Here in Los Angeles, it's usually necessary to put on socks to be comfortable outside, which means that various Winter Solstice holidays are just around the corner. I'm going to be taking the next few weeks off blogging — this Friday's post will be the last one until 2015 — so this seems an appropriate moment to get into the holiday spirit. Often, when tasked with presenting seasonal music, I go for the deliberately out of place, pointing to things like Krzysztof Penderecki's languid, brooding (but "Silent Night"-quoting!) second symphony, but today I'm going to do something of the reverse: Present a cheerful, exuberantly naïve work from a composer who is rarely either of those things.
In the years after the First World War, European art music was in a tumultuous flux. Especially in Germany and Austria, there was a sense that the heady, decadent, over-the-top late Romantic style from before the War was symptomatic of the cultural values that had led to such unnecessary, wanton bloodshed and destruction, and many composers sought new ways of writing music that were deliberately distanced from or aggressively contrary to the styles in vogue in 1914. Among the panoply of movements and schools that sprang into and out of existence was the "New Objectivity" (Neue Sachlichkeit, if you're feeling Germanic), with the rallying cry of "We won't be fooled again!". Rejecting both the schmaltz of the Romantics and the inward intensity of their Expressionist contemporaries, the New Objectivists sought to write works that were engaged in the world in a practical matter, useful works, works with an almost business-like disposition.
Needless to say, many of the works these composers wrote were deliberately provocative, thumbing their noses aggressively at the refinements of the past and taking potshots at pretensions to High Art, and said composers sometimes positioned themselves as enfants terribles out to kick up a fuss. Among these was Paul Hindemith (1895 - 1963), who made quite a splash when several of his works were performed at the International Society for Contemporary Music festival in Salzburg in 1922 — the most famous, perhaps, being his raucous, jazzy Kammermusik No. 1 with its chaotic finale that climaxes by quoting a contemporary foxtrot melody*.
Despite my overwhelming fondness for this music, we're going to set it aside for something completely different. In the same year that he was making iconoclastic waves with the Kammermusik, Hindemith agreed to write the music for a Christmas fairy tale called Tuttifäntchen. He did this without having read the entire libretto, which may have been for the best, given that even the official publisher concedes that the words were met with "unanimous criticism". Instead of a spiky, caustic offering, Hindemith turned out a surprisingly charming score, shot thru with quotations of carols and living in a harmonic realm that is, for the most part, untouched by the chaos of the early twentieth century. (It wouldn't last. In his next works, Hindemith went right back to his sarcastic scuttling.) The work itself was kind of a flop, and I've never actually met anyone else who knows it, but the orchestral suite drawn from the original really is delightful, and worth at least a listen.
Even from the start of the introduction, it's clear that we're in for an easy ride, with the tuneful melody and uncomplicated rhythm. The next three movements form a kind of miniature triptych, a plaintive song interrupted by a boisterous intermezzo, leading into a second song that incorporates some of the jolly energy of the interruption. A pompous march is up next, tho I find this recording of it to be almost unbearably slow. (I'm aware that the tempo marking is "not fast", but still. There are more options than "breakneck gallop" and "lethargic dirge".)
Music for a Puppet Theatre comes next, with a mischievous dancing melody in the oboe. (The plot of the original revolves around a wooden toy that steals the heart of its maker's daughter to come to life. Wacky hijinks ensue.) The toy dolls all get together and dance to a carefree ragtime number, in the movement that hints most strongly at Hindemith's New Objectivist tendencies — as with many composers in the early twentieth century, the New Objectivists were quite smitten with the early Jazz music coming over from America, and pilfered from it heavily, often without regard for context or appropriateness. (The racialized elements of these borrowings won the New Objectivists no favors when the Nazis came to power, as evidenced by the racist and anti-Semitic caricature on the poster for their "forbidden music" exhibition.) But all is soon back to the tranquil naïveté from before with another lyrical song.
In the melodrama that follows, a stormy opening gives way quite abruptly to a drowsy string chorale that is, for all its unexpected harmonic shifts, surprisingly touching. Next we hear a lullaby that begins with a soothing, confident, rocking motion in the strings, but seems to get lost somewhere along the way, and ends in a state of uncertainty. But all that is swept away by the assertive finale, which is a rousing rendition of "O Come All Ye Faithful", complete with glowing brass chords and festive counterpoint in the strings. It's hardly Hindemith's most daring finale, but it works, and serves as a jovial rejoinder to those who claim tonality died with the nineteenth century.
* The New Objectivity held together reasonably well until the rise of the Nazis in the early 1930s. Hindemith was one of the relatively few German composers at the time who was neither Jewish nor gay (indeed, he's the first cishet white European male we've featured in this series), and there were some in the Nazi cultural apparatus who sought to promote him as the model of a contemporary German composer, but he kept doing things like writing operas about how artists shouldn't toe the political party line [Wikipedia], and he ultimately fled Germany in 1938, making his way to the United States two years later. Much, much more could be (and has been) written about the relationship between Hindemith, the "degenerate" avant garde, Naziism, and the "practical utility" aspect of the New Objectivity, but I am far from an expert on these matters and cannot do them justice in the space of this blog post. It turns out that the intersection of art and politics is complicated and often deeply uncomfortable, especially when genocidal totalitarianism is involved.