Die Harmonie Der Welt Symphony

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Die Harmonie der Welt Symphony

Paul Hindemith
Born November 16, 1895 in Hanau, Germany
Died December 28, 1963 in Frankfort, Germany

By Marianne Williams Tobias
The Marianne Williams Tobias Program Note Annotator Chair


Since ancient times, man has speculated about the universe and about music. Sometimes the universe was endowed with musical components, and the two subjects were mixed. Plato wrote about the music of the spheres; Aristotle wrote about Pythagorean harmony. In this case, the music and harmony related somewhat more to mathematics than to sound. But the groundwork was laid for a confluence of the topics. The metaphysical principle that that the sun, moon and planets emit a “hum” was part of the mixing of music and the cosmos — how this was perceived, linked, and considered changed as the centuries moved ahead.

In the sixth century, Boethius used Pythagorean ideas as a basis for a five volume work titled Fundamentals of Music. Music, according to Boethius, is comprised of three parts: musica mundane (music of the cosmos), musica humana (unifying body and soul), and musica instrumentalis (music production in singing and instruments). For those interested in deep analysis see Explorations of Universal Order and Beauty in Paul Hindemith’s Die Harmonie der Welt Symphony.

Paul Hindemith’s Die Harmonie der Welt Symphony was derived from his five act opera of the same name, which the composer described as “developing passages from the opera.” It premiered January 25, 1951. Curiously, the libretto was not finished until 1956, the music was not complete until August 1957, and the opera finally premiered May 30, 1961 at the Munich Opera Festival with the composer conducting.            

Hindemith’s opera focused on the life of the German mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher Johannes Kepler. (1571-1630) Kepler’s writings had fascinated Hindemith for many years, especially his treatise, which was published in 1619; Harmonices mundi (Harmony of the World) and consisted of five chapters. Pythagoras’ teachings on harmony were very influential to Kepler’s thinking — one of the most important was the idea that tonal relationships express not only the laws of sound but have spiritual dimension as well. Additionally, Kepler included his thinking about Die Harmonie der Welt, the sounds planets make while rotating around the sun and the harmonies therein. In this case, harmonia also means, “to fit together.” (See Book III of Kepler’s treatise). It is important to note that Kepler used geometrically generated musical ratios, not those of Pythagoras.

The symphony has three movements, each titled from the parts of music as defined by Boethius.  In order, these are musica instrumentalis, musica humana, and musica mundana. Hindemith explained, “The three movements are pieces of music from an opera adapted for concert performance. They are about the life and work of Johannes Kepler, the contemporary events that encouraged or hindered him, and the search for the harmony that doubtless rules the Universe.”

Musica instrumentalis begins with a huge orchestral statement: timpani and brass open the vast spectacle of the cosmos. This quickly subsides for winds passage singing a mysterious tune while timpani provide substantial thundering and violins bustle.  A vast surge occurs before submission to the low winds. A snare drum introduces a sturdy march, which absorbs all orchestral segments, rumbling ahead before violins sing a slow lyrical passage, joined by celli and winds. Suddenly, a perky theme bubbles forth from the piccolo. The music becomes filled with energy, and darkness abates. Alternating sections converse as horns and timpani declaim grandeur and mystery. Violins recall their lyrical statement with flute and piccolo, before the March returns for a momentary recall. The ending is dramatic with a ferocious climax.

Musica humana begins slowly, ponderously, with violins producing a softly spoken meandering theme colored by occasional brass participation. The mood is contemplative, somewhat questioning, colored by different choirs and instrumental solos summoned to speak independently within the orchestral context. How small, how fragile mankind seems in its place within the cosmos. One climactic point raises the volume, but the flute, which has an extensive solo, dissipates this. The movement ends with violins singing mournfully, wisps of melodies and soft pizzicati create mystery until the music dissolves into the vast silence.

Musica mundana opens in the lower regions of the orchestra, speaking slowly with gravitas. Gradually, the subdued mood grows into more speculation and questioning, similar to musica humana. Sparkling winds introduce a more energetic section (still sotto voce), which animates violins and timpani into a small march, and stops suddenly for solo flute. Just as suddenly, the music concludes into overwhelming and all enveloping darkness.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015 

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