By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Sounds of Fantasy: Music and Expressionism, performed on May 10, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Hindemith’s Mörder, Hoffnung Der Frauen, composed in 1919 and the first of his triptych of one-act operas, belongs to the category known in German as Literaturoper. A substantial work of literature–Oskar Kokoschka’s expressionist play of 1907–is used as a ready-made libretto. (Kurt Weill’s Der Protagonist, like Berg’s Wozzeck and Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, is another such Literaturoper.) But an Expressionist play does not guarantee an Expressionist opera, even though Kokoschka’s sententious baffle of the sexes seems literally to cry out for musical stylization.
The snarling semitone with which the onstage brass are instructed to “drown out” the orchestra at the opening obviously symbolizes the irreconcilably dissonant relations between the archetypal “Man” and “Woman.” Yet the work’s musical language in general does not emancipate its dissonances in the way that, say, Schoenberg’s prewar expressionist pieces do. The rich, eclectic idiom is contained within a more or less tonal framework. Nor, unlike Schoenberg’s atonal vocal works, does Hindemith respond in persistent detail to the immediate expressive or representational demands of the text. More symphonic than operatic, Mörder‘s form is similarly quite conventional, divided as it is into four readily distinguishable parts: a thematic exposition with lyrical second group, a development section, a slow movement, and a recapitulation-cum-finale. Such a fusion of a one-movement sonata design with the contrasting characters of the four-movement sonata cycle (called “double-function form” by the musicologist William S. Newman) was a common approach to the large-scale organization of nineteenth-century instrumental writing, especially in the work of Liszt.
Stylistically, Hindemith’s writing betrays a number of other influences, too: Straussian instrumental exuberance, Schrekerian opulence, and Wagnerian lyricism. In fact, the lyrical second thematic group, to the words “Our Woman,” is an obvious allusion to Tristan und Isolde (ironically, perhaps, to the so-called “Motif of Love’s Rest”). If Expressionism in music seismographically extrudes inner emotional turmoil (as in Schoenberg’s monodrama Erwartung), then Hindemith prefers to stay nearer to the surface, juxtaposing diverse idioms to convey the broader dynamics of the ritualistic tableau.
Such a mixing of styles suggests an almost parodic distance from the expressive tradition on which Hindemith relies. He speaks various musical languages with almost disarming fluency, but none of them is really his own. We may say this only with hindsight, of course, knowing Hindemith the prolific creator of the later well-crafted instrumental music, written in his own distinctive voice.
The premiere, given by Fritz Busch in Stuttgart in 1921, achieved something of a succès de scandale. While a number of critics rightly sensed a composer of enormous talent and promise, negative reactions sufficed to establish Hindemith’s early reputation as a young upstart. It was a bold–if ultimately uncharacteristic–beginning to a remarkable career.