Paul Hindemith, Theme and Variations, “Die vier Temperamente” (The Four Temperaments)

By Adrian Corleonis, Fanfare magazine

Written for the concert Human Elements, performed on Nov 18, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Standard accounts of Hindemith’s Four Temperaments have the choreographer, Léonide Massine, calling the composer’s attention to Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s depictions of, so to speak, each man in his humor. This is often followed by a brief work-up of the Hippocratic doctrine of the humors—melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic, and choleric. Ben trovato. The work’s genesis was less tidy and more interesting.

Among Brueghel’s paintings and engravings the humors, or temperaments, are not represented. Hindemith and Massine were both keen on art. Giotto’s frescoes, in the Florentine church of Santa Croce, had been the stimulus for Nobilissima Visione—“a dramatic and choreographic interpretation of the life of St. Francis,” as Massine described it—performed at Covent Garden July 21, 1938, with Hindemith in the pit and Massine dancing the role of St. Francis, to audience acclaim and large prestige.

The success of Nobilissima Visione was such that Massine wished to work again with Hindemith and suggested a ballet in the spirit of Brueghel’s paintings—The Land of Cockaigne is the first specifically mentioned (by Hindemith on March 12, 1939, in a letter to his wife). Despite some plain speaking to Massine about what he regarded as the latter’s mismanagement of his troupe, Hindemith signed a contract to supply both scenario and music for a new ballet—“something in the nature of a Flemish peasant Persephone”—which would occupy him fitfully over the next year as he found refuge from the erupting political situation in Europe in various teaching posts in the United States. By October he had conceived the plan of his most ambitious opera, Die Harmonie der Welt, and enthusiasm for the Massine project began to flag.

By January 9, 1940 a first draft of the scenario was complete, but in February—on a rough Atlantic crossing to New York—the concept took another turn: “…the Carnival and Lent pictures as starting point and pivot, and the main idea more the parable of the blind in which Griet [“Mad Meg”] in conjunction with an itinerant preacher will be the leader whose stupidity and blindness puts the villagers on the wrong track.”

On April 26, 1940 Hindemith wrote to Willy Strecker, of the Schott publishing house, “I have broken off relations with Massine on grounds of artistic differences, though I shall still deliver the Brueghel score according to contract.” By July 14, a letter to his wife shows his resolve waning: “If I need money and find no other source, I shall write the ballet for them. Otherwise only under pressure (which they evidently do not intend to apply, they appear rather to be glad not to have to honour their contract), for I want nothing more to do with Massine, who has gone completely to pot.”

While a connection between the Brueghel ballet and The Four Temperaments has yet to be definitively demonstrated, most writers assume that whatever music Hindemith composed for the former became part of the latter. The structural conceit of variations on the temperaments seems to have been Hindemith’s own and spur-of-the-moment, owing nothing whatever to Brueghel. To Strecker, on May 30, 1941, Hindemith mentioned, “The little ballet I wrote last autumn for Balanchine (Die vier Temperamente, for strings and piano) is to come out on the 29th in NY…” In fact, Balanchine did not present The Four Temperaments until November 20, 1946. Meanwhile, its premiere as a concert work was given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on September 3, 1944, conducted by Richard Burgin, with Hindemith-pupil Lukas Foss taking the piano part.