The tale of a poetic viola concerto

By Bridget Kinneary

Der Schwanendreher
is one of three major concertos in the traditional viola repertoire. It stands alongside William Walton and Bela Bartok’s concertos. This masterpiece will be performed on February 6th at 8:00 pm at Kodak Hall at the Eastman School of Music by winner of the 2014-15 Eastman Viola Concerto Competition, Sergio Muñoz. Sergio is currently in his first year of his Masters Degree at Eastman, where is also enrolled in the Arts Leadership Program. He studies viola with professor Carol Rodland. Learn more about Sergio on our Musicians of Rochester page.

Hindemith’s style of composition and outlook on the value of music is paradoxical. On one hand, Hindemith valued the idea of “Gebrauchsmusik,” or music that connects the listener, the composer, and the audience in an accessible way by drawing on early music and folk songs.  On the other hand, he devised his own harmonic language, comprised of brilliant counterpoint, genius rhythmical devices, and harmonies that are unusual to the untrained ear. He once said of his music:

 “We are also making music, but the kind that only specially prepared ears can bear. Best of all, those that are stuffed with cotton. We have committed the crime of creating a drama with music, to be performed after the New Year. You, too, are cordially invited to attend. But please, bring some aspirin along.”

 Needless to say, Hindemith was also known for his sense of humor.

 Der Schwanendreher  features elements of Gebrauchsmusik and Hindemith’s own harmonic and rhythmical language. All three movements are based on traditional German folk music, and each movement is embellished in a different and exciting way.  Hindemith’s deep love and appreciation for the viola is also made apparent throughout the work. Hindemith played the viola extremely well, and he used all of his musical devices to write music that highlights the chocolate tone of the instrument and brings out the best of its sonic capabilities. For starters, the orchestra that accompanies the Violist in Der Schwanendreher has no violins or violas! Hindemith's hope: to allow the sound of the viola to project easier.

 The first movement, Zwischen Berg und tiefem Tal [between mountain and deep valley]Opens with a lengthy viola solo which draws the audience into the performance. The first chord itself, which is very challenging for violists to play, features the highest and lowest note played in the first position. Its resonance sets the soundscape for the rest of the movement, which then leads to a series of faster, rhythmically driving segments. The folk tune that first movement is based on is as follows:


Zwischen Berg und tiefem Tal
Da leit ein freie Strassen.
Wer seinen Buhlen nit haben mag,
Der muss ich fahren lassen.


Tween mountain and deep valley
There runs a free road.
He who has not a sweetheart
May not walk upon it.


The second movement, which opens with a duet between viola and harp, is vastly different than the first. It features slow, melancholy melodies and is in a reverent mood. The folk tune, which was premiered in the 16th century for a religious feast, is as follows:


Nun laube, Lindlein laube,
Nicht langer ich's ertrag:
Ich hab mein Lieb verloren,
Hab gar ein traurig Tag.


Shed your leaves, little Linden,
I can no longer bear it.
I have lost my own beloved,
have such a mournful day.

 Sandwiched between two segments of this slow music, Hindemith inserts a comical, repetitive fuge inspired by this folk tune:

Der Gutzgauch auf dem Zaune sass,
Es regnet sehr und er ward nass.


The Cuckoo sat out on the fence.
Twas raining hard and he was wet.


In German folklore, cuckoos are known to symbolize pain, in this case, pain from lost love.

 Der Schwanendreher ‘s third movement closes out the work  with a sweeping set of eleven variations on this folk tune:


Seid ihr nicht der Schwanendreher,
Seid ihr nicht derselbig Mann?
So drehet mir den Schwan.
So hab ich glauben dran.
Und dreht ihr mir den Schwanen nit,
Seid ihr kein Schwanendreher nit,
Dreht mir den Schwanen.


Are you not the swan-turner
Are you not the very same man?
So turn the swan for me,
So that I can believe it.
If you do not turn the swan for me,
then you are no swan-turner;
turn the swan for me.


This movement is arguably the most technically demanding for the violist to play because of its lightning fast passages, challenging melodic patterns, and extensive use of double stops.

 By this time you’re probably wondering:  “What’s a swan turner anyway?!” Well, a swan turner was one who would roast swans by turning them over a spit in the medieval times when they were still eaten.

 Come on out and roast a swan with Sergio Muñoz at Eastman on Feb. 6th, 8pm, in Kodak Hall when he plays Der Schwanendreher accompanied by members of the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra.   



This post is by Bridget Kinneary, WXXI Classical 91.5’s current intern. She is a senior at the Eastman School of Music where she majors in Viola Performance and Music Education. She is also enrolled in the Arts Leadership Program. To read more about Bridget, visit her website: