Paul Hindemith | Symphony Mathis der Maler

“The dream was marvellous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror; for the dream has shown that misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of his life is sorrow.” The Epic of Gilgamesh

Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter) is among the most famous orchestral works of German composer Paul Hindemith. The Symphony is in 3 movements and lasts around 25 minutes. Music from the symphony was incorporated into, or reworked for, Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler, based on the life of a German Renaissance painter Mathis Nithart (or Gothart), also known as Mathis Grünewald (c. 1475-1528), who lived during the time of the Peasant’s War in Germany. Each movement of the Symphony relates to a tableau painted by Grünewald for the Isenheim Altarpiece. The question of the artist’s role in society is the theme of Mathis der Maler.Source

In the 1930s, the then foremost German composer, Paul Hindemith, found himself torn between three forces: the instigations of the Nazi government to write music towards the glorification of the Third Reich, the urging of his friends and colleagues to use his influence and speak up against the devilish developments in German politics, and his own wish to live exclusively for his art, to compose, perform and teach. In the middle of this inner turmoil, which eventually led to his emigration, Hindemith composed his opera Mathis der Maler, in which he clearly identified with the painter, whom he made the protagonist. Mathis Grünewald had himself suffered greatly from feeling torn in three directions: his sense of obligation to the society in which he had grown up, which entailed the demand to support the Peasants’ Insurgence, the demand of his conscience to stand by his religious convictions and take a stance in the Lutheran Uprising, and finally his wish to dedicate all his life to his art and thus his direct service to God. (Source)


Hindemith’s attention was first devoted to an opera depicting a love-affair between a French prisoner of war and a German girl entitled Étienne und Luise. But it was not meant to be. As Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany in 1933, it became clear that the pacifism and internationalism of Étienne und Luise were untimely. Suddenly the idea of exploring the life of the German painter became appealing. Mathis der Maler opera was to be a temporary strategic move with hopes that Hitler’s regime would soon crumble, but as the Nazis began ostracizing the Jews (among them Hindemith’s wife and brother-in-law) and all who associated with them, the new opera grew to depict a personal struggle of the artist in the face of evil. (Source)

Hindemith composed the symphony in 1934, while plans for the opera were in their preliminary stages. The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler asked him at that time for a new work to perform on an upcoming Berlin Philharmonic concert tour, and Hindemith decided to compose symphonic movements that could serve as instrumental interludes in the opera, or be drawn upon or elaborated into various scenes. The character of Mathis Grünewald came to represent the life of Hindemith and his attempt to reconcile the artistic, moral, and social integrity.(Source)

The story is based loosely on history, but inspired by Grünewald’s famous paintings for the altar of the abbey at Isenheim in Alsace. Hindemith’s Grünewald 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 Grünewald/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.(Source)

Hindemith’s sympathy for the character of Mathis is evident from the way he spoke about the painter at the opera’s premiere in Zürich in 1938: (Source)

“He is a human being blessed with the highest imaginable perfection and insight of his artistry, but tormented by all the hellish tortures of a doubting, seeking soul. This man, equipped with the susceptibility of such nature, experiences at the beginning of the 16th century the surge of a new era, with its inevitable disintegration of so-far valid views. Although he fully acknowledges the momentous artistic achievements of the emerging Renaissance, he nonetheless decides, in his own work, in favor of the definitive unfolding of the traditional. […] He gets caught in the powerfully working machinery of State and Church, and while his strength allows him to withstand the pressure of these forces, his paintings tell us vividly how the wild times with all their misery, their illnesses, and their wars unnerved him. How bottomless must have been the abyss of fickleness and despair that he navigated when, at the threshold of modern times, he gave intimate expression one more time to medieval piety […] and then turned to Lutheran Reformation. […] His death […] is, perhaps, the silent resignation before the futility of earthly works, perhaps the drowning under the impact of despair. But then again, perhaps it represents the ambling of a man to his grave, on an elevated, calm path—of a man who finally found the balance between the bliss and the terrors of his soul.” 

– Paul Hindemith – “Zur Einführung”, in Textheft zur Uraufführung im Stadttheater Zürich am 28. Mai 1938, pp. 3-5. (Translation Siglind Bruhn)

Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic gave Mathis der Maler‘s a triumphant premiere in March 1934, but a month later the performance was banned because of reports that Hindemith had made remarks critical of Hitler. The opera’s plot, which turned on an artist’s duty to pursue his vision irrespective of political considerations, was anathema to Nazi ideology. 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.(Source)

Mathis der Maler is part of my February Studio Playlist that you can listen to here.

Paul Hindemith

Who was Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith, (born November 16, 1895, Hanau, near Frankfurt am Main, Germany—died December 28, 1963, Frankfurt am Main) was a prolific German composer, music theorist, teacher, violist and conductor. He was one of the principal German composers of the first half of the 20th century and a leading musical theorist. He sought to revitalize tonality—the traditional harmonic system that was being challenged by many other composers—and also pioneered in the writing of Gebrauchsmusik, or “utility music,” compositions for everyday occasions. He regarded the composer as a craftsman (turning out music to meet social needs) rather than as an artist (composing to satisfy his own soul). (Source)

Hindemith earned his living at an early age playing the violin in cafes, dance bands, and theatres. His undertaking of almost any kind of musical job may have contributed to the facility and matter-of-factness with which he later composed. Studying music in Frankfurt, at 20 he became leader of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra.(Source)

Meanwhile, his own compositions were being heard at international festivals of contemporary music. Early works included chamber music composed for the Amar-Hindemith Quartet, in which he played the viola. By the late 1920s Hindemith was regarded as the foremost German composer of his generation.(Source)

His greatest work is Mathis der Maler, but after the Nazis banned the opera, Hindemith, who had been professor of composition at the Berlin Academy of Music since 1927, left Germany for Turkey, where he set up a music education system on Western lines and taught at the conservatory in Ankara (1935–37). Later he taught at Yale University (1940–53) and at the University of Zürich (1951–58).(Source)

His early music was considered anti-Romantic and iconoclastic, but it also showed humour, exuberance, and inventiveness. An opponent of the 12-tone school of composer Arnold Schoenberg, Hindemith formulated the principles of a harmonic system that was based on an enlargement of traditional tonality. His Unterweisung im Tonsatz (1937–39; The Craft of Musical Composition, 1941, rev. 1945) constitutes a theoretical statement of his principles.(Source)

Matthias Grünewald

Who was Matthias Grünewald?

Matthias Grünewald was born in Würzburg in about 1475. He made paintings for churches in western Germany, and died in 1528. One hint of his personality is that he seems to have specialised in crucifixions. Another can be found in his charcoal drawings, which suggest a man introspectively involved in his work. (Source)

But the greatest revelation of his personality is the altarpiece. He made it in collaboration with a woodcarver called Nicolas de Haguenau, whose sculptures of saints, donors and disciples were kept in this folding structure.(Source)

But Haguenau’s work lacks personality and soul. It is these qualities that are so striking in the painted panels, raising the paradox that a man of whom we know so little left such a profound visual record of his emotional state. The personality of Matthias Grünewald, whoever he was, is recorded by the Isenheim altarpiece. (Source)

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