Paul Hindemith in the United States, by Luther Noss

October 1, 1990

Paul Hindemith in the United States, by Luther Noss. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989. 294 pp. ISBN 0-252-01563-0.

This book is a welcome addition to the ever growing literature about Hindemith. Its author is uniquely qualified to have written it. Luther Noss, professor emeritus, former dean of the School of Music, and now curator of the Paul Hindemith Collection at Yale University, was a long-time personal friend and colleague of the composer. He is also the author of A History of the Yale School of Music, 1855-1970 (New Haven: Yale University School of Music, 1984), and editor of Paul Hindemith-Sämtliche Werke, 3/8 (Mainz: B. Schott's Söhne, 1977).

Noss describes his book as a "documentary record of Paul Hindemith's long association with the United States," an association that with the notable exception of Geoffrey Skelton's biography, Paul Hindemith: The Man Behind the Music (London: Victor Gollancz, 1975), "has received only limited coverage in [other] published biographical accounts. Its impact on the course of [Hindemith's] creative work was of major consequence," according to the author, whose stated aim is to tell "the full story of the composer's relations with the United States" and to clear up "any misconception surrounding them." (p. xi.)

In preparing his account, Noss was able to draw on the wealth of relevant source material kept in the Paul Hindemith Collection at Yale University and in the archives of the Paul Hindemith Institute in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, as well as on a personal journal kept by him. His highly readable account and his unpretentious yet eloquent writing style accord well with Hindemith's personality. While his profound admiration and affection for the composer, both as man and musician, shine through every page of the book, he makes no attempt to smooth over the rough edges. Instead, he presents us with an unvarnished, true-to-life portrait. It is spiced with copious quotations from Hindemith's travel journals of his concert tours in the U.S., which reveal the composer's vivid and wry sense of humor and abound in perceptive comments about the musical scene as well as the social, cultural, and economic aspects of life in America. Among other things, we read about Hindemith's first impressions of New York City and Cheyenne, Wyoming; his reaction to Duke Ellington's band at the Cotton Club; his low opinion of the jerky driving of American railroad engineers; his stormy dealings with Leonide Massine; his infatuation with Walt Disney's Snow White and his disillusionment with Hollywood ("The whole thing is a nightmare of gold-digging madness." p. 51) after visiting the movie studios in the forlorn hope of interesting Disney in a collaborative project.

The main body of Noss's book is devoted to Hindemith's years of residency in the U.S., which, the author is at pains to point out, were not a period of "exile" as suggested by some foreign writers. Noss cites extensively from the composer's revealing descriptions of his Tanglewood experiences in letters to his wife, Gertrude, and provides copious background information about Hindemith's vigorous teaching activity at Yale. We read among other things about his draft proposal for reorganizing the School of Music (causing a tremendous ruckus among the faculty), the classes he taught, the pathbreaking Collegium concerts that he directed, the circumstances leading to his departure, the hilarious and unforgettable farewell party he and Gertrude hosted at their home, as well as his faculty associations in the University at large.

Especially rich in background information is the chapter detailing Hindemith's prodigious creative work during his residency in the U.S. According to the author, "Hindemith received more commissions during this period than any other contemporary composer living in this country, whether native, foreign, or naturalized" (p. 155). In addition, he wrote four theory textbooks; the book A Composer's World, which was a greatly expanded version of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he delivered at Harvard in 1949-50; and his famous essay on Bach. His success in America was further enhanced by numerous important world premieres and honors that were bestowed upon him, including membership in the Institute of Arts and Letters. When during the war years the firm of Schott in Mainz could no longer print his music, its U.S. Agent, Associated Music Publishers, stepped into the breach as best it could, even though it had no publishing facilities. The composer did not hesitate to badger AMP to get his newest pieces published as soon as possible, or to browbeat AMP when its work failed to meet the exacting standards he had come to expect from his long association with Schott. Noss points out, however, how he walked the extra mile to lighten AMP's burden, offering practical assistance in every way he could.

Yet Hindemith made no great attempt to capitalize on his success in the U.S., not only because his heavy teaching duties prevented him from doing so, but also because of his refusal to kowtow to big shots of any stripe, especially concert managers and prima donna conductors, and because of his unconcealed contempt for the intrigues of a self-promoting, sensationalist public relations campaign. Moreover, as the author points out, the inconspicuous, prosaic private lives the Hindemiths led as ordinary citizens of New Haven were exactly in accordance with their wishes.

