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ClassicsOnline Home » HINDEMITH: Mathis der Maler / Symphonic Metamorphosis
By Brian Hunt
By Claude Gingras
Paul Hindemith (1895 - 1963)
Mathis der Maler Symphony
Nobilissima visione: Tanzlegende
Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber
Born in Frankfurt in 1895, the son of a house-painter. Paul Hindemith studied the violin privately with teachers from the Hoch Conservatory before being admitted to that institution with a free place at the age of thirteen. By 1915 he was playing second violin in his teacher Adolf Rebner's quartet and had a place in the opera orchestra, of which he became leader in the same year. His father was killed in the war and Hindemith himself spent some time from 1917 as a member of a regimental band, returning after the war to the Rebner Quartet and the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra. At the same time he was making his name as a composer of particular originality, striving, at this time, to bring about a revolution in concert-going, with his concept of functional Gebrauchsmusik, and devoting much of his energy to the promotion of new music, in particular at the Donaueschingen Festival. Having changed from violin to viola, he formed the Amar-Hindemith Quartet in 1921, an ensemble that won considerable distinction for its performances of new music.
In 1927 Hindemith was appointed professor of composition at the Berlin Musikhochschule, two years later disbanding the quartet, to which he could no longer give time, but performing in a string trio with Josef Wolfsthal, replaced on his death by Szymon Goldberg, and the cellist Emanuel Feuermann. He was also enjoying a career as a viola soloist. The political events of 1933 brought no immediate change in his circumstances and it seemed that he might even be accepted by the National Socialist Party, in spite of his openly expressed his antipathy, as a true German composer. Matters turned out very differently.
In 1932 the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler invited Hindemith to write a Philharmonic Concerto to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Two years later came the Mathis der Maler Symphony, a composition that gave a foretaste of Hindemith's new opera Mathis der Maler, and this too was performed under Furtwängler with some success. In the same year, however, the National Socialist Party condemned Hindemith's music. Furtwängler, in a famous article in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, defended the freedom of the artist and the political interference that prevented the staging in Berlin of the opera Mathis der Maler led him to resign from his positions with the Philharmonic and the Berlin Opera. Goebbels now saw fit to describe Hindemith as an atonaler Geräuschemacher (atonal noise-maker). To the Nazis he was, in fact, nicht tragbar, persona non grata. In 1935 he was given leave from his position at the Musikhochschule, visiting America and spending time in Turkey, where he established the Konservatuar in Ankara and devised a national plan for music education. In 1937 he finally resigned from his post in Berlin, moving first to Switzerland and then to the United States, where, after other teaching jobs, he was finally appointed professor of theory at Yale, becoming an American citizen in 1946. An appointment at the University of Zürich brought him to Europe again after the war and he finally settled in Switzerland, although his death took place in a hospital in his native Frankfurt in 1963.
As a composer Hindemith was very prolific, able to write music very quickly, often responding to the immediate demands of performers or circumstances. His theories on the craft of composition led to idiosyncratic teaching and to the cultivation of a tonal and contrapuntal style that is highly characteristic, if less effective in the hands of his followers.
It was in 1932 that Hindemith began to seek a subject for a new opera. At one time he considered Gutenberg, but accepted the more fruitful suggestion of the painter Matthias Grünewald. As his correspondent Franz Willm pointed out, Grünewald's career coincided with the Peasants' War and the Renaissance, and there were, therefore, marked similarities with their own age. Hindemith expressed his anxiety not to invite comparison in his new opera with Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, but he remained optimistic about any political considerations there might be, seeking to conceal from officialdom, at least, any such implications. His immediate intention, in any case, was to write Vorspiele (Preludes) for concert use, and the first of these, the slow movement of the symphony, was completed on 30th November 1933. Two weeks later the Engelkonzert that forms the first movement was finished. The third movement, Versuchung, actually arranged rather than taken directly from the opera, caused more trouble, but was eventually completed on 27th February 1934 and the work was successfully performed in Berlin on 12th March.
