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.