The Long Christmas Dinner — From Page to Stage

by Tappan Wilder

Written for the event The Long Christmas Dinner, performed on December 19, 2014 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

The Long Christmas Dinner is one of six short plays by Thornton Wilder published jointly by major publishers in the U.S. and Great Britain in November 1931. The playwright was thirty-four years old and dividing his year between writing, lecturing, and teaching comparative literature and composition at the University of Chicago.

Wilder’s one-act plays integrated different theatrical forms—from broad farce to satirical comedy; classical tragedy to grand melodrama, with touches of parody, irony, and pathos along the way. Wilder privately described three of the plays—The Long Christmas Dinner, Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, and Pullman Car Hiawatha—as his “cosmic ones.” In these plays, he experimented with such innovative dramatic techniques as pantomime, non-linear time schemes, elimination of literal scenery, and a substitution of conventional plot-and-conflict structure. He explored Everyman themes of birth, life, and death. Death was especially present in these three works; it is a stalking presence at ninety years of meals around the same table in The Long Christmas Dinner.

Wilder was still unknown to the public as a dramatist in 1931. He had wanted to be a playwright from an early age, and published many short dramatic pieces as a student, including a full-length drama (which suffered an indifferent critical response off-Broadway in 1926), and had even, in 1928, published a book of sixteen 3-minute playlets titled The Angel that Troubled the Waters and Other Plays. But this slender volume contained plays designed to be enjoyed in a comfortable chair before the fire. Our Town, his first full-length Broadway play and the work that opened the door to his theatrical fame, still lay seven years in the future. His breakthrough into the world of literature came not through plays, but through the (hugely) best-selling novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Wilder found important publishers for his short plays because, in a period when drama was read as literature, Wilder had admirers in the world of print only too happy to feed his following with new titles, whatever the content.

And Wilder was in agreement with the way in which his plays were introduced to the world. From 1931 to the end of his life, he held the view that both his playlets and his short plays were, first and foremost, literary rather than dramatic exercises. Case in point, in 1947, Wilder selected the distinguished German translator of his fiction and non-fiction to translate his one-acts, rather than the well known translator of his major plays, saying: “I have never regarded the shorter plays as really practical drama, but as belles-lettres.”

And despite the coming of the Great Depression, Wilder’s dramatic contribution to belles-lettres sold well and attracted much thoughtful comment on both sides of the Atlantic. While Time magazine damned the book as limited to the “intelligentsia” and “affluent” and dismissed The Long Christmas Dinner as “Alice’s mad tea-party in Wonderland,” The New York Times described the title play and several of its companion pieces as “very near to miniature masterpieces.” The Scottish Stage hailed the works (especially the cosmic plays) and saluted Wilder as a writer “bound by no confines of nationality,” possessing “the universal quality which is a greatness in itself.”

Fortunately, it turned out that Wilder’s belles-lettres played on the stage as well as they read on the page. In the 1930s, one-act plays flourished in schools, colleges, community playhouses, and living rooms large enough to accommodate monthly gatherings of the local play-reading group. In these environs, Wilder’s short plays put down roots quickly. Wilder himself was responsible for planting the first seeds by providing proof copies of the forthcoming volume to directors of undergraduate dramatic clubs. The response was quick; within six weeks of the book’s publication on November 1, 1931, all six of the plays had world premieres by undergraduates from four colleges. In a historic collaboration that attracted national attention, The Long Christmas Dinner was first produced on November 25, 1931 by the Yale Dramatic Association and the Vassar Philalethesis at the Yale University Theater in New Haven, Connecticut; other plays in the volume were produced at The University of Chicago and Antioch College. The faculty directors of the three productions were all acquaintances or friends of the budding playwright.

Eighty-three years and hundreds of performances later, Wilder’s one-acts continue to flourish in the one-act habitat described above. But their stature as timeless works of art that wrestle deeply with our humanity have also led to well-received productions Off-Broadway and on notable professional stages around the country, and on radio and television. A story of a very long Christmas dinner has also been translated into some seven languages, and, as you will see tonight, been adapted as an opera. True, it has never played Broadway like The Happy Journey, which made it to the Cort Theatre as a curtain raiser in 1947. But tonight, The Long Christmas Dinner can claim the no less fabled address of Lincoln Center, where we all have a seat at its table.

For additional information on Wilder’s 1931 one-acts, now called “Wilder’s Classic One-Act Plays,” visit thorntonwilder.com and thorntonwildersociety.org.

Tappan Wilder is Thornton Wilder’s nephew and literary executor, and the manager of his literary and dramatic properties.

Thornton Wilder and Music — A Note

by Tappan Wilder

Written for the event The Long Christmas Dinner, performed on December 19, 2014 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Thornton Wilder’s collaboration with Paul Hindemith on the opera The Long Christmas Dinner reveals an intriguing aspect of the author’s creative life: his close, complex relationship with music.

