Another WHRB Spring Orgy

Ethelbert Nevin

[May 2003.]

Last year I wrote about WHRB’s Spring 2003 Orgy, when this local, college-affiliated station devotes long consecutive hours to all of a given band’s recordings or composer’s works, as close to complete as recording allows. WHRB programs these Orgies at the end of every academic term. Last year, we had several sublime days of Haydn. Last fall’s passed for me unremarkably, with Verdi in focus.

This season, Prokofiev. It’s rare for Americans to hear the operas, though there are many. I took in bits and pieces and an extended stretch covering 1929 (the afternoon of Wednesday, May 7). I knew that Prokofiev reused material from his operas in some of the symphonies, but The Fiery Angel, Op. 37, the Third Symphony, Op. 44, Divertimento, Op. 43, The Prodigal Son, Op. 46, and Sinfonietta, Op. 48, all sounded similar: dense, calisthenic, abrasive. I missed my favorites, the Orgies being a 24-hour thing: the ballets Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet, the Fifth Symphony and Third Piano Concerto.

Praise be to the folks who organize the Orgies for slipping in an afternoon of Henri Dutilleux (Monday, May 5). Last year you could blink and miss the Webern Orgy. This spring, merely answering the door denied you half of Dutilleux’s output. What a wonderful ear this Frenchman has! The string quartet, Ainsi la nuit, is a masterpiece. Don’t know it? Well, you owe it to yourself to cozy up. It’s achieved such acclaim that many quartets have been releasing recordings of it alongside the Ravel and Debussy. Hearing Symphony No. 2, Le Double, (would a third symphony be Le Triple?) in chronological context made clear how wonderful Dutilleux is. (By the way, Symphony No. 2 was commissioned by the local orchestra across the river.)

The Gesualdo Orgy (Thursday, May 15) was a tease. Well-intentioned announcers struggling with Italian and Latin interrupted the little I heard. I missed the Johann Nepomuk Hummel and the Charles-Valentin Alkan Orgies, and the world still turns.

But now we come to the part of the season that made me hate music: several days of Paul Hindemith (Sunday, May 11 to Wednesday, May 14). I addressed the stint with an open mind, eager to hear more of this unfashionable but influential 20th-century composer. The experience reminded me of picking at a scab or slowing down on an interstate to see a grisly crash. It’s clearer to me than ever. There’s no music there.

Sure, a few good moments: the trautonium ditties, the last two seconds of the Mathis der Maler Symphony, the basset horn part in the Third Organ Sonata, and the silence between the second and third movements of the Trumpet and Piano Sonata. (Why did Glenn Gould bother to learn all those pages?) Otherwise, Hindemith makes me hate music. All I hear is tuneless, passionless drivel. It’s like listening to a dripping faucet or school buses parking on gravel.

When the fellow was a young, squirmy imp, he coughed up some precocious pieces, e.g., Rag Time (wohltemperiert) and Das Nusch-Nuschi. These have personality and the odd melody. Later works, most everything after W. W. I and definitely everything he composed in America, are a waste. Truman Capote’s quip, “That’s not writing, that’s typing,” jumps to mind.

Some works are clever, though unlistenable: Hin und zurück, the opera whose second half is the first half backwards (but not an excruciatingly literal palindrome as in Ludus tonalis, or other works). Pieces with potent titles, Overture to “The Flying Dutchman” as Played at Sight by a Second-Rate Concert Orchestra at the Village Well at 7 o’clock in the Morning, fizzle on delivery. I’ve heard it said that Richter’s recording of Ludus tonalis, a copy of which I cannot locate, is the final word on that collection of academic counterpoint and shenanigans.

How could someone so influential, so well-trained, be so — well — terrible? Maybe I don’t get Gebrauchsmusik, which I admit isn’t a fair label. Satie’s furniture music is OK with me, whereas utility music sounds like something you would listen to while cutting linoleum or gelding foals, preferably in protective gear, including noise-suppression headsets. Could it be that Hindemith was so talented a violinist, violist, pianist, etc., that he excelled at nothing?

I can imagine the mail:

Dear Mr. Nevin: How can you say such terrible things about Hindemith? I have been working on the first page of the solo viola sonata for 12 1/2 years now, and every moment has been pure joy. McGurston Cuttlefisk c/o Miss Marble’s Home for Little Wanderers, Presque Isle, Maine.

Dear Mr. Nevin: Hindemith was a brilliant pedagogue and invigorating teacher! I studied with him for many years, and through his guidance, I was able to find my true voice and a happy career. Abelard Whimsey, Chief Floor Sweeper, San Quentin.

Kind Sirs: How can you post Nevin’s rubbish! Hindemith’s music is the perfect blend of tradition and innovation. We’ve installed a system of closed-circuit speakers throughout our downtown and have been broadcasting choice snippets of Hindemith’s operas. As a result, the riff-raff and undesirables stay far away and vandalism and loitering have dropped markedly. However, Mrs. Witherspoon is still in a coma, and the line at the bank now wraps around the block. Mayor Marjorie T. Basketship, Jr., Dimmsdale, Antarctica.

Dear Mr. Nevin: Now that I listen to Hindemith, I don’t want to hurt little puppies any more. Yours, F.X. Tingle, Wetspaper, Montana.

Und so weiter.

An imperfect recollection: In one of his lectures, Babbitt — now there’s someone who should be the subject of a WHRB Orgy! — presented a bit of a Hindemith quartet that starts with a solo. It’s a nonserial composition, the opening of which uses only 11 pitches, the 12th being retained for the second voice’s entry. Apparently this gimmick was a big deal to Hindemith. Babbitt put this quirk in a context that applies today, and here is where I’m probably paraphrasing incorrectly: Hindemith went blindly down a path which reveled in such quaint little contrivances, there being, as far as he was concerned, no other way to write music. Such tricks would pass unnoticed today.