Paul Hindemith 1895-1963
Paul Hindemith
Paul Hindemith
Symphony Mathis der Maler

Born in Hanau near Frankfurt, Paul Hindemith was a child prodigy who started music school at age 12. He quickly became proficient on many instruments, but especially the piano, violin, viola and clarinet. In his 20s he prided himself on being able to play every instrument of the orchestra, although as he said himself, some with more facility than others. In later years he became a known teacher, a best-selling author of books on harmony and musical training and a good conductor.

While Hindemith’s early compositions followed the late romantic language of Brahms, Mahler and Strauss, following World War I he changed gears to become the chief spokesman for the German musical avant garde. It was a revolt against German romanticism, which Hindemith described as “wilted flowers,” “scented letters” and “damsels in distress.”

In the late 1920s and early 1930s he cultivated so-called music to order, music as craft, Sing und Spielmusik – music for song and play – which unfortunately acquired the name Gebrauchsmusik – utilitarian music, or music for use. Whatever its title, it was defined as music written for special purposes, such as radio and film, or for non-professional performers. Hindemith’s goal was to create music to be played by the enlightened amateur, rather than merely listened to passively. Gebrauchsmusik was the musical parallel of the Bauhaus movement in architecture, the search for functionality.

Hindemith apparently came to his vaunted opposition to the Nazis through the back door, and quite by accident. In 1929, his comic opera Neues vom Tage (News of the Day) included a scene of a nude woman in a bath – she actually wore a body stocking and was nearly hidden in a mass of bubbles – singing about the joys of an apartment with hot running water. As luck had it, one member of the audience was the opera lover and known prude, Adolf Hitler. He never forgave Hindemith and took his revenge when he came to power in 1933.

That same year, Hindemith was planning an opera about the love of a German woman and a French prisoner of war during World War I. But with the Nazi ascent to power he thought better of it and turned instead to a purely Teutonic subject. He settled on a story of the sixteenth century painter Mathis Gothart, also known as Neithart, who, for reasons unknown, was falsely named Grünewald by his first biographer two centuries later. During the peasant revolts, Gothart had tried to fight on the side of the peasants but found that he was not suited for combat and could contribute more to the cause by practicing his art.

Gothart’s famous altarpiece in a monastery in Isenheim in Alsace is considered one of the masterpieces of German sixteenth-century painting. By means of this theme, Hindemith intended to declare himself an apolitical artist. But Hitler would have none of it and declared the theme of the opera inimical to German Kultur. He stripped the composer of all his positions and by 1938 forced him to leave Germany. Hindemith’s music – together with that of such other luminaries as Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Kurt Weill and Louis Armstrong – was designated by the Nazis as Entartete Musik – degenerate music.

The symphony Mathis der Maler was actually composed before the opera. The conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Wilhelm Furtwängler, had requested from Hindemith a new work for the 1934 season, while the composer was working on the libretto. By that time Hindemith’s musical language had become much more conservative, leaning towards more traditional ideas of tonality but adding the wider harmonic resources of the twentieth century. The premiere was a smashing success, but the opera, completed a year later, was banned in Germany and was premiered in Switzerland in 1938.

Each movement of the symphony describes a panel from the Isenheim altarpiece. The first movement, “Angelic concert,” serves also as the prelude to the opera. The altarpiece’s inner central panel depicts three angels singing and playing to the Virgin and Child. The slow, solemn introduction opens with the organ-like instrumentation. Example 1 It is built around an old German religious song, “Es sungen drei Engel ein’ süssen Gesang” (Three angels were singing a sweet song) introduced gently by the trombones as a cantus firmus under the flowing counterpoint of the other instruments. Example 2 The movement is structured along the same sonata-allegro structure as a classical symphony, beginning with a theme in the lower register of the flute. Example 3 Added to that is a second theme that will be used later in the movement to develop a double fugue with the opening allegro theme. Example 4 A third theme, a lovely, dancing flute solo, introduces the fugal section, the development, that dominates the rest of the movement. Example 5 Hindemith's decision to make The “angelic” concert a fugue pays homage to the long tradition of fugal writing as the quintessence of intellectual and spiritual expression in music, which itself for more than two millennia was regarded as the cosmic glue that created order in the universe.

The short second movement, “Grablegung” (Entombment), is based on the bottom panels of the Crucifixion, depicting the burial of Jesus. Hindemith's is a musical image of gentle, dignified grief, a balance to the tragic violence of the crucifixion itself. Featuring four themes, introduced by the upper strings, flute, oboe and clarinet respectively, it opens hesitantly, Example 6 leading into a dirge on the solo flute. Example 7 The oboe solo begins the gradual swell to a majestic climax Example 8 while the clarinet solo initiates one of Hindemith’s most serene utterances. Example 9 Hindemith used this movement in the opera twice, as an interlude following the death of the daughter of the peasant revolt leader, and again at the final scene of the opera.

The finale, “Temptation of St. Anthony,” tries to match in music the wild, bizarre nature of the painting, in which the saint is plagued and tempted in his dream by grotesque humans and monsters – in the opera, it is Mathis himself who undergoes the torture. The slow rhapsodic introduction for the lower strings is interrupted by a sudden surprise percussion attacks, Example 10 followed by a galloping ostinato, symbolizing the demons’ pursuit of the saint. Example 11 But this is no unrelenting whirlwind of a witches' sabbath à la Berlioz or Musorgsky. There is a long slow middle section, returning to the mood and instrumentation of the opening, suggesting St. Anthony's voice. Example 12 But even within an intensified attack, in which the tempo picks up in a nattering fugue in the strings, Example 13 faith prevails. Hindemith uses a medieval chant melody, “Lauda Sion Salvatorem” (Zion, Praise the Savior) to depict this spiritual victory over the fiends, adding to it a repeated brass figure recalling the introduction. Example 14 This conclusion of the tableau relates directly to the chorale prelude that ended the “Angelic Concert,” and the promise of redemption.

Note: To access full and detailed views of Mathis Grunewald's Isenheim altarpiece, click on
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016