Recording: The Long Christmas Dinner–Available This Summer

The Long Christmas Dinner

Paul Hindemith/Libretto by Thornton Wilder

Recorded live at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center

Marking Time Musically

By Joel Haney

While preparing for an interview in 1948, 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 Mathis der Maler (1935), whose painter-hero struggles to justify art amid Reformation-era upheavals. It would also motivate Hindemith’s future projects: the second version of Cardillac (1926; rev. 1952), Die Harmonie der Welt (1957), and finally The Long Christmas Dinner, which ponders the 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, following a triumphant U. S. conducting tour that had included appearances with the New York Philharmonic, renewing his confidence in American opportunities. After finishing scoring the opera in mid-1961 but also losing hope in a companion project with Thornton Wilder, he led the premiere of his own German version in Mannheim on December 17th. Performances in English had to wait until 1963, when Hindemith conducted the opera at the Juilliard School on March 13th and 14th (Jorge Mester led additional performances) and then at the Library of Congress.

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 delicacy of Hindemith’s scoring, which employs what he called a “Mozartian orchestra” 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; 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 unruly Roderick II and aging Genevieve finally renounce the family in 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 arrival. 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. We hear this in the orchestral introduction, which elaborates the English carol “God rest you merry, gentlemen” as a chorale prelude sounding in a time warp. Roderick’s premature death triggers a brooding version of the vigorous music that had precipitated it, and this shift recurs when Charles departs decades later. Generally, as characters pause to reflect on time’s passage, musical “business as usual” dissolves into dreamy, suspended moments.

Most arresting is the sextet featuring Sam, the proud soldier, who “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 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.’”

The house empties, and yet Ermengarde’s final words, which Hindemith reportedly found “moving and extremely beautiful,” reveal that the family lives on. 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 genre eminently concerned with its hearers’ “intellectual and spiritual formation.” Hindemith’s penchant, moreover, for wordless instrumental quotation 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.

 

 

Thornton Wilder and Music—A Note

by Tappan Wilder

Thornton Wilder’s collaboration with Paul Hindemith on the opera The Long Christmas Dinner reveals an intriguing aspect of the author’s creative life: his close, complex relationship with music.

During his lifetime, with some exception, Thornton Wilder rejected requests from composers eager to turn his two majordramas, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, into operas or musicals. He did permit Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman to fashion The Matchmaker into Hello, Dolly! and he collaborated as librettist with composer Louise Talma on the full-length opera The Alcestiad. Wilder did grant rights to Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green in 1965 for a musical, stage adaptation of The Skin of Our Teeth. That venture collapsed. When Bernstein returned later, now seeking opera rights for The Skin of Our Teeth, Wilder shut the door with a definitive no! Bernstein was not alone on the outside. Wilder also said “no” to musical and/or opera rights for his two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays to many others over the years, including Aaron Copland, Howard Deitz, Ned Rorem, and Italy’s Luciano Chailly. Television adaptations were a different matter; as a general rule he viewed these rights as one-time, financially favorable opportunities. He thus permitted an NBC Producers Showcase musical of Our Town in 1955 that opened the heavenly door for Frank Sinatra to sing Sammy Cahn’s and Jimmy Van Heusen’s Emmy-award winning song, “Love and Marriage.” Fortunately, he was also open to seeing his shorter plays put to music.

Wilder did not make these decisions based on inexperience or lack of knowledge. On the contrary, from the time he was a boy, music played a vital role in Wilder’s creative life and provided a source of inspiration for his pen. Though very few details of this chapter in Wilder’s life are known, the early building blocks are clear: a supportive mother, violin and piano lessons, participation in an Episcopal boy’s choir—that well-known training ground for the life-long love of all things choral—and ready access to major music concerts. On April 29, 1909, twelve-year-old Thornton wrote to his grandmother from his home in Berkeley, California, “We had a Bach Festival Thursday in which the Mass in B miner [sic] was given with great success. The Chicago Symphony orchestra is coming…”

