally “swan turner”, was used in the Middle Ages to denote a cook’s assistant who would turn the handle of a spit on which swans were roasting. Nevertheless, Hindemith chiefly had in mind a different meaning for the term, referring to the culture of medieval wandering minstrels who played the barrel organ or hurdy-gurdy, whose cranks were shaped like a swan’s neck. The concerto thus suggests an image of a folk musician who, in convivial society, performs the songs he encountered on his travels. By escaping to the distant past Hindemith was shielding himself from the fearful reality of the present; at the same time, however, he felt compelled to reflect this in his composition, expressing his sorrow most fervently in the intensely melancholic middle movement.

Der Schwanendreher was first performed in Amsterdam on 14 November 1935. The composer himself undertook the solo part, accompanied by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under conductor Willem Mengelberg; he then presented the piece in other parts of Europe (though, naturally, not in Germany) and in America. The Prague Spring programmed the work in 1961; on this occasion Hindemith himself stood on the rostrum, conducting violist Jaroslav Karlovský and the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Today Der Schwanendreher is a pillar of the modern viola repertoire. Tabea Zimmermann performs it regularly with some of the world’s finest orchestras, as she did in 2021 with the Berlin Philharmonic under François-Xavier Roth.


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