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Hidden Gems of the NLS Collection: Six Chansons by Paul Hindemith

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Paul Hindemith, half-length portrait, facing front. 1959. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

One of the many joys of digitizing the NLS music collection is coming across a piece of music that is unfamiliar, surprising, and beautiful. Being able to share this music with our patrons in an accessible format makes the experience even more satisfying. I recently encountered a choral work by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) in our holdings that struck me with its wonderfully simplistic tonal harmonies and beautiful melodic lines. While being known mainly for his instrumental works, Hindemith gave us a nature-themed collection of songs for unaccompanied choir: Six Chansons.

Hindemith composed Six Chansons in 1939 just before he started teaching at Yale. Even though he was primarily an instrumental composer, there were brief periods in his career when he composed music for a cappella choir. He was very fond of the music of the Renaissance, and he believed that unaccompanied singing was both an important teaching tool and a valuable community activity. For this particular set of chansons, he intentionally kept the part writing and harmonies simple and accessible enough for a choir of any ability to be able to perform it.

The text for Six Chansons came from a collection of poems written in French by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) in 1924. Both Hindemith and Rilke were driven from Germany because of their opposition to war, with Hindemith’s music having been condemned by the Nazis. Rilke left Germany in opposition to the First World War and settled in Valais, Switzerland. It was there that he would go on to write over 400 poems and also become acquainted with the Swiss musician Georges Haenni (1896-1980). While Hindemith and Rilke never met, it was Haenni who made Hindemith aware of these poems. Four days after being introduced to Rilke’s poetry while staying in Valais, Hindemith presented Haenni the manuscript for Six Chansons, with the dedication “To my good friend G. Haenni and his Chanson Valaisanne, from the newer resident of Valais to the older with best wishes.” According to Charles Alwes, “Thus, Hindemith’s settings of the French poems of his German countryman are a symbol of the affection that both he and Rilke felt for the Valais countryside that became their refuge.”

Of the over 400 poems that Rilke composed, 59 were part of the French collection Vergers, from which Hindemith chose six poems for his musical settings. Each song represents a peaceful aspect of nature, with two depicting animals (“The Doe” and “A Swan”), while others reflect on a season of time (“Springtime”, “In Winter”, and “Since all is Passing”). “The Orchard”, one of the livelier of the Chansons, is the lone movement to represent a natural setting, rather than a seasonal time or an animal.

We are fortunate at NLS to have four of the Six Chansons in our collection:

No. 1 La Biche (The Doe) (BRM23610)

No. 2 Un Cygne  (A Swan) (BRM04435)

No. 4 Verger  (Orchard) (BRM23604)

No. 5 En hiver (In Winter) (BRM23611)

We hope that you enjoyed learning about this “hidden gem.”  We look forward to uncovering more in the future as we continue to digitize our collection. In the meantime, please peruse these selections from the NLS Music Section that relate to Hindemith and his compositions. To borrow any materials mentioned above, you can download them from BARD, call us at 1-800-424-8567, extension 2, or email us at [email protected]. You can visit our website at any time to learn more about the services that NLS provides.


Hindemith, Paul. Das Marienleben für Sopran und Klavier. Gedichte nach Rainer Maria Rilke. Song cycle for soprano and piano; words and voice, acc. with outline. Line by line format. (BRM29641)

____ Elementary Training for Musicians. Exercises and examples in music braille accompanied by substantial instructional text. (BRM35563)

____ Interludium and Fuga Secunda in G from Ludas Tonalis. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM23354)

____ Sonata for B-flat Trumpet and Piano. Solo trumpet part only in single line format. (BRM24952)

____ Sonata for Flute and Piano. Flute part only in single line format. (BRM36151)

____ Traditional Harmony: with Emphasis on Exercises and a Minimum of Rules. A concentrated course in traditional harmony in 6 volumes in single line, bar over bar, and line by line formats. (BRM36418)

____ Zweite Sonate für Klavier. Bar over bar format. (BRM16050)

Talking Books

Brown, Nicholas. Hindemith’s Musical Responses to WWI. Nicholas Brown, a music specialist and concert producer in the Library of Congress Music Division, discusses German composer Paul Hindemith, who translated his reflections into poignant musical compositions that address many of the themes that pervade all types of global conflict, including death and loss of innocence. The Library of Congress holds several Hindemith manuscripts, as well as archival documents that relate to his career. (DBM04349)

Dangerfield, Marcia. The Narrated Life History of Schoenberg, Elgar, Scriabin, Hindemith, Messiaen, Britten, Arnold, Górecki, Cage and Nyman. Includes background music by these composers. (DBM03412)

Freedman, Ralph. Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke. This biography of the notable European poet is divided into two “books”: “The Young Poet” and “The Master.” Freedman details the contradictions between the poet’s inspired work and his heartless treatment of those around him. Rilke’s great works and extensive travels are chronicled, as well as his numerous affairs and courting of wealthy benefactors. (DB42795)

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Sonnets to Orpheus. Translated and with an introduction by David Young. A German-English bilingual edition of these world-famous sonnets created in 1922 to celebrate such diverse love objects as mirrors, dogs, fruit, ancient sarcophagi, roses, and childhood. (DB28639)

____ Uncollected Poems. One hundred and ten poems, written between 1908 and 1923, presented in both the original German and in English. Translator Edward Snow asserts that this period “between great works” was actually a creative and fertile one, despite critical opinion, as evidenced by “The Spanish Trilogy” and “The Raising of Lazarus.”  (DB43124)

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