by Leon Botstein Written for the opera The Long Christmas Dinner, performed on December 19, 2014 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.
Every American high school student must confront the work of Thornton Wilder; in a way his incredible success, especially with the iconic Our Town, has led us to take him a bit for granted. Thornton Wilder was a prolific author of plays and novels. He is one of those writers who is continually the subject of such comments as “I didn’t know that was by Thornton Wilder!” when one learns, for instance, that Hello, Dolly! is based on a Wilder play. Wilder was the recipient of multiple Pulitzers and a force to be reckoned with in American literature. There is more to him than we have come to assume.
Paul Hindemith, however, has as his Pulitzer equivalent the honor of being called a “degenerate” and “atonal noisemaker” by Josef Goebbels. Although Hindemith was considered a great composer during his lifetime, his career suffered great peaks and slides, especially in the 1930s, after the opera Mathis der Maler. Owing to his emigrations between Europe and the U.S., and the scandalous reception of some of his early works, he was forced to reinvent himself. His reputation posthumously has declined somewhat, though one can hear his influence on American music in the work of his students at Yale, notably Easley Blackwood and Lukas Foss. Hindemith’s work during the last fifteen years of his life, the period into which The Long Christmas Dinner falls, have been quite neglected.
One aspect that Thornton Wilder and Paul Hindemith both shared was their mastery of the short form in their respective fields: the single-act work. Nowhere is Wilder’s skill in this dramatic form so ambitiously and thrillingly demonstrated than in The Long Christmas Dinner, which transforms the concept of duration by compressing 90 years into under an hour, and thereby exposes fundamental issues of life and its rebirths. Hindemith, too, loved the form, and used it to invoke sudden spikes of emotion, whether it be horror, laughter, or astonishment: that is the progression of emotions in his triptych of one-acts, Murder, Hope of Women; The Nusch-Nuschi; and Sancta Susanna (all performed in an evening by the ASO in 2004). That these two great artists collaborated on a form that they both dominated and reinvigorated is a rare and happy historical convergence.
It is therefore with the greatest pleasure and profound gratitude that I have the opportunity to perform this rare work, to help make a case for the late, neglected work of a great composer, and for one of the lesser-known masterpieces of a premier voice of American literature.