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Composed: 1934
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, triangle), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 29, 1934, Otto Klemperer conducting

The question of the artist’s role in society is the theme of Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler (Mathias the Painter), a fictional account of the life of Mathias Grunewald (c. 1475-1528), who lived during the time of the Peasant’s War in Germany, when serfs revolted against their feudal lords, violently turning society on its head in the name of justice before succumbing to hired professional armies. Hindemith had shown no interest in the subject when his publisher suggested it in 1932, but a year later, after the Nazis had come to power, he immersed himself in the subject and began to write both the music and libretto.

Hindemith quickly developed a hate-hate relationship with the Nazis. On the one hand, he was privately contemptuous of them and freely expressed his distaste for their policies in situations where he could have been, and probably was, reported to authorities. Though he continued to teach at the Berlin Hochschule while Jews and other “undesirables” were purged, he made no effort to sever friendships and associations with Jews, and indeed his wife was Jewish, according to the Nazi definition. Like many politically liberal Germans, he had trouble taking the Nazis seriously and believed that they would not last long. The Nazis hated Hindemith not so much because his music was difficult and dissonant by their standards (though it was), but because he was the closest thing to a dissident that Nazi Germany had. At first, they left him more or less alone, wary of driving yet another prominent artist out of Germany. But they soon began to ban performances of his music and brand it “decadent” (an official Nazi categorization that became something of a badge of honor).

Hindemith’s Mathis story is based loosely on history, but inspired by Grunewald’s famous paintings for the altar of the abbey at Isenheim in Alsace. Hindemith’s Grunewald decides that he cannot continue his comfortable life as a court painter while the peasants’ struggle for justice is exploding around him. He joins their revolt, only to be repelled by their violence. While taking refuge in the forest, he dreams that he is St. Anthony, subject of two of the Isenheim altarpiece paintings. In a scene based on one of those panels, St. Paul the Hermit tells Grunewald/Anthony that it was wrong to turn his back on his God-given artistic gifts, and that he must “bow humbly before your brother and selflessly offer him the holiest creation of your inmost faculties” to become “great, a part of the people, the people itself” – words reminiscent of Brahms’ “republic” letter to Clara Schumann. The painter goes home, and finishes his life in a draining creative burst.

Well before finishing the opera, but after he had worked out its major elements, Hindemith put together the Mathis der Maler Symphony. Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic gave it a triumphant premiere in March 1934, but a month later a performance was banned because of reports that Hindemith had made remarks critical of Hitler. Later that year Furtwängler, pleading Hindemith’s case in a Berlin newspaper article, succeeded only in convincing the Nazi leadership that Hindemith was, as propaganda minister Goebbels put it in a December 1934 speech, “drastic confirmation of how deeply the Jewish intellectual infection has eaten into the body of our own people.” Despite the clarity of this hint, Furtwängler and other Hindemith supporters continued to lobby unsuccessfully to allow Mathis to be staged in Germany. Hindemith gradually severed ties with Germany, moving to Switzerland in 1938 and then to the United States in 1940.

Each movement of the Symphony is based on Grunewald’s vivid and sometimes grotesque and bizarre Isenheim altarpiece paintings. The opening Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert, the opera’s overture) is a scene of Mary and the infant Jesus being serenaded by angels. Hindemith’s music depicts the striking lighting of the painting at the opening, with shining G-major chords against rising passages in G minor (this major-minor ambiguity, called “cross-relation,” was a favorite device of Brahms). The trombones introduce Hindemith’s version of medieval German song, Es sungen drei Engel (Three angels were singing). The music emulates the bright colors of the painting with brilliant splashes of sound, and evokes the beating of the angels’ wings with a bird-like theme introduced by the flute, and by chirping eighth-notes in the violins.

The second movement, Grablegung (Entombment), is based on a panel depicting the crucified Jesus being laid in the tomb. It comes from the final scene of the opera, as Grunewald’s last great burst of creation, and his life, come to an end.

The last movement is a wholly symphonic creation using music from the extended climactic scene in the opera, which is based on two of the Isenheim paintings. In one of them, St. Anthony is assailed by grotesque demons (Hindemith’s Anthony/Grunewald is confronted with his life choices in the form of characters from the opera). The other shows St. Anthony meeting St. Paul the Hermit. Shortly before the end of a movement of explosive force and great churning energy, the woodwinds introduce the 13th-century chant “Lauda Sion Salvatorem,” which is answered by majestic alleluias in the brass.

— Howard Posner