The final two chapters recount the composer's association with the United States as an expatriate during the last ten years of his life. It follows, according to the author, a perfect "before and after" scenario of estrangement and reconciliation. Hindemith's "hopes of returning early and often" to this country were dashed when "the offers of suitable engagements he had confidently expected to receive failed to materialize" (p. 171). His own intense chagrin at this turn of events was further aggravated by income tax problems, residency requirements, and slights both real and imagined. It took almost six years to work out satisfactory arrangements for Hindemith to return to this country as guest conductor. Once the ice had been broken, there was no problem booking more engagements over here than he cared to accept, and "all of the rancor that had been accumulating" during the intervening six years of frustration "disappeared without a trace" (p. 169).

Hindemith returned to the U.S. on four separate occasions. His conducting engagements included world premieres of works that had been commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony and New York Philharmonic orchestras, as well as the American premiere of the one-act opera, The Long Christmas Dinner, on a libretto adapted by Thornton Wilder from his play of the same name. The author provides us again with copious and most interesting background information concerning all these guest appearances of Hindemith in the U.S., which were by and large received with warm, even enthusiastic, critical acclaim.

Noss points out that Hindemith was proud of being an American citizen and that "it irked him not to be considered as such" (p. 196). Moreover, he and his wife "were extremely grateful to have found security" in the U.S. "after seven years of agonizing uncertainty and bedevilment brought on by the political debacle in Germany" (p. 167). If Hindemith harbored any ambivalent feelings toward his adopted country which Noss did not take into account, they would have had to do with his antipathy toward some aspects of the modem American life style and the American way of doing business in musical and artistic matters. (He detested canned background music in all its forms, for example.) His ambivalent feelings toward his homeland ran much deeper. He rejected out of hand every one of the numerous offers of high position in Germany he received after the war. The hurts inflicted during the Nazi era were the principal, though not the sole, cause of a continuing alienation from a good many of his countrymen. New misunderstandings arose after the war, which added salt to the old wounds. His refusal to go back, together with some critical remarks concerning the musical scene in Germany taken out of context, helped to fuel a new wave of hostility directed toward him. This hostility had various forms, both crass and subtle, but became most sharply focused in the annual summer vacation courses for new music held at Darmstadt, beginning in 1948.

Hindemith regarded the remarkable comeback of dodecaphony around 1950, the total serialism following in its wake, and other avant-garde trends so ardently cultivated at Darmstadt as a largely German and German-fostered phenomenon. He blamed the affluent German radio stations and the countless festivals of modern music which depended on their financial support for their "disproportionate" promotion of a "few esoterically oriented groups" (Paul Hindemith: Sterbende Gewässer; Heidelberg: Verlag Lambert Schneider, 1963, 27).

On the other hand, the bond of loyalty between Hindemith and his publisher Schott, unbroken by the political turmoil of the Nazi era and the war, as well as the countless conducting engagements, invitations to lecture, and numerous honors he received in Germany after 1945, inevitably drew him into the cultural orbit of his native land. "From the sphere that gave us birth we cannot escape and all our wanderings lead us back into it." These clairvoyantly autobiographical lines from Hindemith's own libretto to Mathis der Maler, completed in 1935, are sung by the hero and his patron in the opera. Yet the composer maintained his distance to the end by locating his last domicile in Switzerland.

Hindemith is not the only creative artist of our turbulent century whose career and persona have to be viewed from an American as well as European perspective to be fully understood. Noss has provided us with that perspective. It serves as a salutary counterpoise to the picture of Hindemith drawn by German biographers and interpreters of his work. The American view of Hindemith is more down-to-earth, less freighted with musical Weltanschauung, less burdened by aesthetic theories about his relation and adherence to the prevailing Zeitgeist, less insistent on prescribing his role in music history and then censuring him for any presumed failure to stick to it. It shows us Hindemith as a no-nonsense master craftsman of boundless energy who was witty yet thoughtful, idealistic yet practical, demanding yet accommodating, uncompromising, even downright stubborn, yet willing and able to adapt to new circumstances, and, above all, eager to get on with his work. It provides an image that he himself would have found not at all uncongenial.

2638 Last modified on October 23, 2018