Marking Time Musically — Paul Hindemith's The Long Christmas Dinner

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.