Paul Hindemith was one of the most important German composers of the 20th century.
Alfred Einstein’s famous assessment of Hindemith as the natural musician “who produces music as a tree bears fruit” may easily and appropriately be extended to all his music making, not just composition.
In 1921 he composed the one act opera “Sancta Susanna” on a libretto based on the play “Sancta Susanna” by August Stramm.
August Stramm was a German poet, born in Muenster in 1874. He became a postal official after his university studies, and started contributing to the periodical “Der Sturm” in 1913.
Although Stramm in 1914 was a reserve officer, he enthusiastically enlisted for active duty and was sent to the front.
Stramm died in 1915 at the Russian front, in Belarus.
Stramm’s supercharged theatrical style had led to his works being dubbed Schreidramen (Screamplays).
Though the play’s religio-erotic symbolism is the outward manifestation of its power to disturb, Hindemith’s music grippingly reinforces and intensifies that disturbance. Impressive though the first two members
of his operatic trilogy had been, Sancta Susanna is his first authentic masterpiece. Here he has powerfully assimilated all the contemporary influences, and the music speaks an Expressionist language entirely
The spine-tingling virtuosity of the orchestration is remarkable for the hallucinatory vividness of its scene-painting and its portrayal (betrayal, rather) of Angst and subconscious desire with a phantasmal
refinement of instrumental chiaroscuro. Yet Hindemith’s opera has firm tonal foundations, upon which fierce dissonance alternates with delusory consonance in nightmarish ways. Sancta Susanna is
built, like its cathedral cloister, in large, wellproportioned blocks. The music is almost monothematic, proceeding by variation of a principal melody (the lyric, nightingale-like flute solo heard in the deceptively beautiful nocturnal prelude). From this source derive many sinister subsidiaries, such as the clarinet theme for the appearance of the horrific spider – which in turn becomes the theme of the nuns’ denunciation of Susanna as she entraps herself in the web of her own emotions.
Paul Hindemith composed Sancta Susanna as part of a trilogy, which also included Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen and Das Nusch-Nuschi. These two works premiered in 1921, but Sancta Susannawas not performed because of its obscene content.
Fritz Busch, who was responsible in 1921 for the turbulent premieres of Das NuschNuschi (which infuriated the audience by using a quotation from Tristan to accompany a burlesque castration scene) and Miirder, Hoffnung der Frauen (“Murderer, hope of women”, a setting of Oskar Kokoschka’s luridly incomprehensible expressionist drama about the war of the sexes), flatly refused to conduct Sancta Susanna on the grounds of its blasphemous obscenity: Susanna is an hysterical nun who first strips naked in front of the convent high altar and then tears the loincloth from a statue of the crucified Christ. The three scores made Hindemith’s name as an enfant terrible.
Sancta Susanna finally premiered in Frankfurt in 1922 and caused immediately a scandal.
Sancta Susanna was charged with blasphemy and Frankfurt institutions like the Catholic Women’s League protested against the performances and even demanded the pieces be withdrawn.
In 1934 Hindemith banned further productions of the three works. He had distanced himself from the compositional style of his early works and was unwilling to subject the works to any further public debate on morality.
Reviewing the world premiere in 1922, philosopher Theodore Adorno wrote:
In Sancta Susanna, everything that happened musically is developed from one theme; a theme of emotional power which pertains not to one individual, nor to one mood, but quite simply to the fundamentally irrational occurrences of this opera.
Synopsis (from the Chandos booklet)
In the cloister chapel of a nunnery, old Sister Clementia discovers the young nun Susanna in abject prayer before the high altar, troubled in spirit and body by the warm, windy, nightingale-loud summer night.
They become aware of movement outside: a couple is making love under the linden-trees.
Susanna calls the peasant-girl inside and tries to make her feel guilty; she demands to see the man too, but he enters only to snatch his girl away.
Susanna curses him as Satan.
Clementia, agitated, seems to be hearing something.
She tells Susanna how, many years ago, on a night like this, she saw a girl come naked to the altar and embrace and kiss the life-size figure of the crucified Christ.
For this blasphemy she was buried alive, and the image has been veiled ever since.
The tale only fans Susanna’s repressed sexual hysteria.
She, too, imagines she hears the voice of the entombed girl and, stripping naked, she defies Clementia and rips the covering from Christ’s torso.
But she is terrified when a huge spider falls into her hair from the crucifix, and cowers beneath the altar while midnight strikes and the other nuns file into the chapel.
Nevertheless she finds a transfiguring strength from her act: she demands that they wall her up, and endures their curses as the curtain falls.
In the Gramophone review of the opera, we read:
“Musically speaking, the shock value of Sancta Susanna lies in the expectations aroused by the opening (a delicately atmospheric, romantic nocturne with almost Puccinian overtones; the quiet, chant-like dialogue that follows) and their contradiction by the feverish, obsessive music (Hindemith predicting his Cardillac manner—only four years off, after all) of the main action.”
A much larger-scale summing-up of Hindemith’s ideas had come earlier in the 1930s with the completion of the opera Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Artist) and the symphony based on it. The German painter Matthias Grunewald symbolized for Hindemith the dilemma of all artists caught up in political upheavals: Hindemith had himself been attacked by the Nazis, and in 1937 was forced to leave Germany. The three movements of the symphony Mathis der Maler each represent one of the panels of Grunewald’s altarpiece at Isenheim, and the warmth and humanity of the work show the composer coming to terms with his Classical and Romantic heritage, and with his innate respect for tradition.
Hindemith found refuge from the Nazis in America, where he taught at Yale University and took United States citizenship in 1946. A series of orchestral commissions included the Symphonic metamorphosis on themes of Carl Maria von Weber, whose wordy title conceals a work of the most deft and delightful humour, an antidote to the common view of the mature Hindemith as a composer of unbending Teutonic seriousness. In 1953 he moved to Switzerland, and there, in his last years, completed Die Harmonic der Welt (The Harmony of the World), a mystical opera about the astronomer Johan Kepler.