String Trio, Op. 34
In the immediate aftermath of World War I, European composers, particularly in France and Germany, consciously sought new modes of expression that came to be known in France as neo-classicism, most notably in the works of Stravinsky and the Parisian group Les Six. The term implies a melding of musical tradition with the avant-garde; a movement to return to an aesthetic before the musical romanticism and expressionistic culture that were considered symptomatic of the attitudes that led to the war.
In Germany at this time, the neoclassical aesthetic found its equivalent in the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), that was embodied by the composer Paul Hindemith, whose music during this period displayed the “return to” emphasis on contrapuntal textures, linear energy, and clarity and conciseness of form; in a word, anti-romantic.
Hindemith composed his String Trio No. 1 in 1924, when he was simultaneously a virtuoso performer on the viola and a founding member of the Amar String Quartet and gaining notoriety as an enfant terrible composer. The opening Toccata is a tour de force of soloistic writing for the viola. Beginning with an explosive melodic line played in octaves that exposes all of the motives of the movement in a single sweep (and returns twice), it then gives way to stunning solo flights (especially for viola) accompanied by melodically contrasting counterpoint. The movement ends with cadenzas for each instrument just before the return of the opening theme. The second movement is a ternary structure steeped in imitative writing. A contrasting scherzo of pizzicato (plucked) in all three instruments dominates the third movement. The Trio ends with a multi-sectional fugue finale, alternating the exoteric fugue with a middle section of deep contemplation.