Although I have no idea if I am listening to the correct “Hindemith Sonata” at the moment, the work comes highly recommended by Helen Radice at twang twang twang. Her reflections on the piece as unearthed from several years ago and I will try to quote that which relates to the central theme:
Hindemith’s 1939 harp sonata is a crucial work. Even before an examination of its wider intellectual and cultural context, it is in itself a great work by a great composer, where the harp sails through previously unchartered musical and technical waters. The careful design of its three movements (church architecture; children playing outside the church; song at the church’s altar) is serious, moving and beautifully executed, with a tight melodic and harmonic control. More widely, the sonata’s individual merits are part of a grand musical philosophy. At once menschlich and divine, music is a transcendent and spiritual essence, nonetheless sounded by human hands. …
What Hindemith unflichingly realises, is that the task he has set himself of using music as a way to connect humanity and eternity is essential, because otherwise music’s full power would not be used – but it is also ultimately doomed to failure, because music has to be created by fallible human beings. In the last act of Der Harmonie der Welt, where Johannes Kepler has died, disillusioned with his task of rescuing humanity after the thirty years’ war, the final tableau admits that such failure is inevitable because Kepler is only human. …
Der Harmonie’s final tableau remarks: “But what their humble spirit perceived, dreaming, feeling, believing, praying, and their readiness to serve it, raised them far above the ways of Man.” Thus the second movement is deliberately technically difficult, so cannot always be perfect in performance, but that the harpist continually attempts to make it so elevates both musician and music. The human artistic condition lies in the attempt to create perfection, a heroic failure perhaps but one that elevates us none the less. It is a tenet that underpins the music of Britten and the libretti of Chester Kallman and W H Auden; it disturbs Yeats but stimulates his most profound lyricism. As Auden wrote, “Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.”
I appreciate the ending. Of course, there is a dubious interplay between quantum mechanics and mathematics that suggests some form of determinism may, in fact, be true. This isn’t particularly controversial. The real philosophical question is: to what degree do we choose to do what we do? But to me, given the aforementioned reflections and what I am about to write, the most important question seems: what is this “human artistic condition?” We can argue until we are blue in the face on either subject, but the answer to the first question will not tell us where we have been, where we are, or where we’re going. It tells us nothing at all about ourselves. But the answer to the second question tells us so very much more.
I disagree with the 20-year old Ms. Radice that the human artistic condition (read: human condition) is bound with finding or creating perfection, per se. Some would say that she is right, as proven by our religious aspirations. But I rather veer toward a not altogether different direction. My favorite related piece comes from Herbert Mueller‘s The Uses of the Past. A friend once recently called Mueller pedantic, which is unfortunate, since his texts do provide ample ground for reflection. Out with it:
Pride goeth before a fall, but first it lifts man to real heights. Without pride the tragic hero would not be a hero; without it there would be no tragedy in history because no civilization at all. And without it there would be no higher religions. It was pride that built St. Sophia. It was still pride that led thousands to pray in St. Sophia in the miserable last days of Byzantium…. (p. 25)
As such, the human condition may be many things, but our pride takes us to these heights — even in our humility. Radice puts Hindemith properly in the context of his time, but I suggest that at some level it was his pride, a lifting force, that brought him to create his works. How many great artists have known the breathtaking prideful rise and the precipitous prideful fall?