Humour and Classical Music
8. Paul Hindemith’s Flying Dutchman Overture
by David Barker

Surely you jest, I can almost hear some of you saying. Paul Hindemith and comedy! Chalk and cheese. That’s certainly what I thought when this turned up whilst I was doing some research for a different humour topic. But like me, you would be wrong. Hindemith wrote many parody works; unfortunately a lot of them have been lost. Included among the missing are the Gouda-Emmental Marsch (1920), and Das atonale cabaret (1921). Not missing, but with no sign of a recording, are the Lied ‘im Stile Richard Strauss (c. 1925), with text from the journal “Bees and how to keep them”, and a Recitative and Aria called The Expiring Frog, with text from the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Charles Dickens.

One of his parodies that has survived is the Ouvertüre zum Fliegenden Holländer, wie sie eine schlechte Kurkapelle morgens um 7 am Brunnen vom Blatt spielt. Now if your German is a little rusty, let me translate this catchy title: Overture to the Flying Dutchman as Sight-read by a Bad Spa Orchestra at 7 in the Morning by the Well.

It was written in 1925 for string quartet, when Hindemith was concertmaster of the Frankfurt Opera orchestra. He left no clue as to the reason for writing it, but on another occasion, he did admit to his publisher that when he couldn’t think of anything decent to compose, he tended write kitsch. However, there is another possible explanation (if one is needed). In February 1925, the ban on the National Socialist Party was overturned, with Hitler as its undisputed leader. Hindemith had a troubled history with the Nazis over the next decade. Goebbels described him as “an atonal noisemaker”, and his music was included in the Entartete Musik exhibition. For Hindemith to write a work that parodies Hitler’s favourite composer, making a mockery of the very well-known overture may not be a coincidence.

As you will have guessed, the joke is akin to Mozart’s Ein musikalischer Spaß, where the performance is supposed to sound terrible: dropped and wrong notes, out of tune, a mish-mash of rhythms and so on. There is even an extract from a Waldteufel waltz, giving the impression that the performers have accidentally mixed in pages from another score. Hindemith wrote the piece very precisely, and it requires a good deal of skill to make it sound so terrible.

There are a number of recordings, but it’s not especially useful to attempt to make a judgement about which might be best. I listened to a live performance on Col Legno (WWE1CD60018), which certainly got the humour across. The performance by the Leipziger Streichquartett (MDG 307 1362-2) was praised by my colleague, Göran Forsling (review). There is a performance on YouTube, from a chamber music festival in Matadepera, Spain, by a quartet of musicians, each of whom has a professional career, but there looked to be no more than twenty in the audience, sitting on the “stage” around the performers.

If you are a baked-on Wagnerphile, you may have to think about whether you want to hear a loved work so mercilessly parodied, but for the rest of us, it is very funny.