Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composer and the pieces

Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith: Symphony Mathis der Maler

German composer Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was one of the greatest and most versatile musicians of the 20th Century. He was concertmaster of the Frankfurt Opera, founder of the Amar Quartet, and a brilliant viola soloist who once stepped in to premiere William Walton’s Viola Concerto. (Walton’s Variations on a Theme by Hindemith was an expression of gratitude.)  Hindemith was a good pianist, reasonably proficient on all instruments of the orchestra, and a fine conductor. His Donaueschingen Festival championed many new works between 1923 and 1930. In 1927, he began a distinguished teaching career at Berlin’s Hochschule für Musik. His Gebrauchsmusik pieces (utility music, a term he disliked) for children, students, and amateurs are still played today. He also wrote several books on music.

The young Hindemith was an enfant terrible. Although he turned Expressionist by 1921, risqué texts to three operas (including the lovely Sancta Susanna and fascinating Nusch-Nuschi) added to that reputation. So did his music from the 1920s when he experimented with aggressive, spiky chamber works like Kammermusik No. 1, which a Gramophone critic called “a manifesto on the overthrow of musical Expressionism.” Some works drew on the Baroque, e.g., the stunning Cardillac (1926) and Kammermusiks 2-7, which the above critic called “updated Brandenburg Concertos.” (Hindemith was often called “the 20th century Bach.”) His transition to a Romantic style began around 1930, led by larger works like Concert Music for Strings and Brass, with its mixture of the Baroque and Romantic, and the oratorio Das Unaufhorlich (The Unceasing, 1931) a stylistic precursor to the opera Mathis der Maler (1934). Most of his other great orchestral works followed: Nobilissima Visione, Symphonic Dances, Symphony in E-flat, Symphonic Metamorphosis, Die Harmonie der Welt (symphony and opera), many concertos, and others.

The Nazis disliked the rebellious nature of Hindemith’s music (Goebbels called him an “atonal noisemaker”) but tolerated him until objections began stirring around the 1934 premiere of Symphony: Mathis der Maler. When the regime called for a boycott of Hindemith performances, conductor William Furtwängler objected, but a ban followed in 1936. Hindemith completed a few more major works and then fled Germany for Switzerland in 1938, and in 1940 to the United States where he taught at Yale and other universities. He became a U.S. citizen in 1946, but returned to Switzerland in 1951 for a position at the University of Zurich. From there, he continued an international career until his death in 1963.

Paul Hindemith emerged from Germanic Classicism and Romanticism, and his music is distinctive enough for “Hindemithian” to be an adjective. His great Romantic works are dignified and sturdy. His melodies unfurl into long winding lines that climb, descend, and probe into nooks and crannies, e.g., the four-minute string melody in Part I (Sehr breit) of Concert Music for Strings and Brass. Hindemith was openly hostile to atonality. He saw the major chord as the anchor of music, and his dramatic major cadences loom like signposts. He used all twelve tones of the chromatic scale and treated them equally, but unlike the atonalists, he did not arrange them into a row or scale. Instead, he employed “all the twelve tones of the chromatic scale within a tonal framework” (Humphrey Searle), working within and around different keys, sometimes more than one at a time. His motoric rhythms are frequented by dotted, skipping, and martial figures, with stern, upbeat-to-downbeat pacing, often repeating figures in a machine-like but compelling way. He also wrote a great deal of counterpoint.

Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter) is based on the life of German painter Matthias Neithart Gothart (1470-1528), better known as Matthias Grünewald. Matthias gave up his art and patronage from Albrecht, the Archbishop of Mainz, to join the German Peasants’ War (1524-25) on the side of the peasants, only to question his decision after experiencing the peasants’ violence and doubt over his capabilities as a soldier. Hindemith saw Matthias’s quandary as “the embodiment of problems, wishes, and doubts that have occupied the minds of all serious artists from remotest times” (Andrew Porter), including himself during the rise of the Nazis.

