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Die Harmonie der Welt, Opera in 5 acts (1957) [161.09] Libretto by the composer.
François Le Roux; Arutyun Kochinian; Robert Wörle; Christian Elsner; Reinhard Hagen; Sophia Larson; Michelle Breedt; Tatjana Korovina. (all sing multiple roles)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Marek Janowski, conductor
260 pages of notes incl. parallel text translations in Deutsch, English, and Français.
Recorded at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, 27 March 2000
WERGO WER 6642/3/4-2 3 CD [33.41 + 73.18 + 54.28]

This last opera of Hindemith has not been available for 46 years, mostly because of bad press at the time of its premier, and most especially a scathing denunciation by Theodore H. Adorno. While I don’t know Adorno’s attitudes toward children and dogs, a man who hated jazz couldn’t have been all bad. Nevertheless, I suspect he currently broils in a circle of Hell along with Eduard Hanslick and Claudia Cassidy. It has taken three generations of musicologists to begin to free us from the coils of this serpent. Adorno wrote on scant knowledge of this work, imputed incorrect motives to the composer and then and thus denounced the work essentially in ignorance of it. Now, critics don’t actually hurt people, they just issue orders, and other people carry them out, and these other people must shoulder part of the blame, these people who can’t hear what is before them. But you can’t hear what isn’t ever performed or even on records, and this is the first recording of the work, although the ‘Symphony’ or orchestral suite has been played in concert for many years.

When I want to get to know a new opera I put it to the most severe test possible. After a quick scan of the scenario, I just put it on the player, then get busy with something else and dare the music to capture my attention. This music did, and I sat there for three hours just listening, newly fascinated at each moment. The surface of the music is beautiful, the structural integrity of the music is fascinating, the dramatic tension is manifest, climaxing brilliantly at the ends of the acts. The singers are all virtually members of the orchestra, beginning, continuing, and ending rhythmic and lyric phrases in participation with the various instruments. This is a studio recording where the singers can stand among the orchestra; it must be very difficult to perform this opera on stage, for if a singer were to lose synchrony with the orchestra for a fragment of a beat the music would fall to pieces.

In other words, this work is a real music drama. In Wagner’s works of this genre, the orchestra still accompanies the singers and in most places allows them considerable freedom of delivery. But in this Hindemith work the singers are members of the orchestra throughout and must sing exactly on time with it; it requires considerable skill to achieve some expression while adhering to such a strict rhythm, but these singers accomplish this admirably.

The title is a German translation of the title of Johannes Kepler’s book HARMONICES MUNDI (1619) and the scenario consists of conversations among various individuals in Kepler’s life and world and shows how they react to their surroundings in contrast to the scientist’s personal search to express of the harmony of the universe. It could be an allegory of any time, from Galileo’s to Einstein’s, to Hindemith’s, but the drama here is quite compelling on its own as Kepler is thwarted by selfish, powerful lords thinking only of power and subjugation, while Kepler must also struggle to save his spiritualist mother from condemnation as a witch.

I do not understand much German, so this lengthy rhetorical recitative in what is for me an almost incomprehensible language overcame a severe handicap in communication, something which can only be explained by the tremendous skill and dedication of the performers and the earnest conviction of the composer. Recently in Fanfare magazine (USA) two reviewers eloquently stressed the ‘importance’ of this opera and this recording of it. I want to convince you that it is beautiful, compelling, and enjoyable as well.

Now that the Germans have revealed to us this hidden masterpiece, I hope they will continue in this spirit to explore the vocal music of C.P.E. Bach wherein I suspect reside many great beauties. And while we are on the subject, let us have more opera by Vivaldi, let us have a recording of George Whitefield Chadwick’s final opera The Padrone from the USA, and last and most important may the British at last bring an end to the shocking and inexcusable neglect of Sir Donald Francis Tovey’s masterpiece The Bride of Dionysos!

Paul Shoemaker

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