During his lifetime, with some exception, Thornton Wilder rejected requests from composers eager to turn his two major dramas, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, into operas or musicals. He did permit Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman to fashion The Matchmaker into Hello, Dolly! and he collaborated as librettist with composer Louise Talma on the full-length opera The Alcestiad. Wilder did grant rights to Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green in 1965 for a musical, stage adaptation of The Skin of Our Teeth. That venture collapsed. When Bernstein returned later, now seeking opera rights for The Skin of Our Teeth, Wilder shut the door with a definitive no! Bernstein was not alone on the outside. Wilder also said “no” to musical and/or opera rights for his two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays to many others over the years, including Aaron Copland, Howard Deitz, Ned Rorem, and Italy’s Luciano Chailly. Television adaptations were a different matter; as a general rule he viewed these rights as one-time, financially favorable opportunities. He thus permitted an NBC Producers Showcase musical of Our Town in 1955 that opened the heavenly door for Frank Sinatra to sing Sammy Cahn’s and Jimmy Van Heusen’s Emmy-award winning song, “Love and Marriage.” Fortunately, he was also open to seeing his shorter plays put to music.

Wilder did not make these decisions based on inexperience or lack of knowledge. On the contrary, from the time he was a boy, music played a vital role in Wilder’s creative life and provided a source of inspiration for his pen. Though very few details of this chapter in Wilder’s life are known, the early building blocks are clear: a supportive mother, violin and piano lessons, participation in an Episcopal boy’s choir—that well-known training ground for the life-long love of all things choral—and ready access to major music concerts. On April 29, 1909, twelve-year-old Thornton wrote to his grandmother from his home in Berkeley, California, “We had a Bach Festival Thursday in which the Mass in B miner [sic] was given with great success. The Chicago Symphony orchestra is coming…”

Through his teens and early college years, music and writing represented all but equal passions. As a high school sophomore at Thacher School in California, he wrote, produced, and starred in his own first play. He also played violin in the school orchestra and performed solo concerts on piano and violin. At Oberlin College, where Wilder attended his first two years of university, he published drama, prose, and poetry, sang in choirs, and, as a sophomore, studied organ at the Oberlin Conservatory. When Wilder later transferred to Yale, John Farrar, one of his new undergraduate friends, would recall in 1928 that Wilder was, “from the start, interested in the literary and dramatic undergraduate activities, and perhaps even more in music.”

At Yale, Wilder’s interests shifted decisively away from music to literature and drama. Yet, throughout much of his life, Thornton Wilder, celebrated playwright and novelist, remained an excellent sight-reader, devoted four hand pianist, and concertgoer. He had a special interest in attending rehearsals, where he enjoyed watching a work being constructed. He referenced music often in letters, wrote about music in his private journals, and annotated sheet music as a serious hobby, claiming to be able to hear the individual parts of a score in his head. The appraisal of Wilder’s personal library at his death included the category “Music Annotated by T.W.” with this summary of its content: “33 volumes of scores, including works by Palestrina, English madrigal composers, Mozart, and Beethoven.” His taste ran from classical to opera to choral music. He also enjoyed jazz, and near the end of his life developed a passion for twelve-tone music. His many friends included such stars as Otto Klemperer and Robert Shaw, and the musicians he met at The MacDowell Colony, where he first met Louise Talma, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Yale, where he met Paul Hindemith.

In the late 1930s the composer Mabel Dodge (1877–1971) drove Wilder from Walpole, New Hampshire to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough. She recalled, in a memoir, playing a game in which one of them would hum classical or operatic melodies and the other identify the exact movement or act from which they derived. While Dodge did well on the orchestral end, she recalled that Wilder, “succeeded in immensely broadening [her] operatic repertoire.” What amazed her most was “Thornton’s ability to sing snatches from an opera in the language in which it was written…it doesn’t make any difference to him in what language an opera is sung, he is at home in all of them.”* For a 1935 University of Chicago production honoring the 250th anniversary of Handel’s birth, Wilder not only rewrote the translation of Handel’s Xerxes, but also served as its stage director, “seeking the authentic baroque method of staging with enough of the modern tendency introduced to interest completely a 1935 audience,” and cast himself as a soldier in the chorus. Newspapers across the country printed a wire story out of Chicago with this lead: “FAMOUS AUTHOR NEAR OPERA BOW.”

All this is to say that Paul Hindemith had in Wilder a collaborator who knew his way around music. Wilder-the-librettist’s knowledge of languages, particularly German, his fascination with music, and his prior successful experience with translations and adaptations predicted a happy outcome for Paul Hindemith and The Long Christmas Dinner.

*Mabel Dodge’s Thornton Wilder—A Musical Memoir, appeared in the Radcliffe Quarterly in May 1964.

Tappan Wilder is Thornton Wilder’s nephew and literary executor, and the manager of his literary and dramatic properties.