Through his teens and early college years, music and writing represented all but equal passions. As a high school sophomore at Thacher School in California, he wrote, produced, and starred in his own first play. He also played violin in the school orchestra and performed solo concerts on piano and violin. At Oberlin College, where Wilder attended his first two years of university, he published drama, prose, and poetry, sang in choirs, and, as a sophomore, studied organ at the Oberlin Conservatory. When Wilder later transferred to Yale, John Farrar, one of his new undergraduate friends, would recall in 1928 that Wilder was, “from the start, interested in the literary and dramatic undergraduate activities, and perhaps even more in music.”

At Yale, Wilder’s interests shifted decisively away from music to literature and drama. Yet, throughout much of his life, Thornton Wilder, celebrated playwright and novelist, remained an excellent sight-reader, devoted four hand pianist, and concertgoer. He had a special interest in attending rehearsals, where he enjoyed watching a work being constructed. He referenced music often in letters, wrote about music in his private journals, and annotated sheet music as a serious hobby, claiming to be able to hear the individual parts of a score in his head. The appraisal of Wilder’s personal library at his death included the category “Music Annotated by T.W.” with this summary of its content: “33 volumes of scores, including works by Palestrina, English madrigal composers, Mozart, and Beethoven.” His taste ran from classical to opera to choral music. He also enjoyed jazz, and near the end of his life developed a passion for twelve-tone music. His many friends included such stars as Otto Klemperer and Robert Shaw, and the musicians he met at The MacDowell Colony, where he first met Louise Talma, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Yale, where he met Paul Hindemith.

In the late 1930s the composer Mabel Dodge (1877–1971) drove Wilder from Walpole, New Hampshire to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough. She recalled, in a memoir, playing a game in which one of them would hum classical or operatic melodiesand the other identify the exact movement or act from which they derived. While Dodge did well on the orchestral end, she recalled that Wilder, “succeeded in immensely broadening [her] operatic repertoire.” What amazed her most was “Thornton’s ability to sing snatches from an opera in the language in which it was written…it doesn’t make any difference to him in what language an opera is sung, he is at home in all of them.”* For a 1935 University of Chicago production honoring the 250th anniversary of Handel’s birth, Wilder not only rewrote the translation of Handel’s Xerxes, but also served as its stage director, “seeking the authentic baroque method of staging with enough of the modern tendency introduced to interest completely a 1935 audience,” and cast himself as a soldier in the chorus. Newspapers across the country printed a wire story out of Chicago with this lead: “FAMOUS AUTHOR NEAR OPERA BOW.”

All this is to say that Paul Hindemith had in Wilder a collaborator who knew his way around music. Wilder-the-librettist’s knowledge of languages, particularly German, his fascination with music, and his prior successful experience with translations and adaptations predicted a happy outcome for Paul Hindemith and The Long Christmas Dinner.

*Mabel Dodge’s Thornton Wilder—A Musical Memoir, appeared in the Radcliffe Quarterly in May 1964.

Tappan Wilder is Thornton Wilder’s nephew and literary executor, and the manager of his literary and dramatic properties.

 

Lucia/Lucia II……………………………………………………………………………………………….Camille Zamora, soprano

Mother Bayard/Ermengarde…………………………………………………………………Sara Murphy, mezzo-soprano

Roderick/Sam…………………………………………………………………………………………………….Jarrett Ott, baritone

Brandon…………………………………………………………………………………………………….Josh Quinn, bass-baritone

Charles………………………………………………………………………………………………………..Glenn Seven Allen, tenor

Genevieve…………….………………………………………………………………………..Catherine Martin, mezzo-soprano

Leonora………………………………………………………………………………………………………Kathryn Guthrie, soprano

Roderick II………………………………………………………………………………………………………Scott Murphree, tenor

American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein

Bridge Records

Thurmond Smithgall, Executive Producer