Käbi Laretei Plays Hindemith

The fourth spouse of Ingmar Bergman, pianist Käbi Laretei worked with Hindemith on his “Ludus Tonalis”. R.J. Stove provides the background to the music and the recording for the first CD issue of this extremely rare Philips recording.

Among the many creative fruits of Paul Hindemith’s American life – spent predominantly at Yale, where he taught from 1940 to 1953 – Ludus Tonalis (1942) ranks with the most significant. Well before Hindemith came to reside in the USA, he had maintained friendly connections with individual Americans. Serge Koussevitzky had commissioned from him in 1930 the Concert Music for Brass and Strings, as part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s half-century celebrations. (For the same celebrations Koussevitzky also commissioned works from Stravinsky, Copland, Prokofiev, Ravel, Roussel, and Respighi.) Later in the decade Hindemith visited America twice, eager to spend as little time as possible in Germany after 1933.

Though a Gentile himself, Hindemith feared for the safety of his part-Jewish wife Gertrude at the regime’s hands. In 1936 the National Socialists formally prohibited all further performances of every piece that Hindemith had written. Two years afterwards, he found himself calumniated at a Düsseldorf exhibition for allegedly purveying Entartete Musik (‘degenerate music’). The exhibition had as its ominous slogan: ‘He who eats with Jews, dies of it’.

Hardly astonishing, then, that during Hitler’s reign Hindemith took numerous opportunities to work and tour abroad, one such opportunity having involved a role as musical consultant for Atatürk’s government in Ankara. There he helped to establish Turkey’s first Western-style conservatoire. Shortly before war came, he and Gertrude moved to the Swiss village of Bluche, where he received a formal invitation to come back to America on a lasting basis. He crossed the Atlantic first; Gertrude followed him near the end of 1940.

At Yale, Hindemith drove his students pitilessly hard, but no harder than he drove himself. In fact his American sojourn’s first four years saw the production of several major compositions – aside from Ludus Tonalis – and more than two dozen minor ones. The major compositions included the ballet score The Four Temperaments, the Symphony in E flat, the Cello Concerto and the Third Organ Sonata (all 1940); a cor anglais sonata and a trombone sonata (both 1941); the Sonata for Two Pianos (1942); the Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Weber (1943); and another ballet score, Hérodiade (1944). Improbably, amid all this, he found time to labour at The Craft of Musical Composition, his theoretical magnum opus, which he had begun in 1937 and which eventually ran to three volumes.

Nevertheless, from the start, Ludus Tonalis meant something special to Hindemith. He took justifiable pride in it; and when discussing it, he displayed a touchiness that belied his public image of ruthlessly unsentimental artisan. Ernest Voigt, manager at Hindemith’s American publisher AMP, did not at first know quite what to make of the composer’s scheme concerning a polyphonic marathon for solo piano. He cannot have been altogether discouraging, since Hindemith boldly completed the entire manuscript of Ludus Tonalis in a six-week burst of inspiration between September and October 1942. The twelve fugues all came first; then came six of the interludes; then came the Praeludium and Postludium; last of all came the other interludes. A letter to Voigt contains this news:

I am thinking of calling it ‘Ludus Tonalis’ because of its didactic (not to say sophisticated) quality. Our Latin experts here at Yale think the title is very apt. I cannot find anything better in German or English to describe as clearly what it is and at the same time hinting at the Well-Tempered Clavier and Art of Fugue (the form, that is … )

Indeed, Hindemith could not have chosen a better name for his creation. Ludus Tonalis, as he implied, is not readily turned into English at all. Perhaps some such translation as ‘The Play of Tones’, or ‘The Game of Tones’, or ‘The Play of Tonalities’ comes closest to conveying Hindemith’s intent. (One tin-eared commentator has insisted on rendering the title as ‘Tonal Primary School’.) What Hindemith clearly sought to communicate by his choice of nomenclature is the sportive character which the music possesses, even – or especially – at its most dense and abstruse.

Voigt’s first plan, upon receiving Ludus Tonalis, involved releasing it in a manuscript-facsimile format, rather than running the financial risk of issuing an engraved one. Hindemith, though, insisted on a fully engraved production, and unleashed upon Voigt the following invective:

I greeted your decision about Ludus Tonalis with a dry and laughing eye. … it is precisely today – when every snivelling juvenile has a symphony in his head, when every orchestral conductor performs the most impossible crap because it is either American or Russian and otherwise has no interest in anything but orchestral music, when music is rated only by how it works on the sex glands – it is precisely today that something must appear which shows what music and composition really are. … You should make your decision on the basis of your responsibility to music history.

