MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Whitman’s Lilacs and Hindemith’s American Requiem

Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith

This week’s National Symphony program features Paul Hindemith’s beautiful When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d: A Requiem for those we love in a program conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. This was one of the favorite works of Robert Shaw, who commissioned Hindemith’s remarkable setting of Walt Whitman’s eulogy for Lincoln. Here’s the essay I wrote for the NSO program (which opens with Joshua Bell in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto — hence the lede):

A descendant of one of Mendelssohn’s cousins, Arnold Mendelssohn, turned out to be the first composition teacher of another precociously gifted musician, Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), who was born in Hanau (near Goethe’s city of Frankfurt). Hindemith came of age during a period of violent, revolutionary change in the early 20th century – the years that gave birth to modernism in its many forms. In the 1920s, Hindemith caused one scandal after another with his stage works and was considered a rebellious upstart who flirted with the avant-garde.

Like Shostakovich vis-à-vis Stalin, Hindemith managed to incur the personal displeasure of Hitler. The latter’s unyielding loathing of Hindemith was set in stone after seeing a scene from the satirical 1929 opera Neues vom Tage (“News of the Day”) featuring a “nude” soprano (actually, in a flesh-colored stocking) as she sings in the bathtub. Though he wasn’t Jewish, Hindemith gained a place of honor among the “degenerates” singled out by leading Nazis, who regarded him as “spiritually non-Aryan” and banned his music. The situation was actually more convoluted, however, with some pro-Hindemith voices among the hierarchy.

Hindemith may have hoped to influence cultural policy by finding a way to remain in Germany – in hindsight, his failure to express vociferous dissent from within the Third Reich has been criticized – but the situation grew intolerable and Hindemith, together with his wife (who was partially Jewish), emigrated first to Switzerland and then to the United States, where he influenced a new generation during his 13-year tenure teaching at Yale. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d ranks as the most significant creative legacy of this American period – Hindemith and his wife became U.S. citizens in 1946, the year of its premiere, although they returned to Europe in 1953 – and was acclaimed “a work of genius” by the legendary critic Paul Hume, writing of a performance at the National Cathedral in 1960.

Portrait of Walt Whitman by Thomas Eakins, dated 1887-88

Portrait of Walt Whitman by Thomas Eakins, dated 1887-88

“It is probable,” the great conductor Robert Shaw once declared, “that no foreign-born composer has made such a direct and healthy contribution to American music as Paul Hindemith.” Shaw was in fact the prime mover behind When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, which he commissioned for what was then known as his Collegiate Chorale in the winter of 1945. Shaw led the world premiere in New York on May 14, 1946 (featuring a young George London as the male soloist), and he championed the work for the rest of his career; according to Michael Steinberg, Shaw treasured Hindemith’s dedication of the score to him “as perhaps the most significant honor of his professional life.”

The immediate occasion that prompted Lilacs was the sudden death in office of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April 1945 – 80 years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln had plunged the nation into a period of prolonged mourning and soul-searching, the artistic fruit of which was one of Walt Whitman’s (1819-1892) most extraordinary poems. Hindemith had actually begun to cultivate a fascination with Whitman’s poetry long before: as far back as 1919 he had composed three “hymns from Whitman” (for baritone and piano, in German), including a setting of “Sing on, there in the swamp” (the fifth vocal section in Lilacs).

In his book New World Symphonies, Jack Sullivan reports that “Shaw initially took this single song to Hindemith, who had reworked it in 1943, with the proposal that it be used as a memorial to Roosevelt. Hindemith’s admiration for both President and poet was so great, however, that he responded, ‘No, we should do the whole thing.’ A two-minute song became an hour-long New World Requiem, an American epic set to European forms, including a sinfonia, a chorale, marches with trios, double fugues, arias, choruses, motets, fanfares, and much else.”

