25 Feb 2011

Hindemith – Mathis der Maler

Written by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion, strings.
Duration: 25 minutes in three movements (with pauses).

Paul Hindemith was in the midst of a turbulent relationship with the ruling Nazi party during the middle 1930s. Some officials viewed his music as “noise” while others thought he represented a potential model for the new and ideal German nationalist composer. He left Germany before war broke but it was during this unsettling time that wrote his most popular work – the 1934 symphony based on music from his opera Mathis der Maler.

Hindemith was known for his ability to put aside external strife whenever the muse came calling. For his eighth opera he chose the life of Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald as the central subject, an idea he had earlier rejected. Simultaneous to the creation of the full length work (for which he also wrote the libretto), Hindemith was busy putting together a three movement orchestral work based on the same music for Maestro Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic. He found inspiration for this “symphony” in the series of paintings Grünewald had done for the altar of the Isenheim monastery in Alsace. The angelic concert of the first movement features a traditional German folk melody (“Three Angels Sang a Sweet Song”) while the second movement, a moment of reflection and repose taken from the opera’s final scene, contains some of the most simply beautiful music of Hindemith’s entire canon. The finale is based on Grünewald’s St. Anthony paintings and is quintessential neoclassical Hindemith, complete with a tumultuous, contrapuntal sprint to the finish and an extended Alleluia for brass that stands tall among the finest declamatory moments in 20th music.        

1934 was an eventful year of firsts around the world. The Loch Ness Monster was photographed for the first time. The United States, in the midst of the Great Depression, experienced its first general strike. Jean F. Piccard and his made the first successful balloon ascent into the stratosphere. It was also a bad year for American criminals. Alcatraz opened that summer. Bonnie and Clyde where caught and killed, as was John Dillinger and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd.    

Mathis der Maler has been performed at least six times on the Utah Symphony Masterworks Series, most recently in 2001 under Keith Lockhart. Maurice Abravanel programmed the piece in three different seasons. Especially notable was 1971 when Maestro Abravanel also took it on a tour to New Mexico.