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Work of the week – Paul Hindemith: When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom‘d

2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the great American author Walt Whitman. Paul Hindemith’s requiem, When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d, is a setting of Whitman’s poem of the same name, which will be performed at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg on 18 and 19 January by mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger, baritone Matthias Goerne, the RIAS Chamber Choir, the NDR Choir and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.

Composed shortly after he received his American citizenship, the work pays tribute to the country that had welcomed him with open arms after his exile from Germany. It is interesting to note that Hindemith’s admiration for this particular poem stretches back much further: his 1919 song cycle for baritone and piano, 3 Hymnen von Walt Whitman, contains a setting of the ninth verse which he revisits again in 9 English Songs written in early 1940.

Hindemith sets the whole poem in his requiem, which bears the subtitle A Requiem “for those we love” and was composed in 1946 and premiered in New York the same year. The German version, which Hindemith translated himself, was first performed in Perugia in 1948.

Paul Hindemith: A Requiem “for those we love” – A commemoration to the victims of the war

The requiem was commissioned following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, drawing a historical parallel to Whitman’s poem, itself an elegy written in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Hindemith included the inscription “for those we love” to extend its scope beyond the immediate occasion to other themes from Whitman’s text including peace and the fraternization of enemies. Hindemith also used musical language to express his profound despair concerning the fate of many Jewish people in Europe during WWII including a quotation of the Jewish melody “Gaza”.

At a young age, landscape, mood, education and personal attachment to things and events may be an important stimulus to artistic work. But I now find that the story of people, events and experiences as well as their interpretation and design by artistic means is not so much connected to these externalities. It depends on how one processes his experiences and not on collecting new ones on the spot … – Paul Hindemith

The definitive recording of When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d features Cornelia Kallisch, Krister St. Hill, the Rundfunkchor Berlin and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin with Lothar Zagrosek.

The new edition of the Schott Journal includes repertoire recommendations for the upcoming bicentenary of both Walt Whitman and Herman Melville in 2019. Download the magazine below to discover more from the “American Romantics”.