The Long Christmas Dinner: The Wilder-Hindemith Collaboration

by Janie Caves McCauley

Written for the event The Long Christmas Dinner, performed on December 19, 2014 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Thornton Wilder had a lifelong love of music. Given the playwright’s appreciation of and training in music, it is no surprise that several contemporary composers approached him about collaborating on an opera based on one of his plays. But he ultimately only worked with two of them. The first, Louise Talma (1906–96), was Wilder’s good friend whom he met at the MacDowell Colony. After Wilder’s major drama The Alcestiad appeared in 1955, he acquiesced to Talma’s suggestion that they adapt the play into an opera. Wilder worked on the piece intermittently over a period of six years. After its premiere in Frankfurt in 1962, he determined never again to take on such projects.

In June 1959, while Wilder and Talma were hard at work on The Alcestiad, the German composer Paul Hindemith queried Wilder about working with him on an opera based on The Long Christmas Dinner, a play published in 1931. The two men had met during the years they had both lived in New Haven, where Hindemith served on the Yale music faculty from 1940 to 1953. After the composer returned to Europe, taking up residence in Switzerland, Wilder’s play appeared in a German translation as Das Lange Weihnachtsmahl, four years before Hindemith first approached Wilder about the collaboration.

Hindemith recognized many features of The Dinner as potentially rich veins for opera. To begin with, the play centers on the theme of time, a motif that suggests countless possibilities to a composer. Most prominent among the subjects Wilder’s characters converse about are birth, death, and marriage. The simplicity of the set, the tightly knit structure, the striking dramatic unity, and the relatively large cast of eleven characters, almost all of whom are equally significant—all these elements make the play very attractive to a composer. But even better, in a unique way the play portrays ninety years in the life of a family in less than one hour’s traffic on the stage.

On May 14, 1960, Hindemith sent Wilder a three-page outline of the play divided into twelve operatic scenes. It also included a chart of the distribution of the music and text the composer envisioned for the opera, a character list by scenes, and the musical structure and forms he planned to use in each scene—arioso, duet, trio, quartet, etc. The chart specified the number of lines Wilder should write for each scene as well as how many of these lines were to rhyme.

Hindemith’s basic plan was traditional in the sense that the libretto would juxtapose prose and poetic texts for the singers. The recitative sections, those passages that relate the narrative to the audience, would be in prose. The arias, passages that allow characters to express their feelings to each other and the audience, would be written in verse.

The most difficult part of Wilder’s work as librettist proved to be generating rhymes for Hindemith’s arias, but he managed to do so masterfully, and Hindemith composed music that maintains continuity as the work moves from recitative to aria and from scene to scene. His plan for adapting Wilder’s plot and characters to the operatic stage proved both efficient and artistically satisfying.

Between June 8, 1959 and April 9, 1962, Wilder wrote thirty letters and eighteen telegraphs to Hindemith, and Hindemith, usually through his wife, Gertrude, wrote eight letters and three telegrams to Wilder. Theirs was a fast-moving, successful collaboration.

To create the libretto Hindemith required, Wilder undertook an extensive condensation and revision of his play. The result proved to be the ideal text to serve Hindemith’s intentions. It is a credit to both artists that Hindemith’s style in this, his last opera (he died two years later), is both unique among his works and far ahead of its time for the mid-twentieth century. As a result, more than fifty years after its 1961 premiere, The Long Christmas Dinner appeals to contemporary audiences as fresh and universal, with its largely transparent orchestral score, its unpretentious mood, its rhythmical variety, and its free, poetic sound. Sadly, it would prove to be Wilder’s last opera as well.

Janie Caves McCauley is Professor of English Literature and Theater Arts at Bob Jones University.

Marking Time Musically

by Joel Haney

Written for the event The Long Christmas Dinner, performed on December 19, 2014 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

While preparing for an interview in 1948, a dozen years before adapting The Long Christmas Dinner with Thornton Wilder, Paul Hindemith noted, “the opera industry should be made to serve ethical purposes; it should serve the education of the audience—its intellectual and spiritual formation.” This conviction had already shaped Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (1935), whose painter-hero struggles to justify high art amid Reformation-era upheavals. It would motivate his revision of Cardillac (1926; rev. 1952) as yet another study of the artist’s social role. It would decisively stamp Die Harmonie der Welt (1957), a meditation on the astronomer Kepler’s faith in a cosmic harmony that persists beneath worldly disorder. And it would undergird his final opera, which ponders the modern experience of time as a condition of human possibility and limitation—“the bright and the dark”—through the rise and decline of an American bourgeois family.

Hindemith wrote the music for The Long Christmas Dinner between May and August 1960 in Blonay, Switzerland, where he and his wife Gertrud had settled in 1953 after his years of teaching at Yale. This followed a triumphant U. S. conducting tour that had included appearances with the New York Philharmonic, renewing his confidence in American professional opportunities. After finishing scoring the opera in mid-1961 but also losing hope in a companion project with Wilder, he led the premiere of his own German version in Mannheim on December 17th alongside two of his ballets: Hérodiade (after a Mallarmé poem) and Nobilissima Visione (on the life of St. Francis of Assisi). Performances in English had to wait until 1963, the year of his death, when Hindemith conducted the opera at the Juilliard School on the 13th and 14th of March (faculty member Jorge Mester led additional performances) and then at the Library of Congress. More performances followed in several European cities and Tokyo, but to date the opera has not established itself in the repertory.

