About this work
Paul Hindemith wrote three works that he designated as "Cello Concerto," though he did not apply numbers to any of them. The 1916 Cello Concerto was a promising student work of some charm, and the 1940 Cello Concerto is a full-fledged essay in the form.
This work, however, is part of the series of seven works all carrying the title "Kammermusik" or "Chamber Music" that Hindemith wrote in the first decade of his fame in the 1920s. They are all to some extent inspired by J. S. Bach's set of Brandenburg Concertos. Like these models, they are all written for a different specially chosen assortment of instruments and are highly contrapuntal, with the sturdy, independent bass lines that mark the 1920s style of Neo-Classicism.
Here the cello is the first among equals of an eleven-piece mini-orchestra, of one each flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, the cello, and double bass. Although the cello opens the first movement with a solo passage, it takes the role of another member of the ensemble rather than a soloist, participating in equal counterpoint.
It is in the subsequent three movements that the cello occupies a dominant role, although all the other solo instruments have their times of equality with it, and also times when they play accompaniment in less contrapuntal sections. The first movement is semi-serious and academic in tone, the second movement allows the cello to be virtuosic, and the finale is a breezy march with the cello's partners chattering away behind it.
The heart of the work is a calm and lyrical slow third movement, longer than any two other movements combined, a very touching oasis amid the highly active other movements. Hindemith was adamant this movement in particular not be played with the kind of heavy, constantly applied vibrato and rubato that was common among cellists and negotiated with Oscar Fried, slated to be the first conductor of the piece to get his brother Rudolf to be the soloist, as Rudolf knew the style Paul wanted. This resulted in Hindemith himself leading the premiere (with Rudolf at his side) in Bochum on April 30, 1925.
The work was well received and its favor in the repertoire mirrored the general decline in Hindemith's reputation during the second half of the twentieth century, then its rapid recovery as twentieth-century tonality returned to favor, so that the seventeen-minute concerto has come to be regarded as a leading piece of the repertory of chamber music for larger ensembles.