The opera is set in a variety of locations between the years 1608 and 1630 and throws a spotlight on individual scenes, sometimes presented simultaneously, from the life of the astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630); the opera takes its name from Kepler’s theoretical work ‘Harmonices mundi’. Hindemith utilises substantial historical studies as the basis for his sketches of individuals within Kepler’s circle who each accompany the astronomer’s scientific endeavours with a variety of personal ambitions.
The military commander Wallenstein attempts to utilise Kepler’s astrological abilities to realise his own pretensions to power while Kepler’s assistant Ulrich aspires to scientific fame and recognition. Kepler’s mother urges her son to apply his scientific abilities to the services of her black magic and the Lutheran minister Hizler forbids the astronomer to receive communion because Kepler questions the doctrine of Holy Communion in the Lutheran church and expresses sympathy for Calvinist doctrine. The few figures shed in a positive light include Kepler’s wife Susanna who supports her husband’s pursuit of truth and knowledge and the child Susanna who listens to the voices of nature and the moon in her childish naivety, thereby gaining revelatory knowledge.
At the end of his life, Kepler takes stock of his situation, succumbs to a state of resignation and considers death as the greatest harmony of all. In his state of agony, music of the spheres can be heard; the constellations appear as allegorical figures in the opera and contradict Kepler’s negative concepts: lying beyond all that can be researched by mankind is a final majestic realm with the powers to ‘permit us to be amalgamated into a gigantic harmony of the spheres.’
This opera is the result of Hindemith’s extensive preoccupation with the principles of the resonating cosmos. On the basis of his studies of ancient and mediaeval musical theorists, he attempts to perceive the underlying order behind the changes subjected on a wide spectrum of phenomena. He sees these changes as being based on a recognisable original foundation which is epitomised through music subjected to a numerical order. Hindemith considers this fundamental numerical ordering of all existing matter to be intrinsic and therefore exempt from any alteration or development. He recognises an affinity between himself and the astronomer Kepler. The proportions of the music in the opera are subject to a tonal order as described by Hindemith in his music theoretical text Unterweisung im Tonsatz [The Craft of Musical Composition]: Kepler’s mother as the antagonist to her son is represented in the court scene Die Harmonie der Welt in the third act by a held Bb note as a tritone to the primary key of E. The other acts are tonally grouped in symmetry around this central point: the second and fourth acts conclude on an A and the first and penultimate scenes on F#.
The Prelude and the large-scale allegorical scene in the finale end on E, the note which Hindemith gives a privileged position in the preface to the revised version of the song cycle Das Marienleben. Declamatory passages are interspersed by cantabile sections with a symphonic-concertante character. The difficulty in the comprehension of the text and content of this work corresponds to the complexity of the concepts and their concentrated presentation. The confident and stylistically secure mastery of a variety of compositional mediums and expressive possibilities is highly impressive. After the first performance of this opera, only a handful of theatres were interested in staging this monumental opus. Abridgements authorised by Hindemith himself were utilised in productions in Vienna (1960) and in Gelsenkirchen after the composer’s death (1966). (H.-J. W.)
ABOUT THE COMPLETE EDITION
Die Harmonie der Welt [The Harmony of the World] is published in three volumes within the Hindemith Complete Edition. Part B contains the Second and Third Act, as well as drafts and early versions of the libretto in the appendix.