To undertake “the whole thing” entailed setting a text of 208 lines comprising more than 2200 words, arranged by the poet in 20 sections. In one of his commentaries, Robert Shaw refers to the “technical virtuosity” of setting such a lengthy text meaningfully within a musical span lasting about an hour (without, that is, resorting to “dry recitative”). He contrasts the first 20 minutes of Bach’s B minor Mass, which sets just three words, with the roughly 900 words Hindemith sets in the first 20 minutes of his work: “And these are words not lightly tossed into the composition heap. They are Walt Whitman words, burdened with emotional ponderosity and ponderability.”

By 1865, Whitman had already gathered a collection of poems inspired by his experiences nursing the wounded and dying in Washington, D.C., which he titled Drum-Taps (an excerpt from which can be seen engraved at the Q St. entrance to the DuPont Circle Metro station). Within weeks of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater on Good Friday in 1865, Whitman had completed a new addition to this, When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d (a “dooryard” refers to a yard adjacent to the door of a house). That poem was published in the Sequel to Drum-Taps by the D.C.-based Gibson Brothers.

Whitman weaves a complex network of imagery together to fashion the deeply moving reflections of his Lincoln elegy. He mines the evocative power of three dominant symbols, which recur but with ever-changing connotations throughout the poem: lilacs, the “Western star” (i.e., Venus), and the “gray-brown” wood thrush. The specific occasion of Lincoln’s death (the President is never referred to by name) and the spectacle of “the silent sea of faces” grieving as the coffin passes give way to further meditations on the cycle of mourning and the artist’s task. Whitman builds to a larger vision of loss and life’s journey, drawing on images from nature and American civilization alike. The poem reaches a climax with its epiphany of the “death carol” and compassion for the war dead, ending with an affirmation of “retrievements out of the night” and the work of memory.

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d moreover incorporates much musical imagery (above all, references to “song”). Not surprisingly, it has appealed to a remarkable variety of composers, including Roger Sessions, George Crumb, George Walker (whose Lilacs won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 and whose recent composition will be featured later this season in an NSO premiere), and, most recently, Jennifer Higdon. For his setting, Hindemith translates Whitman’s poetic elegy into a kind of combined oratorio-requiem, with the subtitle A Requiem “For Those We Love.”

Matthew Brady's photograph of Whitman

Matthew Brady’s photograph of Whitman

Hindemith always maintained a deep and also practical respect for musical tradition, despite his earlier reputation as a shocker (which by this time, in any case, had long since been overwritten by his image as an éminence grise). His emphasis on pragmatism might be seen as one manifestation of a general cultural rejection of Romanticism – including the cult of art for art’s sake and the idealized notion that musical inspiration should not be sullied by the contingencies of everyday reality. And Hindemith was also hearkening back to a pre-Romantic ethic of music as a craft to be plied. He had an affinity for Baroque counterpoint and other technical tricks of the trade, all of which are in evidence in the score of Lilacs (including his profound admiration of J.S. Bach).

Implicit in his division into arias, duets, choruses, arioso, and the like are references to Bach’s Passions. Aficionados of the St. Matthew Passion will recognize echoes in his use of particular instrumental timbres, meters, and even emotional pacing. And another, later model is also evident: Brahms’s A German Requiem, with its male and female soloists and symphonic use of orchestra. The Kurt Weill expert Kim Kowalke has pointed out that Hindemith originally considered using An American Requiem as his subtitle, thus drawing attention to the parallels with Brahms in a way that “seems to mirror the composer’s ambivalence about his own national identity at this crucial point in his career.”

Yet a further layer is encoded by the phrase Hindemith did choose: A Requiem “For Those We Love.” Kowalke’s research led to the discovery that the instrumental hymn that occurs in section 8 (a quotation of an Episcopal hymn in which that phrase occurs) was known to the composer to be based on a Jewish liturgical melody, thus conferring what musicologist Richard Taruskin describes as “a specifically post-Holocaust resonance.” Together, writes Philip Coleman-Hull, the music and the poetry of Hindemith’s Requiem “intertwine in a reciprocal relationship, so that the ‘Americanness’ of Whitman’s poetry infuses Hindemith’s musical response, and the music, in turn, illuminates Whitman’s text.”

