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Paul Hindemith: Suite for Mechanical Organ (Triadic Ballet), fourth movement

From the album Paul Hindemith Organ Concertos / Suite for Mechanical Organ

The frenzy for all things mechanical in 1920s Europe possessed not only architecture, design, painting, and film, but also music and dance. Perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of the whole movement was the Triadic Ballet, an abstract theater piece by Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer

Although he was trained as a visual artist, rather than as a choreographer or actor, Schlemmer was the primary figure associated with stage productions at the Bauhaus. He welcomed the merger of the arts and hailed the “confusion of artistic concepts” as the sign of a dawning new order. Schlemmer understood his innovations in theater as a continuation of the experimental tendencies explored in the abstract film and stage production of the early 1920s. 

First performed in 1922, the Triadic Ballet received its most famous presentation at the festival for new music in the small Black Forest town of Donaueschingen in 1926. The work comprised three major sections, each further subdivided into a series of short dances. Each section is characterized by a dominant color and mood: the first series is lemon yellow and “jovial-burlesque,” the second is pink and “ceremonial-solemn,” the third is black and “mystic-fantastic.” 


A schematic overview of the individual dances in Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet

In Schlemmer’s costumes for the Triadic Ballet, the impetus toward abstraction that dominated the visual arts in the early 20th century is extended to the human body.  He sought to reduce the body to its constitutive shapes in order to establish the basic dynamics of motion derived from the formal properties of the organism. Through their abstract shapes and their constriction of natural bodily motion, the costumes were intended to enforce a discipline and at the same time enable a new freedom of movement.image

Sketches from Schlemmer’s essay “Man and Art Figure”

To accompany the 1926 performance, composer Paul Hindemith created original music for the Welte-Philharmonie mechanical organ by punching holes by hand in the paper rolls that controlled the instrument’s automatic playback mechanism.  Although the rolls were destroyed in World War II, the music survives in this period recording of a reworking of the Triadic Ballet suite’s first movement. 

Hindemith’s score is in the characteristic madcap style that marks much of the "mechanical music" of the period. While he would later champion the use of automatic instruments as a means of providing musical accompaniment to silent film (in 1928 he wrote a mechanical organ piece for the then-popular "Felix the Cat" cartoon), Hindemith would before long give up on composing for mechanical instruments, which were soon overshadowed by radio, phonograph, and the emergence of the first electrophones.

Response to the Triadic Ballet varied from acclaim to dismay and everything in between. One critic questioned why, in a world of automobiles, airplanes, and neon signs, the dancers should not themselves be automatons. He drolly noted that the only thing missing was a mechanical audience that automatically whistled and applauded.  

Played 419 time(s).

June 03, 2012, 9:54pm

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Paul Hindemith: “Trio”


Undated drawing by Paul Hindemith (from the book Der Komponist als Zeichner)

November 07, 2011, 10:57am

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Paul Hindemith: Des kleinen Elektromusikers Lieblinge (1930) 

From the album Elektronische Impressionen

In 1930, a new electric instrument was unveiled: named after its inventor, the engineer Friedrich Trautwein, the Trautonium was a monophonic instrument in which the touch of the player’s finger pressed a wire against an underlying metal strip, closing the circuit and generating a tone. Following musical convention, the frequency of the generated tone increased as the player’s finger moved from left to right. Like many other first-wave electric instruments, the Trautonium allowed a continuous glissando between tones, but to enable more precise staccato playing, Trautwein affixed a number of leather “tongues” above the metal strip, which could be positioned to mark the pitches of a scale. Thus the instrument could be played either directly on the metal band, or through the configurable keys.

To show off the new instrument, the German composer Paul Hindemith, at that time among the most famous figures in European music, wrote a set of seven short pieces for three Trautoniums. Hindemith’s composition was called Des kleinen Elektromusikers Lieblinge (The Little Electro-musician’s Favorites), and was premiered at the New Music Berlin festival in 1930. The character of the pieces is typical of Hindemith’s 1920s compositional style: sprightly, contrapuntal, and tonal, yet suffused with pungent dissonances. The structure of this piece, the sixth in the set, is a simple ternary form (ABA) followed by a brief cadenza for each of the instruments and a coda. The resulting mix of futuristic, otherworldly sounds and neoclassical formal molds is uniquely characteristic of the early 20th-century phenomenon known as “electric music.”

In 1933, the radio company Telefunken began mass-producing a simplified model of the instrument called the Volkstrautonium, but like virtually all the electric instruments of the period, this device was doomed to failure by a combination of socio-economic turmoil and a resilient culture of musical technophobia. In spite of its flop as a consumer instrument, the Trautonium enjoyed a substantial afterlife, primarily through the single-handed advocacy of the instrument’s sole virtuoso, Oskar Sala. Around 1950, Sala began developing a new, expanded form of the instrument he called a Mixturtrautonium, which featured a number of improvements, including the ability to generate subharmonic frequencies below the primary tone. Sala’s instrument was used in a number of film soundtracks of the time, most famously in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). 


(This photograph shows a later, three-voice version of the Trautonium, developed in the mid-1930s. Notice the three terraced manuals, consisting of flat strips of metal overlaid with “tongues” corresponding roughly to the keys of a piano. The extensions on either side of the manuals contain the tone-generating circuitry and feature dials to adjust the timbre. The pedals are for volume and additional timbre control.)

Played 189 time(s).

May 31, 2011, 2:57pm

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