At just about the time when he wrote his Viola Sonata, Op. 11 no. 4, PAUL HINDEMITH became a violist. He had initially trained to be a violinist at the Frankfurt Hoch Conservatory, and added composition to his studies in 1912. In 1914, he joined the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra as a violinist, and by 1917 had been named its leader (concertmaster). But later that year, Hindemith was called up to the German army, first to play in a regimental band (playing bass drum) and later to fight in the trenches of Belgium; after the war, he returned to the opera orchestra, and asked to be placed in its viola section.
By 1919, Hindemith had put together a fair collection of works. As a young composer, he had studiously looked to late Romantic models; by this time, however, he had begun to shift his outlook much more to the modern. The viola sonata seems to have two major stylistic sources: first, the music of Debussy, reflected in expansive gesture, limpid harmony, and ambiguity of phrasing; second, his new interest in playing the viola, which the sonata indulges mightily. It is beautifully written for viola.
There is an anecdote about Hindemith and Debussy which not only reflects Hindemith’s respect for the great French composer, but also hints, in a broad way, at the roots of his notion of music composed for specific purposes (Gebrauchmusik) – except in this case the purpose he describes is not social and site-specific, but general and emotionally charged. When he first joined the military band, Hindemith formed a string quartet from its members, and on what must have been March 25, 1917, or soon after, they were reading through Debussy’s String Quartet. While they were playing, they were informed of Debussy’s death:
We did not play to the end. It was as if our playing had been robbed of the breath of life. But we realized for the first time that music is more than style, technique and the expression of powerful feelings. Music reached out beyond political boundaries, national hatred and the horrors of war. On no other occasion have I seen so clearly what direction music must take.