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The Metamorphosis of Hindemith

Paul Hindemith

It’s an odd name for an odd work that almost wasn’t written. But it premiered 72 years ago this week, and as WRTI’s Kile Smith reports, this piece by Paul Hindemith is one of the most popular orchestral works of the 20th century.

Choreographer Léonide Massine approached Paul Hindemith in 1940 with a new project. They had already worked together, so this time, why not create a ballet on music by the 19th-century composer Carl Maria von Weber? Hindemith liked it, but when he played him some ideas, Massine couldn’t hear the Weber. For his part, Hindemith saw some of the dancer’s latest work and didn’t take to it.

More than an arrangement; something other than variations

So the project fell through. Hindemith kept working on the music, though, wanting to create an American orchestral showpiece, as he and his wife had just settled in the U.S. He finished it in 1943 and the New York Philharmonic premiered it in 1944.

The Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber is a mouthful of a title, but it is accurate. It’s more than an arrangement, and something other than variations, either of which would have suited Massine. Hindemith actually stays fairly close to the piano duet melodies he uses—usually—but he transforms everything else. Sometimes Weber is clearly heard and sometimes not, but Hindemith creates orchestral magic.

It was an immediate success. Hindemith became an American citizen in 1946, and one of the great 20th-century composers, with no small help from the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.