Hindemith and Shaw and requiems and me

I felt a compulsion this morning to pull out the Shaw recording of Hindemith’s choral masterpiece, When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d: A Requiem for Those We Love. It occurs to me that I’ve never told my story about the piece, and how I came to meet Robert Shaw.

First a word about Lilacs. The facts: Hindemith wrote it in 1946, on a commission from a young Robert Shaw, in memory of Franklin Roosevelt who had died the previous April. Roosevelt’s death had come 80 years—very nearly to the day—after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Perhaps for that reason, Hindemith chose Walt Whitman’s great poem of mourning for Lincoln as his text.

Hindemith’s work is simultaneously a monumental and an intimate piece, forbidding and vulnerable, as it alternates choral passages of (frankly) excruciating difficulty and dissonance with melodic arias from baritone and mezzo, and choral fugues of intense rhythmic power, all supported by an orchestra heavy on woodwinds. It’s a bitch to prepare. When I sang it in 1995, we sweated the choral parts—which comprise a relatively small portion of the work—for two months, knowing what was coming.

And he came. Robert Shaw, the greatest choral conductor of the 20th century, commissioner of this masterwork, instructor of choral conductors, dropper of pearls of wisdom both sacred and profane. I remember so little of what he said during those hot rehearsals, only that he looked exhausted and that I felt both his exhaustion and his invigoration as we sang the piece.

I return to the piece these days as a comfort that grief and sorrow are not only mine, and as a reminder of my first encounter with a great musician and leader.

Bonus links: there are a few online remembrances of Shaw that include sprinklings of his wisdom, such as the following:

  • “I get a horrible picture, from the way you sing, of little bitty eighth notes running like hell all over the place to keep from being stepped on. Millions of ’em! Meek, squeaky little things. No self-respect. Standing in corners, hiding behind doors, ducking into subway stations, peering out from under rugs. Refugees. Dammit, you’re all a bunch of Whole-Note Nazis.” (to the Collegiate Chorale, 1946, as cited in the New York Times)
  • “It is the nature of music, unlike painting and most of literature, that its final creation is not its original creation. Music needs to be sounded, to be sung. In this sense, the composer literally must leave his work to be finished by others… . Can you imagine Michelangelo asking us to come in and help him finish the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Us and our dirty little daubers?.” (quoted in Religion Online)
  • “Our tenors are adolescent. Our altos have not passed puberty. Our sopranos trip their dainty ballet of coloratura decorum, and our basses woof their wittle gway woofs all the way home .. Get your backs and bellies into it! You can’t sing Beethoven from the neck up—you’ll bleed! Beethoven is not precious. He’s prodigal as hell. He tramples all over nicety. He’s ugly, heroic; he roars, he lusts after beauty, he rages after nobility. Be ye not temperate!” (on performing Beethoven’s Ninth, as quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)