Quadrant Music

One Bloodthirsty Edict after Another: Hindemith in Turkey

Had you asked most literate Europeans, Americans or Australians in 1935 to identify Germany’s best-known living composers, they would have mentioned two figures born a generation apart: Richard Strauss, then seventy-one years old; and Paul Hindemith (above), then forty years old. No one else, however distinguished, would have occurred to them unless they had a specialist knowledge of contemporary music. In 1935 the sixty-six-year-old Hans Pfitzner, while esteemed by his fellow musicians, retained (like his Austrian contemporary Franz Schmidt) only a limited following within the general public’s ranks; Arnold Schoenberg had fled the country once Hitler gained the chancellorship; two briefly popular purveyors of opera, Eugen d’Albert and Franz Schreker, had died in 1932 and 1934 respectively; and few had heard of Carl Orff until, in 1937, he achieved his sensational success with Carmina Burana. Kurt Weill’s non-Teutonic popularity did not begin until the Second World War and its aftermath. As for Austrian rather than German composers, 1935 was the year of Alban Berg’s death, while in 1935 both Anton von Webern and Alexander von Zemlinsky remained largely unknown outside Central Europe.

But to say that Strauss and Hindemith remained the most celebrated composers living in the Germany of 1935 is not to imply that either man enjoyed great honour there. Fashionable opinion at this stage, and for long after, regarded Strauss largely as an exhausted volcano: none of his post-1914 operas—with the partial exception of Arabella (1932)—or post-1914 orchestral works had yet entered the general repertoire. Nor did Germans alone take this attitude. The choleric dismissal of Strauss, by Wagner’s biographer Ernest Newman, as “a composer of talent who once was a genius” epitomised the prevalent view.

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National Socialism remained in 1935 too fearful of world opinion to ostracise Strauss and Hindemith completely, given both men’s renown, and it appointed both composers to its official musical institution, the Reichsmusikkammer (RMK). It bestowed on Strauss, in fact, the institution’s toothless presidency. But it regarded both composers much more as nuisances whom it temporarily needed to indulge, than as potential true believers. Both composers, themselves Gentiles, had far stronger Jewish connections than the regime found agreeable. Strauss had a Jewish daughter-in-law, Alice Grab von Hermannswörth, while Hindemith had a Jewish wife: Gertrud Rottenberg, daughter of the conductor Ludwig Rottenberg. That very year, 1935, Strauss forfeited the RMK presidency, having incautiously articulated his contempt for the Gestapo in a letter to his Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig, a letter which the Gestapo intercepted and forwarded to the Führer’s desk.

Even after expelling Strauss from the RMK, though, the Third Reich refrained from subjecting him to the explicit invective that it unleashed against Hindemith. At first, Hindemith had fallen publicly silent, partly through fear of endangering Gertrud, partly through a fundamental lack of interest in politics, partly through an uneasy conscience about his own, more-obviously transgressive musical labours during the Weimar epoch. In private, Hindemith demonstrated no such inhibitions. One of his Jewish students at the Berlin Hochschule, Franz Reizenstein—who would eventually escape to Britain, and would remain there until his death in 1968—assured the composer’s biographer Geoffrey Skelton that “Hindemith did not make any secret of his anti-Nazi convictions. He was not afraid of being given away to the authorities, though he could have been a hundred times over.” Reizenstein also mentioned in print a 1934 incident where Hindemith bawled out an anti-Jewish composition student in Reizenstein’s presence.

Word of Hindemith’s private opinions could very well have reached NSDAP leaders’ ears. In December 1934, Goebbels addressed a party rally in Berlin’s Sportspalast where he excoriated Hindemith, along with the composer’s notorious scene from his opera Neues von Tage, without once mentioning his name:

When the occasion is ripe, not just thieves but atonal musicians arrive on the scene who in order to attain a particular sensation or remain close to the spirit of the time allow naked women to appear on the stage in obscene scenes in a bathtub, making a mockery of the female sex … and in general surrounding themselves with the biting dissonances of musical bankruptcy.

This onslaught failed to worry Hindemith overmuch at first. Almost incredibly, in a clear sign of how little the regime’s left hand knew about what its right hand was doing, the Luftwaffe, more than a year after Goebbels’s Sportspalast vituperation, commissioned Hindemith to write an orchestral piece in its own honour for a forthcoming concert. Rather naively, Hindemith informed his publisher, Willy Strecker: “I want to give them something really good!” By this time, Hindemith had reluctantly sworn the oath of allegiance to Hitler on which his continued RMK membership, and therefore his ability to earn a musical livelihood, depended.

Nevertheless, he found the general artistic climate in the Third Reich increasingly uncongenial. When Wilhelm Furtwängler published a spirited, internationally-noted editorial defending Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, the article had the unintended consequence of intensifying the regime’s hostility towards Hindemith’s endeavours (as well as Furtwängler’s). As the late pianist and musicologist Hamish Milne elegantly observed: “His music was not [until October 1936] specifically banned, but it took more courage or foolhardiness than most promoters could muster to present it.”

