Hindemith’s Opera Trilogy

By Giselher Schubert, Director, Hindemith Institute Frankfurt

Written for the concert Opera Scandal 1920s, performed on March 5, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Paul Hindemith’s triptych of one-act operas—Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen, Opus 12 (1919), Das Nusch-Nuschi, Opus 20 (1920) and Sancta Susanna, Opus 21 (1921)—were created during a time of dramatic social change, a time Hindemith himself experienced and during which, in his words, “the old world exploded” and the only existing form of movement was a whirl.

The German state of the Kaiser was broken after losing a world war from which the soldier Hindemith escaped alive “through a miracle.” Attempts to overthrow the government battered the young republic, which could barely contain its enemies from both left and right. Inflation grew to higher and higher peaks. The sociologist Karl Mannheim described the life experience of the time as “consciousness-bearing” (Bewusstseinshaltung) for which “all ideas have been blamed, all utopias disintegrated.” In the arts this time was mirrored blatantly in the distinct movements of late romanticism to expressionism, from impressionism to surrealism. Hindemith later avowed “I have experienced the transition from conservative training into a new freedom perhaps more thoroughly than most. What was new had to be transversed if exploration was to happen; that this was neither harmless nor without danger is something anyone who took part of this process of exploration knows.”

The “new” that had to be transversed was, for Hindemith, expressionism. At that time he turned to the avant-garde newspaper Das Kunstblatt, owned volumes of the most important publication of expressionist literature Der Jüngste Tag [The New Day] and counted among his friends the critic Bernhard Diebold, who already in 1920 had published the first manifestation of expressionist drama under the succinct title “Anarchy in Drama.” The breakthrough work of this expressionism was Oskar Kokoschka’s 1909 play Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen [Murderer, Hope of Women], a barely comprehensible archetypal plot in which the battle of the sexes was portrayed in the manner of the adventurous-abstruse theories of Otto Weininker. Hindemith had discovered Kokoschka’s text in the series Der Jüngste Tag and, fascinated by the sheer musicality of Kokoschka’s dialogue, set it to music in a few weeks during the summer of 1919, at the age of twenty-three. Unable to find an anchor in the obscure meaning of the words, he expressed the subject of the piece with an instrumental form that rests on the antagonism of thematic groupings: the sonata. Direct expression and deliberate formal design are not at odds in this expressionism, but rather rely on each other. Hindemith’s music here certainly still bears a late-romantic tonality; the direct references to Wagner are also hard to miss.

The one-act Sancta Susanna, written over a two-week period in January/February 1921, sets itself abruptly apart from the other two works on tonight’s program. It offers a score of great suggestiveness and emotional directness without obvious references or direct models. At the same time, it is through the inclusion of this work that the triptych attains a thematic closed cycle about sexuality, repression and punishment. Mörder takes place in antiquity, and sexuality is represented as archetypal battle of the sexes—the punishment is meted through branding with fire and the violence begets an apotheosis of catastrophe. Das Nusch-Nuschi takes place in the “Far East,” sexuality is experienced in sensual, joyful abandon, and punishment follows through a castration that was no longer necessary and which founders in laughter. Sancta Susanna in turn takes place in the Christian West; sexuality is experienced as an abyss of desire punished by “institutional” repression and confinement. These subjects provoked a negative reaction in Hindemith’s contemporaries of a force that the composer perhaps had not expected. The indignation was more extreme perhaps because the superior quality of Hindemith’s music was beyond question. The premiere of Mörder and Nusch-Nuschi on June 4, 1921, in Stuttgart by Fritz Busch—who had refused to perform Sancta Susanna for moral reasons—elicited a press scandal. “This performance signifies a desecration of our cultural institutions. The content itself is of indescribable vulgarity. All that is sacred to us is dragged through the mud by this non-German spirit,” was the outraged review of the critic Karl Gunsky. The premiere of the triptych on March 26, 1922, elicited public protests and even expiatory devotions by the Catholic Women’s League in Frankfurt. In Hamburg, members of the audience had to pledge in writing to abstain from disrupting the performances. As recently as 1977, a production in Rome caused the director of the opera house to be fined.

