Hindemith – Mathis der Maler

by Max Derrickson

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

Mathis der Maler: Symphony
1. Engelkonzert (Angel Concert)
2. Grablegung (Entombment)
3. Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (Temptation of Saint Anthony)


Paul Hindemith towered above all other German composers in the years between the World Wars. Most notable are his many orchestral and chamber works, but he also composed 11 operas, five ballets, three film scores, and music for a radio play. His early works reflect those turbulent and avant-garde times. For example, midway through his 1927 opera “There and Back,” he reverses the music and has it played backwards to the end. These early works were rife with psychological torment, infidelity, and murder. Throughout Hindemith’s life, his extraordinary musical output was matched by a vigorous commitment to music and musicians. A staunch promoter of new music, he was also a teacher, theorist of the first order, conductor, and professional violinist and violist. He was sincerely committed to supporting musicians at every level of ability, launching summer festivals devoted to beginners, as well as concert series pairing amateurs with professionals.


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The Symphony Mathis der Maler (“Matthias the Painter”) was the first piece that Hindemith wrote during this new creative period of the 1930’s. The work beautifully captures both his new musical style and his sharpened commitment to the artist’s role in society, reflectingGermany’s social and political unrest. In 1932, Hindemith’s publisher suggested that he write an opera based on the life of the High Renaissance German painter Matthias Grunewald (c1475-1528). During the Peasants’ Revolt against serfdom (about 1524-25), Matthias questioned the social role of the artist, eventually abandoning his painting to join the Revolt. However, his horror at the atrocities he witnessed made him realize that the artist who turns away from his God-given gifts is, in the end, socially irresponsible. Mathias thus returned to painting, going on to createthe magnificent altarpiece in the Church of St. Anthony in Isenheim, Alsace. Matthias’ story mirrored Hindemith’s own deep sensitivities as an artist in the violent times during Hitler’s rise to power.


Before Hindemith completed the opera, conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler persuaded him to create an instrumental “appetizer,” a condensed version to excite public interest. That musical appetizer became this full-length symphony. An immediate success, it has remained one of the composer’s best-loved works.


Borrowing themes from the opera, the symphony’s three movements are based less on Matthias’ life story than on the panels that he painted for the Isenheim altarpiece.  The first movement opens up like the telling of an old story,   [. . .]  Unique to Hindemith’s writing, and evident in each movement, is an intricate crafting of themes and counterpoint that are then drawn to massive, yet simple and beautiful, cadences, like rivers to great falls.


The second movement, Grablegung (“Entombment”), continues the themes of the first, but bitter-sweetly.  The music draws from both the final moments of the opera,    [. . .]

Both the third panel and the final movement, Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (“The Temptation of Saint Anthony”), portray vile creatures surrounding and taunting the saint. After recoiling from the Peasants’ Revolt,    [. . .]     Hindemith has led us through musical darkness to an instant of absolute exhilaration and finality, and brought Matthias’ conscience to peace.