In the postwar years, Hindemith’s influence declined rapidly amid the sea of change that spawned a new international avant-garde, but his public status as an established master and his growing reputation as a conductor helped arouse considerable interest in The Long Christmas Dinner. The premiere was heavily attended by critics and favorably reviewed. Early commentators identified traits of a distinctive “late style” and spoke of a newfound clarity, lyricism, and rhythmic and harmonic subtlety. They reserved special mention for the coloristic refinement of Hindemith’s scoring, which employs what he called a “Mozartian orchestra” (augmented by bass clarinet, contrabassoon, low brass, harpsichord, and percussion) that ingeniously complements the vocal parts without intruding on them.

In its musical dramaturgy, The Long Christmas Dinner recalls the innovations of Cardillac by presenting a sequence of discrete musical sections that broadly analogize the action instead of a seamless flux of emotion and psychology. Baroque anapests, trills, and a jangling harpsichord project the industrious optimism of the new firm through a retrospective aural scrim; a rollicking jig ushers in the young Charles at the crest of entrepreneurial self-confidence; he and Leonora are symbolically wedded in a subtle waltz; the spinster Ermengarde rapidly recites family history to a bustling boogie-woogie for obbligato bassoon, harpsichord, double bass, and brass; Lucia II and her twin, Sam—heir to the firm and proud World War I soldier—enter to the stately rhythms of a French overture; the unruly Roderick II and aging Genevieve finally renounce the family in rebellion and despair to a reckless, centrifugal tarantella.

Hindemith also infused his score with themes and motifs whose transformed recurrences indicate super-generational continuities: the lilting arioso in which Mother Bayard recounts her childhood also bears along her descendants’ memories; the gasps and joyous outcries of the birthing room hurry the Nurse onstage with each new Bayard arrival; the Christmas toast that displaces the opening prayer routinely brings on jaunty rhythms. More complex associations also accumulate: the churning music with which Roderick II rejects the firm echoes in distorted form the youthful jig of his father (also a tenor); Ermengarde’s elegiac final scene recalls in tone and imagery the memory song of Mother Bayard (likewise an alto) even as it opens toward the future.

Throughout, Hindemith’s music models the flexibility of human temporal experience by establishing normative rhythmic and formal patterns only to stretch, compress, and superimpose them. We hear this in the orchestral introduction, which elaborates the traditional English carol “God rest you merry, gentlemen” in the manner of a chorale prelude sounding in a time warp. Roderick’s premature death triggers a subjectively brooding version of the vigorous music that had precipitated it, and this shift recurs when his son Charles departs decades later. More generally, as characters pause to reflect on the passage of time, musical “business as usual” dissolves into dreamy, suspended moments, as in the trios for Lucia, Roderick, and Brandon and their successors Leonora, Charles, and Genevieve.

Most arresting is the sextet featuring Sam. A detailed outline that Hindemith sent to Wilder shows an initial plan for a “grandioso” climax here, but far more was ultimately achieved through gestural restraint. Standing near the Door of Death, Sam “looks at the table as though he were taking a photograph” and asks his family to “do what you do on Christmas Day.” They patter through the circular conversation of seventy-odd years while he lovingly pledges to “hold this tight” in a lyrical cantus firmus and then steps into the darkness. Producing “one of the most extraordinary and moving effects in contemporary opera” (Hugo Weisgall), this simultaneity of perspectives signals a duality that Wilder noted in a letter to Hindemith: “From one point of view the great Mill-Wheel of birth and death seems mechanical and frustrating; from another point of view, filled with new promise, and the rewards of human life ‘quand même.’”

Not a religious drama in any conventional sense, The Long Christmas Dinner nonetheless offers sustained engagement with ultimate questions. By the end, the family firm is presumably defunct or sold, the house quiet, and the older generation fading. Ermengarde tells us, though, in words that Hindemith reportedly found “moving and extremely beautiful,” that a remnant lives on in another place amid other circumstances. Interleaved with her short-breathed phrases are those of the opening carol, now spare and melancholy but also tonally elevated, suggesting continuation. Along with the introduction, this musical return evokes the framing chorales of the Lutheran cantata, a quasi-dramatic genre eminently concerned with its hearers’ “intellectual and spiritual formation.” Hindemith’s penchant, moreover, for the wordless quotation of traditional songs—evident in his output since the Nazi period—hints eloquently at a balance between human fragility and tidings of comfort and joy.

Joel Haney is Associate Professor of Music at California State University, Bakersfield.