In contrast, the one-act piece Das Nusch-Nuschi, which Hindemith wrote only one year later during the summer of 1920, openly parodies the music of Wagner—most notably, the infamous quotation from Tristan und Isolde which appears, of all places, in the castration episode in the third scene. Hindemith, with his music, certainly parodies almost the entire compositional canon of the turn of the nineteenth century. He quotes from Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, mocks the exoticism of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde by employing celesta, mandolin, harp and English Horn, interrupts the tender mood-filled music with the screeches of two trained monkeys, or parodies the “neo-baroque” of Reger with an adventurous “choral fugue” to which, as he indicates in the score, two eunuchs “with enormous naked bellies should dance.” In this music he wraps the principles of expressionism in the parody of its expression, in the grotesque.

Hindemith himself originally stood firmly by these works that had afforded him quick fame and that earned him the reputation of iconoclast and bogey of the middle classes, something he longed to be less and less. In 1924 he even wrote another scene for Das Nusch-Nuschi, one which in the end he did not find satisfactory. In 1934, at the height of the Nazi campaign against him, he asked his publishers not to make these works accessible anymore and in 1958 he withdrew them completely. In 1975, however, twelve years after his death, the complete edition of his works was made public, beginning with Sancta Susanna. Performances of this newly available triptych are still rare; tonight’s performance by Maestro Botstein represents its American premiere, eighty years after its creation.

(Translated by Susana Meyer)

Opera Scandal 1920s

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Opera Scandal 1920s, performed on March 5, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The impetus for tonight’s program is the need to revisit the career of one of the twentieth century’s most influential composers. Paul Hindemith was one of the most prolific composers in recent history, as well as one of modernity’s most important teachers. Born near Frankfurt in 1895, he began his public career not only as a composer but also as an instrumentalist. He was an accomplished violinist who rose to the position of concertmaster of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra at the age of twenty-two. But his real reputation as a performer came primarily with his turn to the viola, an instrument for which he wrote an enormous amount of music and on which he was one of the leading practitioners of the day. Hindemith also distinguished himself from the beginning as a composer. His principal teacher was Bernhard Sekles, the eminent German-Jewish composer.

Hindemith first burst onto the scene in the post-World War I period. He quickly came to be regarded as a leader of the post-War avant-garde, but the fame which he had acquired during the Weimar Republic came to haunt him when the regime changed in 1933. The Nazi campaign against “degenerate” music was directed not only at Jews but at modernists, the symbols of the progressive aesthetic experiments associated with the Weimar period. Despite his Aryan background and the nationalists’ celebration of him as a great German talent, Hindemith was not exempt from the Nazis’ ire, especially that of Joseph Goebbels. The Nazi attack contained more than one aspect of inconsistency. As the 1920s progressed, Hindemith’s accomplishments were increasingly in harmony with the right-wing call for a renewal of active music-making and of a national cultural revival based in populist amateurism, singing, and instrumental playing. This movement disparaged the arcane and oblique language of the avant-garde. Hindemith, who embraced the “new objectivity [neue Sachlichkeit],” held views that could have been perceived as compatible with this cultural agenda. In this sense his compositional ambitions went in a different direction from those pursued by the Berlin-based Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils. But despite all this, Hindemith’s reputation from the early 1920s as a radical and confrontational figure was not effaced. The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler tried to intervene with the Nazi authorities on behalf of Hindemith. Furtwängler was convinced that Hindemith was the most important young composer of the age. In 1933 Hindemith occupied himself with writing the opera Mathis der Maler from which he also extracted a symphony. The first performance of the Mathis der Maler Symphony in 1934 in Berlin was a great success. However, Hindemith continued to be attacked and although Furtwängler went to great lengths to protect him (including an audience with Adolf Hitler), the composer was forced to emigrate.