That illumination of the pre-existing text indeed involves a good number of European imports – including the massive double fugue (i.e., fugue based on two different themes) in which section 7 culminates. Robert Shaw, in conjunction with his mentor, Julius Herford, incisively parsed the 11 sections into which Hindemith divides his Lilacs into a larger architectural scheme of four movements as follows. The purely instrumental Prelude establishes the fundamental key of C-sharp minor – first in the bass, against which the pregnant motif A-C-F-E is heard (each of whose notes defines key tonality governing the larger structures to follow). The first movement extends through section 3, ending with the choral march and a canon between solo baritone and orchestra.

Sections 4-7 comprise the second movement in Shaw’s analysis, in which Whitman’s poem depicts “the stage of receiving knowledge, the first understanding.” Hindemith’s tonal scheme shifts to A minor and culminates in the E minor/major double fugue. There is a darkening in the C minor beginning the third movement (sections 8-9) as the poet “moves from the state of receiving knowledge, with its shock and its ecstasy of tribute, to the state of possessing knowledge.” Following the duet between mezzo, who is closely associated with the bird’s voice, and the baritone, the Death Carol (in F minor) ends with a passacaglia at “Approach, strong deliveress.”

There follows “the panorama of death” in the fourth movement (sections 10-11), with the baritone evoking a terrifying vision of war. Hindemith’s counterpoint channels something of the restless, sardonic energy of a march Weimar era-style, while an off-stage bugle quotes Taps. The baritone also initiates the finale of Lilacs (section 11), where Whitman and Hindemith join hands to stage a sense of reconciliation, gathering together the poem’s principal symbols in the final chorus. In his one emendation to the poem, Hindemith has the soloists intone the opening line once again in a subdued monotone. The reiteration of the fundamental C-sharp minor underscores the convergence of journey and cycle.

The quietness of the ending makes perfect emotional sense for Shaw, who sums up Hindemith’s Lilacs as “a hymn for those he loved. It has nothing to do with proclamations of national mourning, the public beating of breasts, but with quiet private grief and a lonely broken heart.”

(c) 2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American literature, poetry, program notes, requiem

Remembering Julian

Remembering the victims on this 25th anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing, especially the brilliant Julian Benello. After graduating from Yale, Julian was studying cognitive sciences at Cambridge and helping assemble a commemorative anthology in honor of his father, the sociologist C. George Benello.

The composer Gavin Bryars also lost a dear friend in the carnage, the sound engineer Bill Cadman. In his memory he composed the Cadman Requiem.

“I felt a real need to write something,” Bryars explained in an interview two years ago for WQXR, “perhaps the only time for me that this has been an almost physical necessity — and so I wrote this requiem, and it was incredibly cathartic.”

In the first place, although neither Bill nor I were practicing Christians, a requiem still felt like the right thing to compose. I was reminded of being at Cornelius Cardew’s funeral, where the majority of those present were either atheists, communists or both, and the absence of any person in authority, like a minister, meant that the event lacked coherence.

There was no sense of structure and no one knew what to do next — it was only the arrival of another funeral at the graveyard that pushed the burial forward. Having something formal, like a requiem, is almost reassuring in such circumstances, irrespective of religious belief.

However, when I looked at the form of the requiem itself, as distinct from the idea of one, most of the sections didn’t seem to me to be appropriate to Bill’s death — asking for forgiveness and so on… Then I thought of Caedmon’s Creation Hymn, the earliest poem we have in English, and Bill’s surname “Cadman” may be a corruption of this name….

Writing a requiem is something that I could only have done in this personal context, finding it less appropriate to intervene in public grief….

