Hindemith’s Opera Depicts a Nun’s Sexual Desires Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Paul Hindemith’s complex, experimental one-act opera, Sancta Susanna, created a firestorm of controversy at its debut because of its frank portrayal of a troubled novice nun whose smoldering sexual passions and desires are aroused one spring night by a life-size wooden statue of the crucified Christ.

Summary of Event

Paul Hindemith was a noted violinist whose reputation for exquisite formal control in concert catapulted him to prominence in the prestigious classical music scene of Frankfurt, Germany, shortly before World War I. He had ambitions to compose as well, intrigued by new theories of dissonance and experimentation with the traditional tonal scale. After the war, Hindemith finally turned to composing and began a decade of immense productivity in which he established himself as one of the most audacious innovators among a new school of modernist artists. These artists, in the aftermath of a war that had shattered much of that generation’s faith in tradition, sought to reinvent all aesthetic forms, as art was perceived as a vehicle to both engage and enrage the public. [kw]Hindemith’s Opera Sancta Susanna Depicts a Nun’s Sexual Desires (Mar. 26, 1922) [kw]Sancta Susanna Depicts a Nun’s Sexual Desires, Hindemith’s Opera (Mar. 26, 1922) Hindemith, Paul Stramm, August Sancta Susanna (opera) Opera Hindemith, Paul Stramm, August Sancta Susanna (opera) Opera [g]Europe;Mar. 26, 1922: Hindemith’s Opera Sancta Susanna Depicts a Nun’s Sexual Desires[00260] [g]Germany;Mar. 26, 1922: Hindemith’s Opera Sancta Susanna Depicts a Nun’s Sexual Desires[00260] [c]Music and peforming arts;Mar. 26, 1922: Hindemith’s Opera Sancta Susanna Depicts a Nun’s Sexual Desires[00260] [c]Public morals;Mar. 26, 1922: Hindemith’s Opera Sancta Susanna Depicts a Nun’s Sexual Desires[00260] [c]Religion;Mar. 26, 1922: Hindemith’s Opera Sancta Susanna Depicts a Nun’s Sexual Desires[00260] [c]Sex;Mar. 26, 1922: Hindemith’s Opera Sancta Susanna Depicts a Nun’s Sexual Desires[00260]

Although his compositions immediately after the war were most notably highly experimental chamber music, Hindemith wrote prodigiously in a variety of genres and was at the forefront of a movement to bring the revolutionary principles of expressionism to the staid and conservative world of German opera (he had been concertmaster of the Frankfurt Opera orchestra—the Frankfurter Museumsorchester—before the war). Hindemith held that opera, given its vested interest in the often hyperbolic emotional and psychological range of its characters, would accommodate expressionism, which freely distorted the presentation of reality by using multilayered symbols to capture the interior life of distraught, emotionally traumatized characters as a way to shock audiences perceived by these uncompromising expressionist artists as bourgeois and complacent.

To that end, Hindemith began what would become a loose kind of trilogy of expressionist one-act operas. The first two—his 1919 setting of dramatist Oskar Kokoschka’s Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (pr. 1909; Murderer, the Women’s Hope, pb. 1963), a dreamlike ritual restaging of Rape;in opera[opera] rape and murder by strangulation conducted between two vaguely defined male and female principles, and 1920’s Das Nusci-Nuschi, a comic farce about rape using performers as life-sized marionettes—had stirred controversy, most notably a near-riot at the Frankfurt Opera House when the audience understood that Das Nusci-Nuschi was mocking Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a venerated landmark of German national pride and cultural identity.

In early 1921, Hindemith read the one-act play Sancta Susanna, written in 1912 by August Stramm, an early expressionist poet and playwright who had been killed during the war, and was immediately intrigued by its possibilities as an operatic work. The play exemplified a prewar theatrical movement known as Schreidramen (loosely translated as scream plays), which sought to disorient the audience by using hallucinatory, dreamlike sequences and dispensing with linear plot and clearly defined characters. Hindemith was captivated by the play’s bold use of the character of a deeply troubled young nun as an allegorical figure representing the tension between lust and celibacy. Hindemith later said he wrote the intricate score for Stramm’s libretto in a furious two-week rush of inspiration, completing the work in late February. However, Fritz Busch, a force in postwar experimental German music, refused to direct this production, objecting to its sacrilegious content. As the musical director of the Stuttgart Opera House, Busch had supported the avant-garde movement and directed both of Hindemith’s earlier one-act works.

The production, however, went forward—Hindemith unwilling to alter the opera’s argument. Sancta Susanna premiered on March 26, 1922, at the Frankfurt Opera House. The twenty-five minute opera takes place entirely in a convent chapel, washed in the eerie and unsettling bluish light of the moon and the unsteady flicker of a single large candle. Off to the left stands a larger-than-life wooden crucifix. As the opera begins, center stage, prostrate before an altar spilling over with spring flowers devoted to the Virgin Mary is the novice nun Susanna. Other nuns, concerned about Susanna’s mental condition, given her long prayer sessions and her increasing isolation, gather about Susanna and try to comfort her. The act is futile, though, underscored by Hindemith’s use of tolling bells (signifying a feeling of doom) and a single extended organ note (a G-sharp held amid other orchestral movements for more than five minutes). Such an extended note would suggest to any organist that something was wrong with the instrument, and that a valve had become stuck. Here, Hindemith prepares the audience for Susanna’s fast-approaching calamitous emotional collapse, signaling musically how something is clearly broken in the convent.

