An all-too-rare performance of Paul Hindemith’s When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d / A Requiem “For those we love” was performed in the Duke University Chapel by the Choral Society of Durham with orchestra and soloists Lee Poulis, baritone, and Mary Gayle Greene, mezzo-soprano, conducted by Durham’s leading choral maestro, Rodney Wynkoop.

“For those we love within the veil, Who once were comrades of our way, We thank thee, Lord; for they have won To cloudless day…,”  So reads the first stanza of a 1915 war-memorial hymn by the Rev. Dr. W. Charter Piggott.  In a curious set of circumstances from which great art can spring, Hindemith found Piggott’s hymn in a Yale University Episcopal hymnal (likely the Hymnal 1940), where it was set to a tune named “Gaza,” adapted from a traditional Jewish melody. That tune, in Hindemithian guise, plays a prominent part in this 1946 work.

Life and death – eternal concerns of religious and humanist authors alike – are always brought into sharp focus in times of war and remembrance. So it was that the poet Walt Whitman, grieving at the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln brief weeks after the end of the Civil War, wrote his extended threnody, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed.” Soon after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Collegiate Chorale conductor Robert Shaw commissioned Hindemith to compose a major choral work as a memorial. After discarding “An American Requiem” as the work’s title, Hindemith settled on A Requiem “For those we love”  and incorporated the hymn-tune into the new work. That tune, without Piggott’s text, serves as a mostly-invisible link which adds thoughts of World War I to those of the Civil War and WW II, all encompassed by Whitman’s elegiac text.

The performance was not without problems, chief among them being diction and choral and choral/orchestral balances. Even though Wynkoop, knowing the long reverberation times in Duke Chapel, chose tempos slower than Hindemith’s own recorded performances, the chorus’ diction was not up to the task of communicating Whitman’s characteristically-picturesque text with clarity. Except when singing the quiet, homophonic passages, it was difficult to understand the words or indeed identify the language in which the chorus was singing.

Of the chorus’ 121 members, only 19 are basses. As good as Wynkoop is, neither he nor any other conductor can make nineteen basses balance seventy-seven women’s voices. The orchestra’s forte sonorities consistently covered the chorus and, at times, the lovely mezzo-soprano voice of Greene. While the chorus stood on risers, the orchestra was seated on the flagstone floor of the Chapel, which gave them an extra reflecting surface for their sound. Perhaps some judiciously-placed carpet under the orchestra would provide a better balance for densely-scored works like Hindemith’s.

The star of the afternoon was baritone Poulis, whose vibrant upper register confidently matched the orchestra’s challenge. He handled the Requiem’s high tessitura with ease and brought drama to the recitative-like passages of the work’s ninth movement, “Sing on!,” with its passages reminiscent of William Walton’s 1931 Belshazzar’s Feast. In the final movement, “Passing the visions, passing the night,” Poulis took advantage of the lighter orchestral scoring, with its dialogue passages between singer and solo flute (Pam Nelson), to demonstrate his lyrical gifts as his voice soared above the instruments. Similarly, Greene’s duet with Poulis brought additional notes of beauty to this concluding section.

This is one of Hindemith’s most richly-harmonic scores, its tonal language less acerbic than his norm. The orchestral peroration to the eighth movement, “With the fresh sweet herbage under foot,” brought to mind the composer’s monumental 1934 symphony, Mathis der Maler (another work in which Hindemith quotes a hymn-tune, even more extensively).

The chorus was at its best in the “death carol,” “Come, lovely and soothing Death,” even though the closing chromatic descending passage led them slightly under pitch on their final unison note. This is not easy music to sing; the singers must think as instrumentalists to be secure in their pitches. This is not serial (“twelve-tone”) music, but each of an octave’s twelve pitches is as important as every other; it is tonal music without easily-recognized tonal centers. That the chorus did as well as it did is testament to the dedicated hours of rehearsal time on the part of each member.

In its long history, the Choral Society has never before performed “As lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed.” Congratulations to Rodney Wynkoop for exposing to audience and performers alike the depths of this significant mid-twentieth-century masterwork.