When Hindemith received an utterly unexpected letter from Cevat Bey, a high official in Turkey’s education department, inviting him to come to Ankara and set up a new school there for propagating Western musical tuition, he greeted the official’s invitation with delight as well as astonishment. Still more impressive: Cevat Bey took the trouble to follow up his letter by visiting Berlin and pleading his case to Hindemith in person. The composer wrote to Strecker in February 1935:

I didn’t turn it down, he [Cevat Bey] sent in his report, and I shall maybe go there soon to take a good look. I wouldn’t want to stay there full-time, but for a few months in the year, gladly.

Like Coriolanus, and for somewhat similar motives, Hindemith had decided that a world existed elsewhere. He continued to reject any notion of permanently expatriating himself and Gertrud. But spending “a few months in the year” away from Goebbels could only be a win-win situation for composer and propaganda minister alike.

“A juxtaposition of archaeology and America, Hittite ruins beside the latest in material comfort, all of it in an impressive desert landscape.” That was Gertrud’s first impression of life in Ankara upon the couple’s arrival in April 1935. Her husband had neither the leisure nor the inclination for sight-seeing reportage. Scarcely had he disembarked than he threw himself into administrative duties, despite the fact that his remit on this first trip (he would later make three more) consisted simply of “studying existing conditions and making suggestions on how to improve or replace them”. Incapable of undertaking one job where undertaking a dozen jobs would do, Hindemith soon found himself behaving as if his entire existence had been a mere prelude to his current treasurable pretext for instructing Turks. Far from revealing a primarily colonialist demeanour towards a subject race, he behaved towards his Turkish hosts in much the same crash-through-or-crash way that he behaved towards German, Swiss, French and English colleagues. Less than two weeks into his role, he announced to Strecker:

It is extremely interesting here. I go around inspecting whatever music there is, make proposal after proposal, and if everything is done as I suggest (and the will is there) I shall be able to flatter myself with having put Turkish music on its feet … Meanwhile we spend our time eating mutton and yoghurt, watching the innumerable storks.

More tactful souls than Hindemith, whether in Ankara or anywhere else, might well have experienced problems in differentiating Hindemith’s “suggestions” from parade-ground orders. Yet in his drastic interventionism he merely supplied what Mustafa Kemal Atatürk demanded in the music sector, as elsewhere. Back in 1928, the Times had reported Turkey’s president insisting that native Turkish music was “unable to satisfy the desires and sentiments now existing in Turkey. European music is far superior to Oriental.” Two years later, when interviewed by the German biographer Emil Ludwig, Atatürk sounded much more intransigent. Suddenly, he asked Ludwig: “How long has it taken you to reach the current status of Western music?” Before the interviewer could respond, the interviewee answered his own question: “It has been some one hundred years. We [Turks] don’t have time to wait this long.” In 1924, by the time of these remarks, the president had imposed upon his country a new Western-style national anthem. In 1934 he would commission an entire opera, Özsoy, from a Turkish-born composer, Ahmet Adnan Saygun, who—although he had not yet reached his twenty-eighth birthday—could already boast significant musical accomplishments. Hindemith’s own relationship with Atatürk was at times unpredictable; he once found himself abruptly awoken at three o’clock in the morning and bundled into a car, bound for the palace. Upon arrival, the insomniac Atatürk demanded of him an impromptu concert on the presidential piano.

Goodwill felt locally towards Hindemith manifested itself in a request by the Ankara administration to the German embassy, that Berlin’s Foreign Office grant the composer an additional week’s leave. But he drove his Turkish charges—as he drove all his charges wherever on the planet he happened to be—scarcely less hard than he drove himself. “Paul,” Gertrud wrote, “has worked like mad with the Turkish musicians. To begin with they could only play loudly and out of tune, but he was determined to show what one can do with what there is here, when one goes about it properly.”

The implied social harmony did not always extend to Hindemith’s fellow émigrés. These included the new Ankara conservatoire director, Ernst Praetorius; the teacher, pianist and harpsichordist Carl Zuckmayer, with whom Hindemith had collaborated in Weimar days; the composer’s former violinist colleague, Budapest-born Licco Amar; and the operatic director Carl Ebert, best remembered nowadays for his productions at Glyndebourne between the 1930s and the 1950s. Neither Praetorius nor Ebert was Jewish; both had been outspoken anti-Nazis since 1933, Praetorius being married to a Jewish spouse. Ebert’s fondness for ideological discussions annoyed Hindemith, who—when afterwards in Ebert’s enforced company during a visit to Basel—lamented to Strecker:

unfortunately he [Ebert] talks politics, thinks that in this respect he alone possesses wisdom, and tries to convert one, in which attempt she [Frau Ebert] emphatically and unpleasantly seconds him … the Eberts, like all theatrical people, were stupid.