In 1935 Hindemith found himself in Turkey, from whence he traveled to Switzerland. He ultimately emigrated to the United States. From 1940, he taught both at Tanglewood and at Yale University. Among his pupils were Easley Blackwood, Lukas Foss, and Harold Shapero. In his “American period,” which lasted until the early 1950s, Hindemith emerged as an extremely tough and conservative personality. He was not only legendarily hard on his pupils and critical of their abilities, but his music became more traditional in its ambitions. He struggled hard to maintain high standards of compositional craft against a tide of what he considered to be undisciplined fashion in the continuing avant-garde of the post-war era. As a result he published extensively on music theory and the art of composition. He called on performers and composers alike to command a formidable range of musical skills. By the end of the 1950s he moved back to Switzerland. He died suddenly in 1963.

In the near half-century that has elapsed since his death, most of Hindemith’s music has disappeared from the active repertory. His most performed orchestral works are the concerti he wrote for instruments for which the concerto literature is thin, such as horn and viola. Occasionally, one may find a performance of the Symphonic Metamorphoses after Themes by Weber (1943) or the Mathis der Maler Symphony (1934). But Hindemith’s long career was so evolutionary and varied that these great works provide only a partial view of this composer’s output and achievement. Tonight’s program focuses on the first period of his compositional development. To many observers it is precisely the early Hindemith, works written before Mathis der Maler, that is the most compelling. This phase of his career includes all of the Kammermusik pieces as well as the brilliant opera Cardillac (1926) and several other works for the stage, including Hin und zurück, Op. 45a (1927) and Neues vom Tage (1929).

The three one-act operas presented tonight catapulted Hindemith to notoriety. The last of these to be composed, Sancta Susanna, seemed so outrageous at the time that even as progressive a man as Fritz Busch declined to perform it. In middle age, Hindemith himself suppressed it. His is not the first case of a composer reconsidering the ethical and moral character of earlier works. In the 1960s Shostakovich brought his maturity to bear on the youthful bravado of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1932), for example. The source of anxiety in Sancta Susanna, however, was never the music, but the libretto. The same is true of the sadistic depiction of sexuality in Kokoschka’s play, which Hindemith set with minimal alteration, and of the cruel humor of Das Nusch-Nuschi, in which the comedic music contrasts sharply with the subject matter of castration and the orientalist depiction of an inhuman society and irrational fate. It may seem incredible to some of us today that these operas shocked audiences through their audacious subject matter.

But in order to understand why Hindemith was so deliberately scandalous, one must remember the historical moment of these operas’ composition. As Professor Giselher Schubert rightly points out, the 1920s was the time when a generation was staggered by the senseless brutality and carnage of World War I. The claims of reason, assertions of political ideologies, and high-minded moralizing of official religions inevitably provoked a pervasive cynicism when “civilized” Europe enthusiastically embraced a war that appeared to have little purpose or rationale. The rage at those in power and at the cultural values of the educated and elite classes who displayed such smug confidence in 1914 was palpable throughout Europe. It provided a source of profound artistic energy and ambition. The shock of Hindemith’s triptych, like many other works of the time, was an attempt to articulate the hypocrisy of the traditional beliefs that mandated such a catastrophic war. The operas force the issue of how such concepts as romantic love, fidelity, and spiritual obedience could possibly continue to be taken seriously. But as in all immediate responses to tragic destruction, when time passed and Hindemith’s world rebuilt itself, his early operas seemed to him unnecessarily stark and provocative, and he renounced them. Nevertheless, they remain musically brilliant, and provide a fascinating perspective on the early life and creativity of a great composer.