As the 1989 volume Paul Hindemith in the United States by Luther Noss (a Yale colleague) drily noted: ‘The composer’s grumbling brought results’. Voigt had been unduly pessimistic about the piece’s commercial prospects. Within the year, AMP was obliged to release a second edition. In the land of Hindemith’s birth, purchasers showed comparable enthusiasm, despite the draconian paper shortages throughout Europe after (no less than during) the war. The composer crowed to his friend Karl Bauer on 15 June 1945: ‘Ludus Tonalis has sold 1200 copies in the three months it has been out in Germany.’ Willard McGregor, a Boston-born pianist who numbered Artur Schnabel among his European teachers, had given the work’s première in Chicago on 15 February 1943.

Ludus Tonalis seldom demands conventional virtuosity, yet its challenges for the player are at times punitive. Few pianists will contemplate the requisite stretches of a tenth and eleventh without either blanching, or spreading out the relevant chords, or both. Moreover, Hindemith nowhere specifies what pedalling he wants, though he clearly marks dynamic changes, tempi and articulations. For the tempi, he eschews his habit of giving directions in German – this forswearing of his native tongue was presumably a tactful gesture to his American hosts – and supplies directions in either English (‘very quiet’) or Italian (‘moderato’).

Technical tours de force, such as are associated with Hindemith’s reputation, abound here. Fuga III, featuring the composer’s beloved upward leaps of a fourth, constitutes a ‘mirror fugue’: the second half is (except for a few notes) the first half backwards. The Postludium consists of the Praeludium in retrograde inversion. Many a creation by Hindemith incorporates a jokey, sarcastic march – while no pacifist, he always hated mindless militarism – and sure enough, Ludus Tonalis has three of them. Interludium III is actually called a march, but march rhythms also dominate in Fuga IV and Fuga VII. Hindemith intended the scurrying semiquavers of Interludium VIII to suggest a baroque toccata, but they are at least as redolent of Mendelssohn on speed-balls. Likewise witty is Interludium XI, a waltz viewed through the musical counterpart of a fun-house’s distorting mirror. With Interludium IX (one of the composer’s noblest and most tragic inspirations), we are back in the world of Hindemith’s best-known work, the Mathis der Maler Symphony. If the funereal right-hand tune and the pulsing accompanimental chords were transcribed for solo oboe and muted strings respectively, they would fit into Mathis’s central movement without the slightest stylistic clash. But one could go on singling out individual movements, since Hindemith aimed to cram as much emotional variety as possible into what lesser composers would have treated as a mere humdrum exercise.

‘A textbook of contrapuntal device[s] as well as a demonstration of Hindemith’s tonal world’: thus Musical Times contributor Peter Evans called Ludus Tonalis in 1956. New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg praised the epic more expansively in 1972: ‘the fascination of the deft contrapuntal writing in Ludus Tonalis … [is] reflective of an art and a mind that will live when most of the ephemera around it are long dead.’

Käbi Laretei

In The New York Times on 18 October 1963, critic Allen Hughes wrote: ‘Shortly before 10 o’clock last night, a handsome and charming woman stood on the stage of Carnegie Hall earnestly explaining the form and significance of Paul Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis to an audience of several hundred persons.’ Hughes’s headline read: ‘Bergman’s Wife in Recital’. As this wording indicates, Käbi Laretei attained her greatest renown through being muse to – and the fourth spouse of – Ingmar Bergman, who included her playing in his movies Fanny and Alexander, The Magic Flute and Autumn Sonata. Still, her association with Bergman was by no means the most dramatic part of her life.

She had been born (1922) in Tartu, Estonia; Stalin’s army, when it invaded the Baltic states in 1940, marked her out for special abuse because of her father’s role as a diplomat. Raped by a Soviet soldier, she underwent an abortion before she and her family managed to reach Sweden as refugees. For the rest of World War II she studied piano (her teachers included Annie Fischer) and thereafter she gave recitals in London, New York, and Washington DC as well as Stockholm.

Hindemith coached Käbi Laretei for her concert renditions of Ludus Tonalis – though he did not live to hear her record the work – and presumably the occasional unmarked rallentando that she demonstrates on her 1965 disc had the composer’s sanction.

Two years earlier at the Stockholm Festival, Laretei had been Stravinsky’s choice of soloist for his Capriccio. At Christmas 1968, near the end of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, she performed in the White House. Her 1950 marriage to German conductor Gunnar Staern had ended in 1959; it produced a daughter, Linda. With Bergman she had a son, Daniel.

Käbi Laretei’s discography is far more exiguous than her formidable pianistic gifts warranted. Apart from her Ludus Tonalis, it comprises a few miscellaneous recitals aimed at the Swedish market; an LP (with the Stockholm Philharmonic) of concertante works by Swedish composers; a collaboration with cellist Georg Rastenberger of music by Schubert, Schumann, Chopin and Poulenc; and the inevitable tie-ins with Bergman movies. From the 1970s she seemed to find literature more congenial than music, and she published several volumes of memoirs. She died at Stockholm in 2014. One detail from her obituary in Britain’s Telegraph deserves special remembrance: because of her cosmopolitan youth, she ‘spoke at least six languages fluently, answering the telephone in a different one every time it rang’.