Filed under: memorial, requiem

A Ceremony of Britten

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

Benjamin Britten (r) and Peter Pears (l)

And so we arrive at the last of the big three composer anniversaries this year – the anniversaries that not so long ago seemed to loom on the other side of the apocalypse said to be awaiting us in 2012. November 22 – Saint Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music, as it has become obligatory to point out – marks the official centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten.

I wish I could come up with something a fraction as eloquent as my colleagues to pay tribute to the creative genius of this endlessly fascinating figure, but my recent essay on the War Requiem will have to do the honors:

Ruin and Renewal: Britten’s War Requiem

“I was completely absorbed in this piece, as really never before, but with considerable agony in finding the adequate notes for such a subject (and such words!), and dread discovering that I’ve not succeeded.” So Benjamin Britten confided to a friend not long before the War Requiem‘s premiere in May 1962.

Britten’s agony produced not only one of the landmark compositions of his career but a testimony to the power of art to confront humanity’s failings and at the same time to offer hope. As for the dread of not succeeding, the War Requiem stands out as a rare instance in 20th-century music of a new work that was greeted with overwhelming approval by critics and audiences alike.

“The composer’s duty, as a member of society,” declared Britten in his famous speech accepting the Aspen Award in 1964, “[is] to speak to or for his fellow human beings.” From first note to last, the War Requiem holds true to this conviction of the role of music in society. The ethical perspective of the lifelong pacifist who had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War converges with the remarkable gifts that made Britten one of the supreme musical dramatists of the past century and a master of large-form architecture.

At the same time, the imperative to communicate by no means requires adhering to safe, comfortable formulas. In taking up one of the most tradition-laden texts of Western music, the Latin Mass for the Dead, Britten challenges and reinvigorates the very meaning of this ritual.

After the Second World War, the composer had actually considered Requiem-like works to commemorate the victims of the atomic bombings of Japan and, later, the assassination of Gandhi, but these plans never crystallized. Earlier, in 1940, he had written a purely instrumental Sinfonia da Requiem, but that work exists in a category all its own. The commission to supply a new score as part of the upcoming consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral provided Britten with the stimulus he needed at last to embark on a large-scale choral-symphonic composition.

Winston Churchill visits Coventry Cathedral in ruins after the bombing of 14/15 November 1940

Winston Churchill visits Coventry Cathedral in ruins after the bombing of 14/15 November 1940

Carpenter suggests that the composer’s sadness over the recent suicide of a former friend who had survived the war but struggled with depression may have also occasioned the need to compose the War Requiem as a more private response to tragedy. This may explain Britten’s puzzling statement: “That’s what the War Requiem is about; it is reparation.” In his recently published Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music, the biographer and journalist Neil Powell notes that “a work which had originated as a very public commission was increasingly concerned with a very private subtext.”

Bombing raids by the Luftwaffe during the blitzkrieg in 1940 had nearly destroyed the industrial city of Coventry in the West Midlands, including the Gothic Cathedral of St. Michael dating from the 14th century. The Scottish architect Basil Spence designed a new modernist structure, but not merely as replacement: he decided to retain the roofless, ruined shell of the earlier church, whose spire had been left standing, and link it to the new building.

The consecration ceremony thus offered an occasion to reflect on the destruction wrought by the war – at the height, it will be recalled, of the Cold War that was threatening outright annihilation of humanity. Just a few months after the War Requiem‘s premiere, the Cuban Missile crisis would bring the West to the brink of apocalypse.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Britten wasn’t interested in a reassuring but simplistic idealism about the sacrifices of war that whitewashed or forgave war’s inherent atrocity. The War Requiem – the title itself suggests an uneasy juxtaposition – thus combines the traditional Latin texts (with one telling change, in the Agnus Dei) with the mordantly ironic antiwar poetry of Wilfred Owen, a victim of the First World War. (His brother Harold sent Britten a letter praising the War Requiem and expressing joy “that Wilfred’s poetry will forever be a part of this great work.”)

