Alexandra Monchick on The Craft of Paul Hindemith’s Electronic Compositions

The Craft of Paul Hindemith’s Electronic Compositions

5 PM, January 24, CAC third floor conference room

In his music-theoretical treatise, Unterweisung im Tonsatz (1937, later published in English as The Craft of Musical Composition, 1942), Paul Hindemith demonstrated that harmonic tension is grounded on perceived dissonance resulting from a natural occurence: the overtone series. His impetus for writing his theory of harmony was not only to defend tonality, but to legitimize his own neo-tonal music during the heyday of serialism and other avant-garde musical styles. While Hindemith’s harmonic theory largely derived from the experiments of Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) and Carl Stumpf (1848-1936), he had put his theories into practice even before writing the treatise with three heretofore understudied electronic compositions: Des kleinen Elektromusikers Lieblinge (1930), Konzertstück for Trautonium and String Orchestra (1931), and “Langsames Stück und Rondo” (1935). It seems that Hindemith did an about face somewhere between 1935 and 1937, turning away from technology towards naturalism. Paradoxically, his experiments with electronic music provided him the tools to explore the natural phenomena of acoustics and psychoacoustics.

In this paper, I argue that only after experimenting with the electronic manipulation of sound was Hindemith able to develop his influential harmonic theory. Hindemith’s first sketches of the treatise, located at the Hindemith Institut Frankfurt am Main, show his indebtedness to electronic music, even though the final published version hardly mentions it. With the trautonium, an early synthesizer-like instrument, Hindemith was able to produce subharmonics, combination tones, and formant regions from electronic sounds to create various new timbres. Throughout his career Hindemith virtually ignored any discussion of timbre, but analysis of his electronic music from the 1930s proves that he was thinking about the internal properties of sound. Hindemith reproduced technological counterfeits of acoustic instruments with the trautonium and composed (and recomposed) music in the 1940s and 1950s based on psychoacoustics. In these pieces, he demonstrated how the composer can increase and decrease dissonance largely based on the capacities of the subconscious ear, a concept which he famously referred to as “harmonic fluctuation.” Hindemith’s technologically-mediated concept of timbre, which he applied to his late oeuvre, suggests a “proto-spectral” approach to composition.

Alexandra Monchick is Associate Professor and Area Coordinator of Music History at California State University Northridge. Her areas of interest include the music of Paul Hindemith, musical life in the Weimar Republic, and intersections between opera and film. Dr. Monchick has published articles and reviews in The Musical Quarterly, German Life and Letters, German Studies Review, and the Journal of Music History Pedagogy.  She has a forthcoming book chapter on Hindemith’s electronic music in the Oxford Handbook of Spectral Music. Her current book project explores Schoenberg, Schreker, and Zemlinsky’s engagement with film, radio, jazz, and other popular genres during their time in Berlin in the 1920s and 30s. Dr. Monchick is also the past president of the Pacific Southwest Chapter of the American Musicological Society and serves on the Committee for Career-Related Issues.

This lecture is part of the UCI Music Department's Annual Musicology Lecture Series (click for more information)

January 24, 2019 - 5:00pm