Hindemith was at work on Mathis when Furtwängler asked him for an orchestral piece. The composer responded with Symphony: Mathis der Maler (1934), which contained music he would use in his opera (completed in 1935 and premiered in 1938 in Switzerland because of the Nazi ban). The symphony’s three movements are each named and based not on the opera to come, but on three pictures from the altarpiece Grünewald painted for St. Anthony’s Church in Isenheim, Germany (now in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmer, France).

“Engelkonzert” (“Angelic Concert”), which became the opera’s overture, opens with trombones intoning the German folk song, “Es sungen drei Engel” (Songs of Three Angels). The rest is full of light-hearted, joyous, often fugal music, with three themes, one for each angel in the picture. It climaxes with “Es Sungen” reappearing triumphantly, and ends with a celebratory cadence in the brass. [The opera consists of seven Tableaux. In Tableau 6, Scene 1, Mathis comforts Regina, whom he had rescued after her father was killed. He describes angels singing. Regina sings “Es Sungen Drei Engel,” and Mathis joins her before she falls asleep. Other parts of “Engelkonzert” are heard in this tableau.]

“Grablegung” (“Entombment”) became the orchestral interlude in Tableau 7 between Regina’s death and Mathis’s farewell to his present life. The first part is like a funeral procession, with a slow, upbeat-downbeat tread. Plaintive woodwinds signify grief, and the “processional” resumes, building to a powerful cadence before concluding with a sighing major chord in the winds.

“Versuchung des Heiligen Antonius” (“Temptation of St. Anthony”) is composed of themes from Tableau 6, and is the only movement not inserted as a whole into the opera. Under its title in the score is the Latin for “Where were you, good Jesus, where were you? Why were you not here to heal my wounds?” That seems reflected by the forbidding passage that opens this movement and Tableau 6. The rest of the movement is drawn from Scene 2, when Mathis falls asleep and dreams of himself as Saint Anthony, surrounded by the opera’s different characters, each representing a temptation. The demons of Hell roar in a triple-time passage whose serpentine melody seeks to wrap itself around St. Anthony, while a persistent, skipping woodwind rhythm represents Anthony’s efforts to fend of his attackers. A long celestial interlude reflects Mathis’s ex-lover Ursula, as the Harlot. Toward the end of this section, a phrase rising slowly in the violas and repeated later by the cellos is sung in resistance by St. Anthony. Quick syncopated brass figures relaunch the assault, to be met by Anthony storming in the horns and trombones, soon to be reinforced by the Hell music at full power. A lively passage ensues, under which a clarinet plays a short, marked passage in triple time. The strings continue skittering, and the clarinet is joined by a horn. Suddenly, the woodwind choir raises the chant, “Lauda Sion Salvatorem” (“Praise thy Savior, O Zion”), while the orchestra bustles in a fugato, and the horns assume the persistent triplet passage. All this builds grandly until the brass emerge alone to sound an Alleluia that ends the symphony. [In the opera, the Alleluia ends Tableau 6, and is sung over the brass by Albrecht (as St. Paul) and Mathis as they celebrate Mathis’s decision to return to his art. Tableau 7 depicts Mathis, his efforts spent, eschewing most of his possessions so that he might conclude his life in solitude.]

Despite his devotion to tonality, Hindemith is often dismissed as “difficult” or “modernist.” Two great musicians argued otherwise when Hindemith was being ignored. Glenn Gould won his only Grammy for “Hindemith: Will His Time Come? Again?”, the essay accompanying his recording of Hindemith’s piano sonatas (1973). Two months after Hindemith’s death, Leonard Bernstein hosted a New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert, “The Genius of Paul Hindemith,” an impassioned defense of Hindemith as a tonal composer in the German tradition. “As we listen... [to Symphony: Mathis der Maler]” Bernstein told his audience with a small sob, “let us be grateful that for the last sixty-eight years Paul Hindemith was part of our world.”

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is the Operations/Personnel Manager). He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. His latest fiction collection, The Audition and Other Stories, includes a novella about a trombonist preparing for and taking a major orchestra audition (English Hill Press, 2013).

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