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Hindemith: Mathis der Maler Symphony

Hindemith: Mathis der Maler Symphony


724 words
program notes by Chris Myers

includes image files

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Copyright © 2013 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Mathis der Maler: Symphony
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion, strings

Composed 1934. First performance: March 12, 1934, Berlin. Berliner Philharmoniker. Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor.

I. Engelkonzert (Angel Concert)
II. Grablegung (Entombment)
III. Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of St. Anthony)

Like many Germans, Paul Hindemith found it difficult to take the National Socialists seriously, and it was a great shock to him when they came to power. Wanting to use his prominent position to protest the ideology he saw infecting his native land, he turned to a concept his publisher had suggested only a year earlier: an opera based on the German Peasants’ War.

Though he had initially dismissed the idea, Hindemith realized that this 16th-century insurrection provided the perfect metaphor for contemporary politics. The libretto, which Hindemith wrote himself, tells the story through the eyes of the artist Mathias (“Mathis”) Grünewald and draws on imagery found in the Isenheim Altarpiece, the painter’s largest and most well-known work.

As the peasants of Germany rise up against their government and fight for the ideals of the Protestant Revolution, Mathias feels conflicted about whether an artist should continue to paint, rather than actively joining the fight. He is finally driven to action when the authorities hold a mass burning of “heretical” books—a scene with clear parallels to the Nazi book burnings of May 1933. Trading his brushes for arms, he joins the rebellion. As he comforts a dying peasant after a battle, he dreams that he has become St. Anthony, tempted by luxury, knowledge, and even martyrdom. He finally finds release from temptation when St. Paul appears to him, chastising him for neglecting his true duty:

It was ungrateful and unfaithful of you
To throw away God-given talents. When you joined the People,
You betrayed them and renounced your calling.
Return to both. Everything you create should
Be an offering to the Lord, so that in every work,
His will may be worked.
And if they kill you, is it so bad if the price of creation
Is one’s life? What you attempt
And what you suffer are what give your work
The blessing of immortality.
Go forth and create.

The message was not lost on those in power. The unstaged work was banned on direct order from Hermann Göring, and the controversy, which played out in the Berlin newspapers, led to Joseph Goebbels publicly denouncing Hindemith at length in a December 1934 speech before the Reich Chamber of Culture.

The Mathis der Maler Symphony was completed before the opera, and Wilhelm Furtwängler managed to sneak in a performance with the Berliner Philharmoniker before the Nazi government banned the piece. The symphony consists of three movements of music excerpted directly from the opera. Each movement corresponds to a specific painting within the Isenheim Altarpiece.

The first movement, “Angel Concert”, is the prelude to the opera. It’s inspired by the central painting of the Altarpiece, in which a Concert of Angels serenades the newborn Jesus in Mary’s arms. The music is structured around “Es sungen drei Engel”, a Christmas carol as familiar to German ears as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is to ours. Hindemith states this tune in a manner reminiscent of a Bach chorale, with subsequent music embellishing the melody and symbolizing the various angelic musicians featured in the painting.


“Entombment” is excerpted from a scene near the end of the opera in which Mathis comes to terms with death. This scene recreates the bottom of the Isenheim Altarpiece, depicting Jesus’ body being placed in a tomb after his crucifixion.


The opera’s sixth tableau provides material for the third movement. In this scene, Mathis dreams that he is St. Anthony, as portrayed in the inner right panel of the Altarpiece. The other characters in the opera appear and torture him with temptations that parallel the conflicts Mathis has been facing throughout the work.


As he struggles to resist, the music becomes increasingly dramatic until Mathis is rescued by the appearance of an old hymn tune, “Lauda Sion” (“Give praise to your Savior, Zion!”). The brass answer this woodwind chorale with jubilant alleluias, and the symphony ends in a triumphant affirmation of the power of art to provide hope and salvation in the battle against evil.

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