Susanna finds herself increasingly agitated by the heavy smell of the early spring lilacs outside the chapel windows. Suddenly, as a flute hits a halting staccato series of notes that suggest the spring wind rich with the musky smell, Susanna, overtaken by her repressed sexuality, chants an invocation welcoming Satan. An older nun immediately cautions her against such wickedness, telling her of another novitiate long ago whose erotic indulgences had led the order to brick her up alive behind the altar. However, Susanna is beyond reason—a preternaturally large spider crawls out of the darkness behind the altar and entangles itself in Susanna’s hair, symbolic of her lustful nature and the dementia she is enduring as that primitive nature is released. She tosses away her veil and, shockingly, rips the loincloth off the statue of the crucified Christ and attempts to intertwine her legs about the figure.

Amid a wild burst of dissonance from the orchestra, Susanna, now wracked by guilt, demands that the nuns who have witnessed her desecration wall her up. The stage is suspended for a moment—the moonlight disappears. The nuns gather to pray and try to compel Susanna to repent. A storm begins to howl outside the chapel, excessive percussion shakes the stage. The distraught woman refuses. As the opera closes, with harsh brass bursts underscoring the drama of damnation, the circle of nuns chant “Satan,” a recognition of the loss of Susanna’s soul, even as Susanna gathers herself to full height and closes the opera ironically with a feeling not of damnation or repentance but of pride and unfazed dignity.

It is difficult to appreciate the disturbing impact of the theatrical experience—not merely the provocative subject matter but the lurid theatrical effects, the claustrophobic feel of the stage darkness, the growing sense of doom, and the unnerving musical effects that mimic the natural phenomena outside the chapel. However, the critical establishment, ignoring the groundbreaking atmospheric effects of Hindemith’s technically intricate orchestral score, focused rather on the subject matter and decried the opera’s sacrilege and the use of German opera, long a noble part of German culture, as a vehicle for such decadent subject matter.


The operatic work immediately dominated artistic discussion (in subsequent stagings, theatergoers had to sign a pledge promising not to interrupt the performance). However, amid that generation’s decade-long avant-garde assault on all conventional expressions of art, the controversy ebbed even as Hindemith faced a far more serious dilemma as the National Socialists came to power with an aggressive agenda of using art as propaganda that glorified its political vision. The government viewed as decadent, obscure, and elitist the dense experimental works of composers such as Hindemith. Hindemith avoided outright condemnation by virtue of his international status—but in 1938, he emigrated to the United States. He would not return to Europe until 1953. During the last decades of his life, he was remarkably productive, but his voluminous works edged away from the experimental dissonant sounds of his 1920’s work. Thus, Sancta Susanna was eclipsed by Hindemith’s own more traditional later work.

Sancta Susanna itself has not secured a position in the international repertoire. Not so much because of its controversial look at sexual repression, its depiction of sexual desire, and its harsh critique of abstinence and the Roman Catholic Roman Catholic Church;and Sancta Susanna[Sancta Susanna] holy life (although when it was staged in New York as part of the Hindemith Centennial in 1995, it was the subject of condemnation by Catholic groups), but more because of its staging. The opera requires eccentric instrumentation (an addition to the organ, a xylophone, bells, a celesta, a large gong, and a harp), has an unconventional musical score (part of Hindemith’s well-documented theories of expanding the nature of musical sound itself), had difficult staging instructions that involve an intricate system of theatrical effects (although it has been proposed for cinematic treatment), and has a decidedly hallucinatory atmosphere and unsettling ending that puts off audiences. It is seen now largely as a kind of closet-drama, a period piece that testifies to an era when music boldly sought to startle audiences into rethinking the role music plays in a culture and, in turn, seeing the composer as provocateur. Hindemith, Paul Stramm, August Sancta Susanna (opera) Opera

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kater, Michael H. Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Examines the careers of eight German composers who were working, whether in Germany or as exiles, during the time the Nazis were in power. Chapter 2 is devoted to Hindemith.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, George. Twentieth Century Opera: A Guide. New York: Limelight, 2004. Updated survey of twentieth century operatic productions. Includes synopses and histories of staging and places each work within a broad continuum of cultural and historic ferment, including the avant-garde movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skelton, Geoffrey. Paul Hindemith: The Man Behind the Music. New York: Crescendo, 1975. The definitive look at Hindemith. Includes analysis of the musical structures and the thematic arguments of his three one-act operas and an anecdotal summary of the public outcry against each.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Teachout, Terry. “The Last German Master.” Commentary, January, 2002. Discusses Hindemith’s musical education, career, and compositions.

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