Hindemith-Wilder ‘Christmas Dinner’ Spices New Disc

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HINDEMITH: The Long Christmas Dinner. Libretto by Thornton Wilder. Camille Zamora, soprano; Sara Murphy, mezzo-soprano; Jarrett Ott, baritone; Josh Quinn, bass-baritone; Glenn Seven Allen, tenor; Catherine Martin, mezzo-soprano; Kathryn Guthrie, soprano; and Scott Murphree, tenor. American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein, conductor. Bridge 9449. Total Time: 48:49.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – The Long Christmas Dinner, a one-act opera dating from 1960-61, is an important collaboration between Paul Hindemith, a major composer, and Thornton Wilder, a leading playwright. Wilder was not only a famous playwright and novelist, he was also quite a good musician, with a vast knowledge of musical literature, who often played four-hand piano music with friends.

Thornton_Wilder_Yale_graduation_photo_1920
Playwright Thornton Wilder

Wilder wrote his one-act play The Long Christmas Dinner in 1931. Although Hindemith taught at Yale University from 1940-53 and Wilder lived in New Haven during most of that period, they didn’t get around to discussing a collaboration until Hindemith paid a return visit to the campus in 1960. Hindemith was always a fast worker and completed the opera within a few months. This release, on the Bridge label, is apparently the premiere recording of Wilder’s original English libretto. 

The Long Christmas Dinner is more thoughtful than dramatic as it depicts 90 years of Christmas dinners in the Bayard household. The same conversations are repeated over and over through each generation, suggesting both tradition and lives that are excruciatingly boring. Wilder, in his inimitable way, manages to depict everyday life as both commonplace and sad. One of the oft-repeated questions at Christmas dinner every year is, “What will you have? A little of the white?” To many of the family members, the repetition is comforting, serving as a reminder that they have succeeded in keeping the family together for another year and that life has been good to them.

Composer Paul Hindemith
Composer Paul Hindemith

There is very little conflict in the opera, and family members never question the path that has been chosen for them, with one exception – Roderick II, the rebel in the Bayard family:

“I hate this town. It’s so dead. It’s so dull. You’ve got to get drunk to forget how dull it is…. You can have your silly old town. And Bayard Brandon and Bayard.” 

“It will all be the same in a hundred years.” These, the words of another character, the Major, who never appears, are quoted several times.

There may be little conflict between family members, but there are hints of a “dark side” to their story, although they would rather not talk about this or even acknowledge that anything in their lives has been, or is, less than perfect. No one in the Bayard family speaks of dying or getting divorced or losing a job – at least, not at Christmas dinner. But one Christmas, there is a war going on. A young man, appearing in uniform, is admired for his appearance. Over dinner, war is far away, but when it comes time to say goodbye, he is suddenly gone – “through the dark door” – and we know that he is gone forever, presumably killed in battle, as his mother cries, “He was only a boy, a mere boy!” Life goes on, and soon the Bayards are celebrating Christmas again.

Hindemith makes no attempt to emphasize the fleeting moments of either joy or sadness. His musical score is a minimalist counterpart of Wilder’s unemotional depiction of middle-class family life in America. And it works beautifully. Hindemith uses a chamber orchestra for this opera, and while it plays almost continuously, it makes few statements of its own; rather, it assumes a background role, allowing Wilder’s words to carry the drama. This recording is a fine one, except for the fact that the orchestra is sometimes too loud.

Maestro Leon Botstein
Conductor Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein and members of the American Symphony Orchestra do excellent work in this live performance from Dec. 19, 2014. Generally speaking, the 68-year-old Botstein does not get the recognition he deserves when one considers that year in and year out, he and the American Symphony present some of the most interesting concerts in New York. Primarily a scholar and an educator — he is president of Bard College — Botstein’s conducting skills should not be underestimated; he and his orchestra have put out dozens of first-rate recordings, most of them devoted to unusual repertoire.

For years after The Long Christmas Dinner collaboration, Hindemith encouraged Wilder to come up with a companion piece, preferably a comic opera. There was serious discussion about basing this second collaboration on another Wilder play, Pullman Car Hiawatha. But while nothing ever came of that, Wilder did write a libretto for Louise Talma’s opera The Alcestiad.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.