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.