Gefesselten Prometheus des Aeschylos, Concert Overture Op. 38 (1889)

By Benjamin M. Korstvedt, Clark University

Written for the concert Opera Scandal 1920s, performed on March 5, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Karl Goldmark (1830-1915) may not be counted among the Great Composers, but he was a very good composer. He was long an important, well-respected figure in Central European music life, and at his zenith was so esteemed and well-connected that he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of St. Leopold by the Austrian Court in 1896 and an honorary doctorate from Budapest University in 1910. Throughout his life, Goldmark’s musical sympathies were broad and non-sectarian. He was friendly with Brahms and was made an honorary member of the tradition-minded Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde as early as 1866, yet he also championed Wagner’s music and supported the founding of an Academic Wagner Society in Vienna in 1872.

Goldmark’s compositional work was equally wide-ranging. He worked in all of the important genres of his time, particularly opera and symphonic music, and created a number of works of real distinction. His six operas form a diverse and ambitious group, including one on an Old Testament story (The Queen of Sheba), one derived from Arthurian legend (Merlin), one after Dickens’s The Cricket on the Hearth, and one after Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. His dozen orchestral works display a similar range. The Violin Concerto, Op. 28 (1877) was an important concert piece for several generations of soloists and his “Rustic Wedding” Symphony (1876), which is still fairly well known, makes for provocative comparison with contemporaneous symphonic works by Brahms, Dvořák, and Bruckner. Between 1865 and 1913 Goldmark composed a total of seven concert overtures, of which the Overture to Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, Op. 38 of 1889 was the fifth. In these works he adopted a rather more adventurous style, as is typical for the genre, than he did in his symphonies and concertos.

The myth of Prometheus, with its theme of defiant transgression and immovable will, had great resonance for the romantic mind and attracted a number of outstanding composers in the nineteenth century. Beethoven composed music for a ballet entitled The Creatures of Prometheus and later used a theme from its finale in the last movement of his “Eroica” Symphony. Liszt, who like Goldmark was a Hungarian working in the German-speaking music world, had devoted one of his best symphonic poems to Prometheus. Goldmark’s Prometheus Bound Overture is a communicative and effective work grounded solidly in the mainstream of late-romantic program music. Despite its title, the work is more a symphonic poem than an overture. It was not composed as a prelude to a performance of Aeschylus’s tragedy, nor is it directly based on a narrative program; rather, Goldmark created a Lisztian character study that conveys in music Prometheus’s lonely longing, misery, and dauntlessness, as well as the external force of Zeus’s wrath.

Goldmark’s Prometheus uses a large traditional orchestra, complete with three flutes, three trumpets, four trombones, and a bass tuba. The work begins with a spacious Adagio introduction (marked “Feierlich still und ruhig”) containing three distinct sections that prefigure elements of the main movement: a mournful C-minor opening, a grandiose proclamation in dotted rhythms featuring the brass, and a series of espressivo solos in the woodwinds (which, as the old Standard Concert Guide suggested, may represent the voices of alluring Oceanids). The main Allegro con brio is based on two main thematic groups. The primary theme emerges from a burst of turbulent music in the strings and begins with a sharply profiled motive forcefully declaimed by the horns, bassoons and violins (Zeus’s angry voice, perhaps). This is followed by a strong, agitated response in the orchestra (possibly depicting Prometheus’s defiance) that develops into a full thematic paragraph before the well-defined second theme group arrives. This broadly drawn section involves a series of lyrical woodwind solos followed by a tenderly nostalgic melody in the violins. The central section of the movement vigorously develops the conflicts of the opening theme group as it builds to a staggering orchestral restatement of the music that began the Allegro. The full reprise of the second theme group that follows rises to a soaring statement only to break off just as it is about to crest. An urgent passage intrudes and quickly moves through a series of peaks and valleys, with the horns and trombone making a series of chromatic entries, and drives to a strong C-minor tonic cadence. The coda begins with a loud funeral knell by the brass and timpani before subsiding with gentle solos by clarinet and flute and coming to a pianissimo close.

Opera Scandal 1920s

03/05/2004 at 08:00 PM – Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

    Concert Notes