The Long Christmas Dinner

by Leon Botstein

Written for the event The Long Christmas Dinner, performed on December 19, 2014 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Every American high school student must confront the work of Thornton Wilder; in a way his incredible success, especially with the iconic Our Town, has led us to take him a bit for granted. Thornton Wilder was a prolific author of plays and novels. He is one of those writers who is continually the subject of such comments as “I didn’t know that was by Thornton Wilder!” when one learns, for instance, that Hello, Dolly! is based on a Wilder play. Wilder was the recipient of multiple Pulitzers and a force to be reckoned with in American literature. There is more to him than we have come to assume.

Paul Hindemith, however, has as his Pulitzer equivalent the honor of being called a “degenerate” and “atonal noisemaker” by Josef Goebbels. Although Hindemith was considered a great composer during his lifetime, his career suffered great peaks and slides, especially in the 1930s, after the opera Mathis der Maler. Owing to his emigrations between Europe and the U.S., and the scandalous reception of some of his early works, he was forced to reinvent himself. His reputation posthumously has declined somewhat, though one can hear his influence on American music in the work of his students at Yale, notably Easley Blackwood and Lukas Foss. Hindemith’s work during the last fifteen years of his life, the period into which The Long Christmas Dinner falls, have been quite neglected.

One aspect that Thornton Wilder and Paul Hindemith both shared was their mastery of the short form in their respective fields: the single-act work. Nowhere is Wilder’s skill in this dramatic form so ambitiously and thrillingly demonstrated than in The Long Christmas Dinner, which transforms the concept of duration by compressing 90 years into under an hour, and thereby exposes fundamental issues of life and its rebirths. Hindemith, too, loved the form, and used it to invoke sudden spikes of emotion, whether it be horror, laughter, or astonishment: that is the progression of emotions in his triptych of one-acts, Murder, Hope of Women; The Nusch-Nuschi; and Sancta Susanna (all performed in an evening by the ASO in 2004). That these two great artists collaborated on a form that they both dominated and reinvigorated is a rare and happy historical convergence.

It is therefore with the greatest pleasure and profound gratitude that I have the opportunity to perform this rare work, to help make a case for the late, neglected work of a great composer, and for one of the lesser-known masterpieces of a premier voice of American literature.

Requiem for the 20th Century

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Requiem for the 20th Century, performed on December 10, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

The second half of the 20th century, particularly in the years between 1945 and the fall of Communism in 1989, was preoccupied with a baffling and disturbing historical paradox. How was it that after a century of astounding industrial and scientific progress, accompanied by a remarkable extension of literacy and culture, the so-called civilized world beginning in 1914 (when the 19th century actually came to a close) became a theater of senseless violence and barbarism? An intolerable contradiction between the claims of civilization and culture and the political realities of the 20th century became obvious. The perhaps thoughtless expectation had been that progress, measured by education, culture, and the expansion of liberty through the abolition of slavery and serfdom and the extension of democracy, would lead to a politics of reason and tolerance, and thus the end of violent conflict. Instead, an unbroken cycle of carnage began in 1914 that peaked in 1945. That year the unambiguous revelation was made visible: that the “cultured” countries of Europe, led by Germany, had successfully exterminated well over 6 million civilians, Jews, and Roma and several ethnic and gendered minorities. A deep irony pervades the techniques used by the Nazis, which were consciously emblematic of the very progress that was supposed to lead humanity to a higher standard of civility: the spread of written language, the efficiency of bureaucracy, and the wonders of technology. During the same period, Communism, a movement committed to radical equality, became corrupted by Stalinism from within. Between the 1930s through the 1950s over 18 million Soviet citizens were eliminated. Despite its venerable culture, Japan devastated its Pacific neighbors from China to Hawaii. And China itself, under Mao, indulged in horrific purges again in the name of Communist equality. Japanese aggression and also fear of Communism led the United States to assert its dominance by deploying the most destructive device then known to humankind, sparking a nuclear contest that placed the fate of the entire species in jeopardy.

This paradox was not lost on the artists, writers, and composers who needed to confront the hypocrisy of a post-war “normalcy” after 1945. The only legitimate step toward the “normal” was the end of World War II. After its conclusion, the ethnic conflicts, the violence and inequality that festered beneath the surface for much of the 19th century, subsided briefly with attempts to resolve them. But they exploded again after 1989, as they had in the first half of the 20th century, and that legacy continues to this day. The most baffling questions facing 20th-century composers who wanted to continue to write, broadly speaking, in the cultural tradition of music of the 19th century, given the human and ethical catastrophe so starkly visible in 1945, were: how, for whom, and for what?

The venerable tradition of philosophical speculation since the 18th century that linked the beautiful to the good, aesthetics to ethics, seemed bankrupt and fraudulent. What then was the purpose of writing such music in the wake of the tragedies? For one thing, the beauty, symmetry, and harmony of classical and romantic music had been the preferred art of the oppressors and killers. Admiration of it and its practice clearly provided no insurance whatsoever for being good or at least better.

