The music of Paul Hindemith gets little attention in our time. This despite the fact that the German-born composer, who spent many years in the U.S. after the rise of the Third Reich, once was widely recognized as an important and influential figure.
All the more reason, then, to take note of this week's National Symphony Orchestra program, which offers an especially rare performance of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Baritone Matthias Goerne, mezzo Michelle DeYoung and the Choral Arts Society of Washington will be featured.
The roughly hour-long work from 1946, based on the poem by Walt Whitman, was commissioned by legendary choral conductor Robert Shaw to commemorate Franklin Roosevelt.
Eschenbach has never conducted this piece, which bears the subtitle "A Requiem for Those We Love," but he approaches the assignment as a strong advocate for the composer. A recording on the Ondine label of Hindemith works conducted by Eschenbach with violinist Midori and the NDR Symphony Orchestra won a Grammy last Sunday.
"Hindemith is underrated worldwide," Eschnebach says. "But he is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century."
The conductor recalled an anti-Hindemith bias during his school years, laying the blame on the influence of philosopher/musicologist/critic Theodor Adorno, "who kind of bashed Hindemith to death."
As for "Lilacs," Eschenbach declares firmly: "It is a masterpiece. And Washington is the place to do it, since it deals with the death and mourning of two presidents -- Whitman's poem was written in memory of Lincoln, and Hindemith wrote the Requiem in memory of Roosevelt. Their two stories are put into one incredible, deeply and wonderfully grounded composition."
Eschenbach notes yet another layer to "Lilacs," with its lines about "battle-corpses, myriads of them, and the white skeletons of young men."
"Whitman's poem remembered the fallen people of the Civil War," the conductor say. "And Hindemith saw this piece as a requiem also for the fallen soldiers of all countries in World War II, which had just ended. He himself called this 'an American Requiem.'"
The long, elegiac poem is a favorite of Eschenbach, who is fluent in English.
"I have long read Whitman -- 'O, Captain! My Captain!' and 'Leaves of Grass,'" he says. "There are three symbolic images that occur [in 'Lilacs'] from beginning to end -- the Western star, which becomes a fallen star in this case; the thrush, the hermit bird that sings of death; and the lilac, which is purple, the color of mourning. Whitman remembers that Lincoln's death occurred just as lilacs were flourishing. There is not one line in this poem I would want to miss."
Like any Requiem, Hindemith's makes for a sobering experience. The match of the composer's potent style and Whitman's extraordinary imagery is nowhere more compelling than in the verse that begins "Come, lovely and soothing death."
"The poet says we should praise death," Eschenbach says. "And this is set so beautifully to music. Whitman speaks of the grandness of death, which occurs to everybody, and tells us not to be small in front of death. The encounter with this fate should be grand. 'Come lovely death' -- it is so earnest and so powerful in feeling."
In addition to evoking memories of Lincoln and the Civil War, Roosevelt and World War II, the conductor sees added significance in presenting "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" now.
"2014 marks 100 years since the outbreak of a war which included the whole world for the first time," Eschenbach says. "So the First World War should also be in our memory. The Requiem should remind us to have all our thoughts focused against tyranny, which caused such terrible things in the past -- and still does."
(Photo of Christoph Eschenbach by Margot Schulman)Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun