Phrase Endings and Hand Shapes: A performer's analysis of cadence and gesture in Hindemith's "Sonata for Solo Viola"

Chris Cundiff, Texas Tech University

Much enduring musical literature lies at the crossroads of intellectual, purposeful composition and performability. In the best cases the two work in tandem, so that the inclusion of one necessitates the other. As a viola soloist himself, Hindemith's works for the instrument often seem to blend ease of facility and the articulation of structure through the use of hand shapes, simply the pattern of whole tones and semitones that make up the string player's left hand position.

In his The Craft of Musical Composition, Hindemith outlines what he believes to be the underlying concepts of harmony and pitch centricity. Hindemith argues that theory should be built around intervals rather than whole chords. Although Hindemith's theorizing falls short in some practical areas, his ideas that intervallic relationships should drive music are exhibited clearly in his works for solo viola. The Sonata for Solo Viola (1937) exhibits the composer's translation of his theoretical stance into purposeful use of handshapes within the piece. Especially around cadences, particular hand shapes are used with greater frequency, and correlate with the intervallic content at the given cadence. In this presentation, I explore the intervallic content of each cadence in the first movement of the Sonata, and how the performer's different handshapes correspond with the "strength" of each cadence - strength as defined elsewhere in The Craft of Musical Composition. From this basis I speculate that Hindemith's melodic pitch content, and perhaps even parts of his theory, may have emerged from an embodied or performative approach to composition.