The three pieces on today’s program are brilliant examples of three very different attempts to grapple with the desperate and fundamental challenge to the vocation of music making after 1945, which was unknown to the composers who made up the canon of classical music from Bach to Mahler. The oldest work on the program, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, was clearly inspired by this composer’s confrontation with World War II. Already in the 1930s, Vaughan Williams wrote a piece that can be considered a meditation on the darker forces of history: the Fourth Symphony (performed by the ASO in 2006 for a program about the impending Second World War). The First World War had a traumatic impact on Vaughan Williams, and the thought of another on the horizon was a devastating prospect. His next symphony, the pastoral, nostalgic Fifth, has been considered a bridge between his expression of fear of the future in the Fourth, and the grim realization of the return to violence in the Sixth Symphony, which we are performing in this program.

This symphony reveals a need shared by composers writing after 1945 to avoid any hint of the sentimental and the concession to easy listening. Since trivialized and commercialized attributes of beauty turned out to be collaborators with radical evil in modern times, the experience of music had to be arresting and challenging in a manner that could begin to redeem the power of musical art as a critical instrument of humanism.

The next work chronologically is Schnittke’s oratorio Nagasaki. If a legitimate debate surrounds the dropping of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima, there is no comparable such question about the dropping of the second bomb: it strikes us as an entirely gratuitous act. Nagasaki was written at the height of the Cold War, a period of deep mutual suspicion between the Soviet Union and the United States, and at a moment in the 1950s when the fear of nuclear war was at its peak. Americans everywhere were building fallout shelters and school children were hiding under their desks; the prospect of an apocalypse hardly seemed remote. The mushroom cloud became the emblem of human fear, irrationality, and the instinct to self-destruct, as Stanley Kubrick so powerfully showed in Dr. Strangelove. Alfred Schnittke, arguably the greatest Russian composer after Shostakovich, created this powerful work just as he graduated from conservatory as a young man. The rebellious irony and obsession with history that characterizes Schnittke’s later and better known works suggest that in certain respects the young composer was not so far removed from the better-known mature composer, despite overt differences in style. Resistant to being anyone’s apparatchik, the young Schnittke was a natural born dissenter. Yet this oratorio also reflects the powerful idealism of a young artist eager to command the mimetic capacity of music, to capture the too easily repressed horror at the use of nuclear weapons.

The “newest” work on this program is also the most famous. György Ligeti’s Requiem became inadvertently immortalized when Stanley Kubrick (again) used it in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey (along with another work from the 19th century that has, also because of this film, become ironically synonymous with images of human evolution: Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra). Schnittke’s oratorio was a product of the rather rigid and terrified 1950s. Ligeti’s music emerged from the more expansive and colorful 1960s when political utopianism and radicalism experienced a brief, intoxicating upsurge. Here is modernism at its best. Ligeti, himself a survivor of the Holocaust, understood that it was an ethical imperative to fashion music in a new way that would be adequate to contemporary life but at the same time reflective of the highest aspirations we associate with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Using the framework provided by the ritual confrontation with death and the pain not only of loss, but of survival, the Requiem is a masterpiece in which simplicity and complexity are reconciled with Ligeti’s unparalleled ear for sonorities. One has the immediate sense that Ligeti found a unique and distinctively modernist way of expressing a dimension of the human experience and condition that could only be achieved through music—and at that a music the character of which does not flinch from confronting both the horror and the hope embedded in the history of the 20th century.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 6

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Requiem for the 20th Century, performed on December 10, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born October 12, 1872, in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire
Died August 26, 1958, in London
Composed in 1944–47, revised in 1950
Premiered on April 21, 1948, at Royal Albert Hall in London by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult
First Recording by ASO founder Leopold Stokowski conducting the New York Philharmonic on February 21, 1949
Performance Time: Approximately 33 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 1 tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 5 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, suspended cymbal, xylophone), 2 harps, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses.

“With regard to the last movement of my No. 6, I do NOT BELIEVE IN meanings and mottoes, as you know, but I think we can get in words nearest to the substance of my last movement in ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by [sic] a sleep.’” Despite its bluster, this declaration, made in 1956, hints at an inner narrative for the Sixth Symphony that the composer was loathe to reveal. After the premiere of the score in 1948, Vaughan Williams had vehemently disputed the British music critic Frank Howes’ description of the Sixth Symphony as a “war symphony.” Like many composers, Vaughan Williams wanted to have his aesthetic cake and eat it: he did not want to dictate to his listeners, but did not wish to disguise fully that the Sixth Symphony had “extra-musical” origins. During rehearsals for the premiere, Vaughan Williams confided to the pianist and composer Howard Ferguson, “I call [the symphony] the ‘The Big Three’”—“The Big Three” being Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt meeting at Yalta in 1945.

