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Hindemith's Ballet Music

Of all the things one might associate with the name of Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), ballet is likely not the first thing that leaps to mind. Only one of his ballets remains somewhat well known, The Four Temperaments, commissioned by George Balanchine and premiered by New York City Ballet in 1946, and it remains in the repertory of NYCB and of Sarasota Ballet, among others. Before that work, Hindemith composed music for a couple of experimental ballets in Germany, beginning with the odd yet wonderful Triadisches Ballett (Stuttgart, 1922), a ground-breaking abstract ballet, set in visual and musical sets of three (thus, triadic ballet). As seen in the film made a few years after the premiere, the dancers performed in bulky, geometric costumes, designed by Oskar Schlemmer of the Bauhaus, that made them look like marionettes against brightly colored backdrops. The following year Hindemith composed a daring score for Der Dämon (Darmstadt, 1923), set to a disturbing scenario by Max Krell about a sadomasochistic demon that subjugates two sisters.

available at Amazon
Hindemith, Nobilissima Visione (complete ballet), Seattle Symphony, G. Schwarz

(released on July 8, 2014)
Naxos 8.572763 | 58'24"
Around the same time as Hindemith finished his opera Mathis der Maler, he received a commission for a ballet from Léonide Massine, which eventually became Nobilissima Visione (London, 1938; with one subsequent performance at the Metropolitan Opera). Like Mathis, the ballet was inspired by art, in this case Giotto's frescoes on the life of St. Francis of Assisi in the Bardi Chapel, in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, which Hindemith visited in 1937. He suggested the life of St. Francis to Massine, who was hesitant but eventually accepted; though Massine ended up dancing the role of Francis, he ultimately decided that the score was not really a ballet. Hindemith made a three-movement suite of music excerpted from the ballet, which has had great success on concert programs, but this new disc by the Seattle Symphony and conductor Gerard Schwarz is the first recording of the complete ballet score.

The ballet sets many of the famous episodes from the life of the Poverello of Assisi, beginning with the saint's love of troubadour songs, for which Hindemith incorporates the 13th-century song Ce fut en mai (It was in May), weaving into later parts of the score. Working as a cloth seller for his father, he gives everything he has to a beggar in Assisi, and then pursues a career in the military. He has a vision of three women, representing Humility, Chastity, and Poverty, which causes his change of heart so that he loses all interest in his friends' feasting. He meditates on the message he receives from the icon crucifix in the church of San Damiano, in which Christ told Francis to rebuild his church, and convinces a wolf to stop attacking people in the town of Gubbio, here charming it by pretending to play a violin using two sticks. He celebrates his mystical marriage to Lady Poverty, and the work ends with a movement evoking the composition of the Canticle of the Animals, set as a passacaglia on a six-measure ground bass. Schwarz and his musicians turn in a fine reading of this fascinating score, paired with the Five Pieces for String Orchestra (op. 44/4), although it would be even better to see Massine's choreography with it.

available at Amazon
Hindemith, Hérodiade (complete ballet), Inscape, R. Scerbo

[digital only]
(released on June 24, 2014)
Dorian SL-D-97202 | 20'36"
After Hindemith emigrated to the United States, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commissioned another ballet score from Hindemith, which became Hérodiade, premiered at the Library of Congress in 1944, with Martha Graham dancing the title role. (Get just a taste of Graham's performance as the mother of Salome in the video embedded below.) The score is closely based on Stéphane Mallarmé's dialogue poem, consisting largely of a conversation between Hérodiade and a nurse. Mallarmé labored on the poem for over thirty years but would never complete it. He was still working on the poem when Oscar Wilde published his play Salomé, an act widely criticized as a betrayal of Mallarmé, whose poem he knew. Hindemith scored the ballet for piano, string quintet, and wind quintet, using an unusual system of musical declamation for the instruments, in a way, to "speak" the words. Although the lines of the Mallarmé poem are spoken on top of the music in some performances, Inscape's version leaves the words out altogether, although they remain embedded in Hindemith's music and can still, in a sense, be "heard." While not perhaps a standout, this is a worthy follow-up to Inscape's debut CD last year.

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