Every minute spent bombinating about ideology meant, in Hindemith’s eyes, the complete waste of a minute which he could have spent on writing, playing or conducting music. To his febrile energies during the second Ankara residence, Gertrud attested in a letter to Strecker and his brother on April 1, 1936:

Things are very different this year. There is after all a distinction between travelling around on tours of inspection and in a practical way diving into a sea of chaos. The first days were difficult enough, with resistance and revolt in the [conservatoire] orchestra. I typed one bloodthirsty edict after another. Luckily the ministry, headed by the minister himself, backed Paul’s orders and even summarily dismissed one of the main troublemakers. Now he has been re-engaged, and all is peace … the orchestra is running along nicely now, statutes have been worked out, pianos ordered … Now it’s the turn of the school. I am busy working on a puzzle: how to fit 150 pupils, 17 teachers and 30 rooms into a working week of 24 hours.

She wrote again to Strecker on May 3, with greater alarm:

I am really worried. If you could see how Paul is working here, you would certainly feel the same … A normally functioning person would spread such a mammoth undertaking over ten years. He has now set up in nine weeks a huge apparatus which is always generating new questions and problems of its own. Paul deals with them all himself, and is doing practically everything on his own, from polishing violins to thinking out rules and regulations—there is no one from the humblest scholar to the minister himself who doesn’t receive the benefit of his highly personal instructions. The Turkish bosses dimly realise that they could scarcely hope to find another such man anywhere in the world, and they are already pushing for him to come back in September to carry on. A return next spring is fixed in any case.

From 1937 the administrative burden came to be more evenly shared. “Zuckmayer has been working magnificently,” Gertrud noted with satisfaction in her February 16 letter to the Streckers, “so this time Paul is spared all the petty detail … The orchestra is already presentable—Praetorius has done an unbelievable training job in these eight months.”

Various sections in two elaborate reports that Hindemith submitted to Ankara officials, as his Turkish experience neared its end, must have irritated their recipients. His recommendation that the government establish a library devoted to Turkish folk music cannot have endeared itself to Atatürk, whose Ministry of the Interior had in 1934 outlawed all broadcasting of such music by Turkish radio. Admittedly, Hindemith differed from Bartók (who likewise supported the creation in Ankara of a folk music library), in that Bartók favoured specialising in gramophone records which contained such music, whereas Hindemith had yet to be convinced that easily-damaged shellac discs could withstand the Turkish climate. In his conviction of folklore’s artistic benefits to musicians, he and Bartók thought as one. When he averred in his initial report of 1936 that young Turkish composers “should be sent to the provinces to listen to the music of their own people”, it could easily have been Bartók writing.

For Hindemith—as for Bartók when Admiral Horthy’s Hungary grew ever closer to the Third Reich—1938 proved the year in which all compromises with Hitler’s ambitions were perforce abandoned. Düsseldorf’s May 1938 showcase of Entartete Musik had Hindemith among its chief exhibits. In case Hindemith entertained any further uncertainty as to what the NSDAP bosses now thought of him, the showcase’s display of him (put alongside that of Schoenberg, as if the two men were somehow aesthetic allies) bore the menacing slogan: “Who eats with Jews, dies of it.” Husband and wife moved first to Switzerland, where the composer refused to accept local well-wishers’ offer of a monetary loan to compensate for the cost of their planned American voyage. He asked the would-be benefactors: “And if I couldn’t find any work over there? Who’d repay you?” As is now well known, Hindemith did indeed “find work over there”, above all at Yale; but early in the war—even during the Phoney War—his fears of unemployment were understandable.

Hindemith never revisited Turkey, though he intervened on Zuckmayer’s behalf in 1944 when the Nazis demanded that Ismet Inönü, Atatürk’s presidential successor, round up Jews and expel them from Turkish soil. A telegram which he sent to Inönü urging that Zuckmayer be released from detention had no immediate effect, but possibly helped to secure Zuckmayer’s freedom the following year.

What, ultimately, did Hindemith make of his Turkish experiences? A curious sentence in Skelton’s biography leaps out from its context, that being the composition of Hindemith’s Symphonic Dances: “He also wrote a detailed sketch, including passages of dialogue, of an opera on a Turkish subject, but this was never completed.” Lovers of modern German-language musical theatre have abundant cause to regret that nothing came of Hindemith’s planned “opera on a Turkish subject”. Regret is sharpened by remembrance of the composer’s more obviously misguided post-1945 preoccupations. Among these must be numbered, first, his unshakeable belief that Die Harmonie der Welt, over which he havered inconclusively for two decades, would forever establish him as an operatic genius; and, second, his time-consuming overhaul—completed in 1952—of the 1926 score for Cardillac. Those conversant with both the 1926 and the 1952 versions are adamant that the latter can best be described in Sam Goldwyn’s paradoxical but immediately intelligible epigram: “You’ve improved it worse.”

R.J. Stove is an organist and writer living in Melbourne. He wrote “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Organist” in the September issue. His CDs are available from www.arsorgani.com

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