The implicit homoeroticism of Owen’s poetry also resonated with Britten, who had already set his words to music alongside several other poets in the song cycle Nocturne (1958); its sound world in fact foreshadows parts of the War Requiem. As an epigraph to the latter, Britten quoted a passage by Owen that mirrors his own vision here as a composer: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is to warn.”

To anchor his antiwar message, Britten taps into a tradition of sacred music which carries a plea for peace amid contemporary turmoil. Well-known examples from the sacred music canon are Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. Britten’s mixture of Latin liturgical texts with secular poetry is likewise not without precedent. Yet he juxtaposes the poems of Owen so that they become a provocative commentary on the familiar Requiem. The result is a complex yet ingeniously lucid six-movement structure in which is embedded an ongoing song cycle for tenor and baritone.

In a sense, this fusion of the ancient and the modern to underscore both the “pity” and the poet’s warning – the secondary level that comments on the primary, ritual, archaic level – might be interpreted as the composer’s musical and textual counterpart to Spence’s bold architectural design.

In his Aspen speech, Britten refers to the importance of suiting the music to the setting: “The best music to listen to in a great Gothic cathedral is the polyphony which was written for it, and was calculated for its resonance: this was my approach in the War Requiem. I calculated it for a big, reverberant acoustic and that is where it sounds best.”

But it’s more specifically Spence’s conflation of ruin and renewal that is replicated in Britten’s unique structure, which at several points subverts the expected biblical truths. This happens to especially devastating effect, for example, in Owen’s dark retelling of the sacrifice of Isaac, which intervenes in the Offertorium and inverts its message with terrible irony.

Immediately following this is the shockingly triumphant Sanctus, with its echoes of both ceremonial gamelan music and Monteverdi; this in turn is countered by Owen’s poetic denial of the afterlife’s consolation in the baritone’s solo. The apocalyptic and the personal, the archetypal pattern and the concretely, painfully historical moment – these are the different planes which intersect in fascinating ways throughout the War Requiem.

Britten’s vast array of performing forces further points to the architectural and spatial aspects of his conception. The scoring is divided into three groupings that are perceived to emanate from three distinct spheres. There is the conventional sound world of the full orchestra (including enlarged brass and percussion sections) and mixed chorus, which sings only the Latin texts, and the soprano solos.

If these performers are the world of humanity in general, facing our mortal condition, the boys’ choir, accompanied throughout by organ or harmonium, exists suspended beyond it as the voice of eternal, angelic innocence. (Britten specifies that their sound is to be “distant.”) The third level, with its reduced satellite orchestra and two male soloists, is closer to the world of art song and chamber opera. This is the real world of violence and meaningless death, not ideals – the plane on which innocence is corrupted.

Spire of Coventry Cathedral

Spire of Coventry Cathedral

Mediating among all these spheres is the core harmonic idea of the War Requiem: the interval of the tritone (heard at the outset as C pitted against F-sharp), whose instability highlights the pervasive feeling of ambivalence. “There are very few easy resolutions in Britten’s later work,” writes Powell, “and ease, when it is attempted, is always troubled by ambiguity.”

This is how Powell reads the composer’s statement near the end of his life about the effect on him of witnessing Belsen and other former concentration camps during a tour he and Yehudi Menuhin undertook shortly after the Second World War. Britten said “that the experience had colored everything he had written subsequently,” as his partner Peter Pears disclosed.

In his unforgettable setting of the final Owen poem, Britten dissolves the scene of immense pathos of the former enemy soldiers meeting after death. As they choose eternal peace and oblivion, Britten leads us into the final Latin prayer In Paradisum, where, for the first time, he joins all the performing forces together. The chorus repeats the harmonic sequence that had concluded the first movement, but the composer forces us to wonder: is this merely the reboot of humanity’s eternally recurring pattern?

(C) 2013 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Britten, choral music, requiem

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