Hindemith had originally intended to write four movements, but the concept of three movements fitted exactly with the pictorial source, the Isenheim Altar-piece by Grünewald, a two-sided triptych. The three pictures provide representations that correspond to the three movements, the Concert of Angels, in which Hindemith uses the traditional song Es sungen drei Engel ein süssen Gesang (Three angels sang a sweet song). The second movement corresponds to the depiction of the Entombment, with two contrasted themes, and the third with the Temptation of St. Anthony, which has the added words Ubi eras, bone Jhesulubi eras, quare non affuistilut sanares vulnera mea? (Where were you, good Jesus, where were you, why were you not there to heal my wounds?). In the opera the temptation is that of Grünewald, who is eventually persuaded by the Archbishop to use his talents that God has given him as a painter, thus putting art before political considerations, to give explicit expression to the concealed implication: The final movement, starting with muted strings in a long melodic line, leads to a fugato and to the final sound of the Lauda Sion for woodwind and brass, with its resounding concluding Hallelujah.
The Dance Legend Nobilissima Visione again had a pictorial source, the Giotto frescoes in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, which Hindemith saw during a visit in May 1937. The choreographer Massine at first doubted the possibility of creating a devotional style in a ballet that is based, as are the paintings, on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. He discussed the possibilities with Francois Mauriac and a scenario was devised, starting with the young man's desire for a military life, his disillusion with the brutality of soldiers, conflict with his father, the meeting with Lady Poverty and his withdrawal to the hills to pray: he falls asleep on the ground and finally, with three faithful followers, takes Poverty as his bride, as the Franciscan order is founded. In the first performance Massine danced the part of St. Francis and Nini Theilade that of Poverty. Hindemith had now left Germany, and the German press ignored the first performance of the suite derived from Nobilissima Visione, which took place in Venice in September 1938, including his books and music in a Düsseldorf exhibition of Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music). The ballet had its first performance at Drury Lane in London on 21st July 1938 and attracted attention both for artistic reasons and for its devotional content. The Suite opens with Meditation, proceeding to the Royal Wedding, March and Appearance of the Three Ladies (Chastity, Obedience and Poverty) with the final Incipiunt laudes creaturarum (The praise by the creatures of God begins).
Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber was written in 1943. In 1941 Massine had been in Buffalo with a ballet of the Bacchanale from Wagner's Tannhäuser, for which Salvador Dali had provided décor that Hindemith found simply ridiculous. Massine now wanted music based on themes by Weber for a ballet and Hindemith sketched a work using themes from Weber's Turandot, a Chinese Peking opera theme included in Rousseau's Dictionary, and from the Piano Duets, Opp.10 & 60. When it became clear that Dali was to be involved, Hindemith cancelled the contract, but later completed the composition, colourful music of considerable ingenuity, as a concert work. It was first performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Artur Rodzinsky on 20th January 1944.
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the country's leading arts organisation, is based in Wellington, but performs regularly throughout the country Formed in 1946, the orchestra was until 1988 part of the Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand, but thereafter has enjoyed independence as a Crown Owned Entity, with a Board of Directors appointed by the Government. The Chief Conductor, appointed in 1990, is Franz-Paul Decker. Now with some ninety players, the orchestra gives some 120 concerts a year, in addition to its work in the theatre and in television, broadcasting and recording studios. Foreign tours include performance at the Seville Expo in 1992 with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, one of a long line of distinguished musicians, from Stravinsky to John Dankworth, who have appeared with the orchestra.
Franz-Paul Decker has enjoyed a long association with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and currently divides his time between Barcelona, Montreal, Ottawa, Cologne and New Zealand. Born in Cologne, he studied composition and conducting at the Cologne Hochschule für Musik, while pursuing parallel studies in musicology, ethnology and psychology at Cologne University. He made his conducting début at the age of twenty-two at the Cologne Opera and four years later was appointed to the Staatsoper, Wiesbaden and subsequently to the positions of conductor of the Wiesbaden Symphony Orchestra and Generalmusikdirecktor in Bochum. In 1962 he became Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. A busy international career brought appointment in 1966 as Music Director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and other subsequent positions held include that of Chief Conductor of the Orquesta Cuitat de Barcelona and in 1990 of Chief Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. In 1991 he was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Ottawa National Arts Centre Orchestra.
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HINDEMITH: Mathis der Maler / Symphonic Metamorpho...