Christmas, we like to remind ourselves, is about family. But the season tends to offer surprisingly little familial music of any real significance.
The subject matter of holiday oratorio, cantata, opera or song tends to be either the Christmas story itself or our own surroundings and issues, whether dreaming of a white Christmas or the jingling of bells or cash registers. Even “The Nutcracker” isn’t really family ballet but fantasy.
Paul Hindemith’s “The Long Christmas Dinner” is exactly what’s needed. Completed in 1961, it is the last opera by one of the 20th century’s major composers. The English-language libretto, remarkably, is by Thornton Wilder — remarkably because while Wilder may have been a musical connoisseur (he actually directed a Handel opera in 1935), the playwright and novelist was notoriously unaccommodating to composers. He even turned down operatic requests from Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.
But Wilder did come around when approached by Hindemith. The result is a wistful, exquisite and profoundly touching tiny masterpiece, which seemed to have no legs whatsoever. The first performance was in Germany, with the libretto translated into serviceable German by the composer. Hindemith conducted the premiere of the original English-language version at the Juilliard School in 1963, a few months before he died, and it was all but forgotten until Leon Botstein revived it last year in New York with his American Symphony Orchestra. Bridge Records has now released a live recording just in time for Christmas dinner.
Short and bittersweet, the opera covers a 90-year parade of a Midwestern family’s Christmas dinners through the generations. The overture is based on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and there are hints of hymn music here and there, but otherwise religiosity is avoided in what is essentially a meditation on the passing of time by two great artists at or near the ends of their long careers (Wilder died in 1975).
The entire opera takes place at the dinner table. As the years go by, children take the places of parents, serving white meat or dark. Mindfulness to tradition is attempted as family members record the names of ancestors. But memory fades without anyone quite grasping the process.
What matters most, then, is not the Christmas dinner that came before or the one that will come next but an appreciation of the moment. Love and loss, life and death happen quickly, so pay attention. Surprisingly, “The Long Christmas Dinner” turns out to be an opera about the inevitability of impermanence, possibly making it the first and only covertly Buddhist Christmas opera.
To do this, Hindemith and Wilder made every condensed musical phrase or line of text have essential purpose. Time flows unstoppably in the understated score, with its subtle pastel instrumental colors and graciously unshowy vocal writing attuned to the sound and meaning of the word.
The performance features a young American cast that enunciates clearly if not especially strong on personality. But the orchestra is excellent, and Botstein’s account avoids what an older, better-sung German recording doesn’t, namely sentimentality. The wisdom of “The Long Christmas Dinner” is that there can be no long Christmas dinners.
All happy families are not, as Tolstoy suggests, alike, because happiness, like all else, is ephemeral, So make this Christmas dinner matter.
‘The Long Christmas Dinner’
Paul Hindemith (composer), Thornton Wilder (libretto), Leon Botstein (conductor), American Symphony Orchestra
Bridge Records, $14.99