From the mid-1930s onward, Vaughan Williams, who was a veteran of the First World War and had witnessed the horrors of the trenches at first hand, watched with foreboding as Europe descended once again into madness. A firm internationalist in politics while a cultural nationalist at home, Vaughan Williams supported ardently the Federal Union, an organization that proposed a union “of free peoples under a common government” in order to effect the “prevention of war, the creation of prosperity, and the preservation and promotion of individual liberty.” In 1936, he composed his cantata, Dona Nobis Pacem, which is at once a plea for peace and a harrowing depiction of the disruption and destruction that follows inevitably in the wake of war. Two years later, Vaughan Williams visited Germany himself to accept, after much soul-searching, the Hamburg Shakespeare Prize. He was repulsed by what he saw in Nazi Germany and attempted fruitlessly to give the prize money to the Quaker relief agency for refugees. A short while later, because of his outspokenness against fascism, Vaughan Williams’ own music was banned by the Nazis. Even before this incident in Hamburg, Vaughan Williams was assisting Jewish refugees to safety, including the distinguished composer Robert Müller-Hartman and his family. He spent countless hours helping refugees resettle in Great Britain and canvassed others for financial assistance towards this goal. Characteristically, Vaughan Williams never spoke of these activities in later years—but by the mid-30s he knew exactly what was going on in Nazi Germany. By the outbreak of war in 1939, Vaughan Williams was well aware of the price that he would pay for such activities if the Nazis succeeded in conquering Britain. (The British government supplied him and other leading anti-fascist cultural figures with pills of quick-acting poison that were to be taken if the Nazis managed to cross the channel.)

As a child of the turbulent last century, it is hardly surprising that at least four of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies, the Third (1921) through the Sixth (1947), are touched by warfare in some fashion. Indeed, certain commentators have viewed the tormented and dissonant Fourth Symphony (1934) as a searing critique of the claims of nineteenth-century idealism—an idealism that failed decisively in the last century—as embodied in the triumphalism of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Vaughan Williams ironically takes Beethoven’s formal plan as a model while negating its trajectory from darkness to light: the British composer’s Fourth Symphony ends with the same howl of fury with which it began.

Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony goes even further than the Fourth in rejecting nineteenth-century symphonic rhetoric. In his Sixth Symphony, which is cast in four movements played without pause, Vaughan Williams begins with a scream of protest and ends, like Tchaikovsky’s Sixth and Mahler’s Ninth symphonies, with a somber slow movement. Unlike Tchaikovsky or Mahler, however, Vaughan Williams’ finale is far from autobiographical: it is a chillingly impersonal Epilogue for the human race. The lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (IV, i) that Vaughan Williams cited as a key to the “substance” of the fourth movement are part of a beautiful but bleak speech by Prospero that contains lines that must have seemed agonizingly pertinent at the beginning of the atomic age: “The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,/ The solemn temples, the great globe itself,/ Ye all which it inherit/Shall dissolve/And, like this insubstantial pageant faded/Leave not a rack behind.” In a choral setting of this text composed in 1951, Vaughan Williams makes the connection between these words and his symphony explicit by quoting the haunting final vacillating chords of the tenebrous Epilogue at the words “shall dissolve.”

But the finale is hardly the only movement of the Sixth Symphony to contain music that depicts the grinding force of human self-destruction. The harrowing second movement is filled with reminiscences drawn from the brutal movement entitled “Mars, the Bringer of War” from Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, Op. 32 (1916). As Holst was his closest friend and colleague, Vaughan Williams surely knew that “Mars” had been finished immediately before the start of the First World War. Furthermore, Vaughan Williams inserted brass fanfares into the scherzo that he had used previously to depict the Nazi “Siegfried” bombers in his score for the British propaganda film, Costal Command (1942). The trio of this scherzo, with the saxophone soloist playing a diabolical riff on “Swanee River,” was inspired by the deaths of the members of a jazz band who perished in the bombing of an underground nightclub, the Café de Paris, during the Blitz. Only after suggesting the brutality of this slaughter—an incident that forms the climax of novelist Anthony Powell’s roman fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time—the music of the scherzo dissolves into near silence as Vaughan Williams ushers his listeners into the uncanny realm of the Epilogue, a limbo in which survivors can only lament: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

György Ligeti, Requiem

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Requiem for the 20th Century, performed on December 10, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born May 28, 1923, in Dicsőszentmárton, Transylvania
Died June 12, 2006, in Vienna
Composed Spring 1963–January 1965
Premiered March 14, 1965, in Stockholm by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Gielen with soloists Liliana Poli and Barbro Ericson
Performance Time: Approximately 29 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 1 contrabass clarinet, 1 E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 5 French horns, 3 trumpets, 1 bass trumpet, 1 trombone, 1 bass trombone, 1 contrabass trombone, 1 tuba, percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, snare drum, bass drum, suspended cymbal, tamtam, slapstick, tambourine), 1 celesta, 1 harpsichord, 1 harp, 26 violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses, chorus, soprano soloist, and mezzo-soprano soloist

“One dimension of my music bears the imprint of a long time spent in the shadow of death.” In a single eloquent but understated sentence, György Ligeti summed up the aesthetic and expressive reasons that led him to compose his Requiem. That Ligeti had close acquaintance with death is unquestioned given the circumstances of his youth. Born in Transylvania to a family at once Hungarian and Jewish, he was sent to a forced labor camp in 1944. Ligeti’s teenaged brother perished in the Mauthausen concentration camp and both of his parents were sent to Auschwitz. Astoundingly, his mother survived.

