Paul Hindemith was in the final stages of his creative output when he composed the Octet in 1957–58. By then, perhaps, he may have become embittered that the vanguard of contemporary music seemed to have spurned him after embracing him as “The Future” immediately following World War Two. He had done his stint at Yale and apparently found that dissatisfying as well, for he had returned to Europe to live out his final days primarily in Zürich.
The instrumentation of the Octet is almost exactly that of the Schubert Octet, but with the substitution of a second viola for the second violin: clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, 2 violas, cello, and double bass. The second viola makes a surprisingly profound impact on the overall sound of the ensemble, lending it a much darker and drier texture than that of the Schubert. This transformation is well-suited to Hindemith’s acerbic style.
The piece resembles its apparent models the Beethoven Septet as well as the Schubert Octet in that it is comprised of several movements. Just as do the minuets in those pieces, two scherzos trisect this piece, and they offer perhaps the most inspired music in it. In particular, the skittering violas at the end of the first scherzo are a delight.
Hindemith’s critics (notably the conductor Ernest Ansermet) have complained that much of his late oeuvre sounds more like theory exercises than music. The Octet may not fully escape this appraisal, but the instrumental parts provide great satisfaction to play. The horn part in particular is active and covers most registers of the horn. Some of the passages require diligent preparation, especially the opening of the final movement. But like most horn parts by Hindemith, everything is playable and grateful to the instrument.
Many horn players seem not to be aware of Hindemith’s Octet. Perhaps this is due to it being buried in Schott’s rental catalog. Schott seems to have done essentially nothing to promote it in the decades since it was written. One might even say they have suppressed it. That seems to be the inexplicable fate of many twentieth and twenty-first century works languishing in the catalogs of mainstream music publishers. This gives us all the more reason to thank the Brooklyn Chamber Music Society for posting the linked performance video to Youtube.
Because more than fifty years have elapsed since Hindemith died, his catalog has passed into the public domain in a few countries, one of which is Canada. This means that the score and parts are now freely available on IMSLP. Nevertheless, residents of the United States or Europe or other region where the copyright term is life plus 70 must still rent the parts to perform the piece legally in public.