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)