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At-A-Glance

Composed: 1919

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, side drum, triangle, tam-tam, cymbals, suspended cymbal, bass drum), 2 harps, strings, vocal soloists, and chorus

About this Piece

Paul Hindemith went to World War I at the close of 1917 as the concertmaster of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra and a prominent solo and quartet violinist. (He was placed in the regimental band, where he played bass drum, although he did end up in the trenches by the end of the war.) He returned as a violist newly committed to composition. In June, 1919, he produced a highly successful concert of his own works, which earned him a contract with the publisher (Schott) he would retain for the rest of his career.

Hindemith began composing prodigiously, in almost every genre, from one-act operas and film scores to chamber music and solo piano pieces, working with the leading German artists and writers of the time. One of the pieces of this period was the one-act opera Murderer, Hope of Women (Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen), completed in 1919, but not staged until 1921, on a double bill with his similar opera Das Nusch-Nuschi in Stuttgart, where their explicit and unconventional treatment of sex created a scandal, but also wild praise.

For the libretto of Murderer, Hope of Women, Hindemith took almost verbatim the play of the same title by Oskar Kokoschka, which had created its own scandal when it premiered in Vienna in 1909. In 1921, Hindemith added another one-act opera, Sancta Susanna (also dealing with sexuality) to create an Expressionist trilogy; the premiere of the three works together came in 1922 at the Frankfurt Opera, his “home” house.

The events of the drama take place one night in unspecified “antiquity,” when an unnamed, archetypical man and his warriors approach the tower of a similarly unnamed woman. The men try to talk their leader out of attacking the tower, and the woman enters with her own consorts. The men and women eye each other suspiciously and trade insults until the man seizes the woman and has her branded with his mark. She responds by stabbing him in the side with a knife. The warriors, however, begin to flirt with the women, and their wounded leader is locked in the tower. At dawn, the leader awakes with a vision. He meets the leader of the women and with knowledge from his vision, gains control over her, absorbing her powers. She lets him out of the cell and he kills her with a touch. As she dies, the woman grabs a burning torch, sending flames in every direction. The panicked men and women run to the man, who strikes them dead with his new power. He flees through the fire, as a cock crows in the distance.

In both its original production as a play and in its operatic treatment, symbolic staging elements of sets, costumes, and action were as important as the dialogue in Murderer. Hindemith’s music is equally bold in gesture, and rich in allusions to earlier music (including Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde). It opens, for example, with blaring minor seconds, the half-step that was the tightest dissonance available in Western tunings, symbolizing the male/female conflict. Hindemith balances the extravagance of Expressionist gestures with structural control; the opera can be analyzed (and heard) as a sonata form (and in sonata form at the time, the contrasting themes were often characterized as “masculine” and “feminine”), in which there are also the compressed elements of four symphonic movements.

–John Henken