Paul Hindemith is not a universal household name for most audiences. His peers in Germany and Europe have gained far-reaching fame when compared to the more academic Hindemith. While Richard Strauss, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Jean Sibelius, and Gustav Mahler headline some of the most popular nights for symphonies nationwide, Hindemith did not write the volume of symphonic warhorses like Mahler and Sibelius, nor with the flair of heightened late-romanticism of Strauss and Rachmaninoff. In reality, Hindemith’s compositions are more akin to the pair of Soviet-era Russians. Like Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Hindemith’s music is notably compact, with great care given to the formal structures and techniques of composition. His works show a great ear for beautiful harmony while lacking the dripping sarcasm of his Stalin-era counterparts.
Much like Prokofiev and Shostakovich’s lifelong issues with the USSR, Stalin, and his cultural policies, Hindemith faced up against the likes of Hitler and Goebbels. Hitler was famous (infamous may be the better term) for his love of art and music, though he had notably old tastes, favoring the long established sensibilities over emerging new music. Hitler’s propagandist, Joseph Goebbels derided this new wave of music from Hindemith and other academics like Schoenberg as a “drastic confirmation of how deeply the Jewish intellectual infection has eaten into the body of our people.” Hindemith was a tried and true academic, later immigrating to the USA and teaching music theory at Yale University. This professorial rigor comes through in his much of his music, with strict structures, intelligently written lines of melody, a brilliant understanding of harmony, and a deep, lifelong love of baroque compositional techniques especially the fugue.
It is in our universities and conservatories of music that Hindemith is just as well known and performed as any other composer, having status next to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. The reason stems from the sheer number of works Hindemith wrote for each individual instrument, including sonatas and concertos for every orchestral instrument, sometimes several times over. From heavyweights like the violin, cello, and flute to the underrepresented players, trombone, tuba, double bass, and English horn. The reason for this thorough coverage probably relates to Hindemith’s academic sensibilities, taking on a project of understanding each instrument well enough to compose such an intimate work as a sonata or concerto. Every spring in music schools and conservatories from coast to coast, the works of Hindemith ring out in recital halls and practice rooms. This level of familiarity comes through in Hindemith’s music, with each member of the orchestra highlighted with brilliant technical writing and understanding for the capabilities of the individual musician and the section as a whole.
Hindemith’s music comes in quite a variety, like many 20th Century composers. The effects of living during two world wars, an international depression that reduced the German economy to abject poverty, and the rise of the Nazi party meant that even the normally stern Hindemith was given to a stylistic range of expression. Mathis de Maler is one of Hindemith’s most accessible works, even considering its depth of meanings. The themes of this work speak to artistic integrity in the time of crisis, and the role of speaking up in dark times. The music itself reflects the religious piety of St. Anthony and Matthias Gruenewald, as well as the pangs of torturous derision. Mathis de Maler is the perfect work for a Vanguard performance. While not Classical Top 40, it is a piece that orchestras take on with frequency, always introducing members of the audience to the works of a brilliant composer. Exploring complex themes and history while presenting a work of sonorous beauty, I can easily say this is one concert I have looked forward to all season and will be the best piece you’ve never heard.
by Anthony V. Berkley, Patron Services Assistant