In early 1979 William Malloch, artistic director of the Ojai Festival, asked the Firesign Theatre to join a special performance. Firesign had just performed live at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip in February doing their new piece “The Owl & Octopus Show”, and Malloch wanted them to join the West Coast premiere of a notorious Weimar-era theatre piece, Lehrstück, with music by Paul Hindemith and text by Bertolt Brecht. Firesign performed as part of the show on 5/20/1979, which was later broadcast on KPFA. (The Clown Show segment only has parts for three actors, and Phil Proctor did not appear on stage, being credited in name only.)
The entire piece, which you can stream from the Internet Archive, is about 53 minutes; Firesign’s segment is 13 minutes. The experience was seminal for Firesign and it strongly influenced their own writing and live performances for the next three years, especially their stage show / album Fighting Clowns in 1980. From the festival program, here are notes by Allan Ulrich:
The completion of Lehrstück (most conveniently translated as “instructive play”) in 1929 marks the end of a period of Hindemith’s career that produced some of his most important vocal works. The bitter lyricism of the song-cycle Das Marienleben (1923) to poems by Rilke led the way to the most important stage work of the decade, the three-act opera Cardillac in 1926. Although Hindemith extensively revised this work in 1953, even the original version signified an important change in his esthetic. The ideals of Strauss and Wagner were to be rejected in favor of a new emphasis on the purely musical side of opera, with an emphasis on polyphonic shape and rhythmic clarity.
Bertolt Brecht, librettist for Lehrstück, was Hindemith’s full equal in stature. The composer met the poet in 1927 in Baden-Baden at the first performance of Kurt Weill’s Little Mahagonny, and both began collaboration on a “folk oratorio” designated for Baden-Baden two years later.
The text of Lehrstück concerns a pilot who calls on his fellow men when his plane crashes. Critic Geoffrey Skelton calls it:
“a harsh parable on the unimportance of the individual…it seems likely that Hindemith did not fully grasp the message of the piece or the nature of Brecht’s dramatic method when he decided to set it as part of his music for amateurs.”
Hindemith prefaced the score with the following words:
“Since the Lehrstück is only intended to implicate all people present in the actual performance, and not in the first place to make any definite impression as a musical or literary utterance, its form can be adapted to the needs of the moment. The order of pieces in the score is accordingly to be taken more as a recommendation than a command. Ommission, additions and transpositions can be made.”
In light of their vastly divergent philosophies, the friction between the collaborators seemed almost inevitable. Brecht’s interest lay chiefly in implicating his audience in the moral framework he had created, forcing it to make an ethical choice. Hindemith wished only his listeners’ active participation in the venture.
The scandal which the Lehrstück caused at its first performance (July 28, 1929) was owing entirely to a scene in which there is hardly any music. This is the sketch in which the clowns cure a giant of his physical afflictions by sawing off the affected limbs one by one. Such hardened observers as Gerhard Hauptmann and Andre Gide were reportedly shocked. Brecht was pleased. Hindemith was concerned only that the scandal would deafen people to the true quality of the music and he specified that the clowns’ scene might be omitted from future performances.
Brecht insisted that the interlude remain. In a few months, he withdrew his text, refusing to allow any more performances of this first version. Both parties consulted their lawyers; the work was withdrawn from circulation and was not performed again for almost three decades. It was a lamentable fate for a work which is now generally considered as one of the finer examples of Hindemith’s Music to Sing and Play. It is sadder still that it ended the chance of any future collaboration between two of Germany’s most fertile intellects.