After the war, Ligeti studied with Zoltàn Kodàly at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. In the midst of the Hungarian revolt of 1956, Ligeti escaped to Vienna and soon made his way to Cologne, then a hotbed of the musical avant-garde. He soon tired of the unhealthy atmosphere created by his colleagues in Cologne: “There [was] a lot of political fighting because different people, like Stockhausen, like Kagel, wanted to be first.” From the time that he left Cologne to the end of his life, Ligeti eschewed all dogma as a man and as a composer. As he declared to a British interviewer in 2003, “I am extremely far away from messianic thinking.”

One of Ligeti’s towering achievements of the 1960s is his searing Requiem, which is scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano, double chorus and orchestra. Lasting approximately twenty-nine minutes, the Requiem was Ligeti’s most extended score to date when he completed it in 1965; the work was premiered in Stockholm on March 14th of that same year, somewhat ironically sharing the program with that hymn to nineteenth-century German idealism, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. As noted above, Ligeti composed his Requiem at a time when he had decisively rejected the post-war European avant-garde: communication with his listeners became of paramount importance. One result of his aesthetic volte-face is that Ligeti created a Requiem that—for all of its innovative techniques and utterly distinctive sonority—is in the grand tradition of Requiem masses by Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi. Ligeti does not set the Requiem mass in its totality, however, but divides the most despairing portions of the liturgical text into four movements: a sepulchral Introit, a vertiginous Kyrie, a terrifying Dies Irae, and a haunting Lacrymosa. Ligeti divides the chorus into twenty-one disparate parts, which enables him to employ in the Kyrie a technique of dense, intertwined contrapuntal strands that he called “micropolyphony.” Within the context of his Requiem, Ligeti uses “micropolyphony” to evoke a sense of communal mourning. By deploying such an unusually subdivided choral texture with breathtaking skill, Ligeti was able to conjure up the sound of a seemingly limitless number of mourners, a crowd of witnesses who keen not just for the ones who are lost, but also for themselves.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Alfred Schnittke, Nagasaki

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Requiem for the 20th Century, performed on December 10, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born Nov 24, 1934, in Engels, Russia
Died August 3, 1998, in Hamburg
Composed in 1958
Broadcast premiere in 1959 by the Moscow Radio Symphony
Public premiere on Nov 23, 2006, in Cape Town by the Cape Philharmonic conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes with soloist Hanneli Rupert
Performance Time: Approximately 37 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 4 flutes, 2 piccolos, 4 oboes, 1 English horn, 4 clarinets, 1 E-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 9 French horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, percussion (triangle, wood block, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tamtam, glockenspiel, xylophone, musical saw, vibraphone, chimes), 1 piano, 1 celesta, 1 organ, 2 harps, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses, chorus, and mezzo-soprano soloist

Alfred Schnittke’s career was surrounded by ambiguity from the start. His father, who was Jewish, was born in Frankfurt and immigrated to the Soviet Union in 1927, so that Schnittke’s name, history, and ethnicity were perceived as marginal within Soviet official circles. As Schnittke told the author Georgy Feré, “And thus we—both half-German, half-Buddhists—are like people on the sidelines.” Even his first lessons in music, which occurred in 1946 while his father was stationed in Vienna, took place outside of the Soviet orbit. Schnittke wrote later, “I felt every moment there to be a link of the historical chain; all was multi-dimensional; the past represented a world of ever-present ghosts.” For Schnittke, the shock of the past was not the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, or Tchaikovsky, but Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. This aesthetic foundation led to trouble after Schnittke’s career began in earnest, given that his models inevitably invited the charge of “formalism” from those envious of his talent.

The origin of Schnittke’s oratorio, Nagasaki, was strictly practical, as it was assigned by his teacher Evgeniy Golubev as a “graduation exercise” from the Moscow Conservatory. Golubev had suggested that his pupil set the poem “Nagasaki,” by the much-lauded “official” poet Vladimir Sofranov, who took as his subject the dropping of an atomic bomb on that Japanese city by an American warplane on August 9, 1945. In a move sure to irritate Sofranov, Schnittke excised parts of his poem while keeping its overall expressive arch from disaster to rebirth. Furthermore, Schnittke augmented Sofranov’s text with Russian translations of shorter poems by two Japanese authors, Toson Shimazaki and Eisaku Yoneda.

Schnittke completed his oratorio in 1958, graduating successfully from the Conservatory. Influenced by Shostakovich (who defended Schnittke’s score), Stravinsky, and Carl Orff, Nagasaki was, in the composer’s words, given a “first-class berating” by the Secretariat of the Union of Composers USSR in the autumn of 1958. Unexpectedly, however, Radio Moscow recorded Nagasaki in the spring of 1959; it was broadcast throughout the USSR and to Japan on August 6, 1960, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.