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Symphony, Mathis der Maler

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Paul Hindemith
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Mark O'Connor, violin and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin Jun. 16 - 18, 2005
© Richard Freed
The Symphony Mathis der Maler , Hindemith's own adaptation of material from his opera of the same title, was composed early in 1934 and was introduced on March 12 of that year by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Wilhelm Furtwängler. Hans Kindler conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work, on January 22, 1941; Lorin Maazel conducted the most recent ones, on November 12, 13, 14 and 17, 1987.

The score calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel, and strings. Duration, 27 minutes.


Hindemith's opera Mathis der Maler (“Matthias the Painter”), for which he wrote his own libretto, is a work that had deep personal significance for him. The opera was composed during 1933 and ‘34, and centers about a historical figure active in the 15th century: the painter Mathis Nithardt, known as Grünewald (ca. 1480-1530), whose famous altarpiece for St. Anthony's Church at Isenheim is preserved at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar. In the opera Grünewald resigns from the service of the Archbishop of Mainz and puts his creative work aside in order to take an active part in the Peasants' War of 1524, but, following a sequence of highly dramatic events and even more dramatic visions, he is persuaded that the way he can best serve mankind is through his art.

It was a similar decision on Hindemith's part that provided the direct impetus for the opera. The period in which Mathis was composed was an extremely difficult one for him, and the work had far-reaching consequences even before it was performed—one of those consequences being that its performance was prohibited in the newly Nazified Germany. Hindemith's differences with the regime that had just taken power were well known, but at first he neither left the country, as many others did, not made “the inner immigration” of his Bavarian colleague Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who remained in Germany but himself prohibited the performance of his music in his own country until after World War II.

In November 1934 Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose plans to stage Mathis der Maler in Berlin had been thwarted by the Nazi government, wrote what we would call now an “op-ed piece” in defense of Hindemith's music. On the evening November 25, the day his letter was published in the Deutsche allgemeine Zeitung , Furtwängler conducted at the Berlin State Opera, where an outpouring of public support in the form of a 20-minute ovation delayed the start of the performance. Official reaction, though, was swift and severe: Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels denounced Hindemith for “Kultur-Bolschewismus” and imposed a ban on his “degenerate” works—and Furtwängler was obliged to step down from his prestigious positions. (To be sure, he reacquired them through a public apology a few months later, but the sincerity of his gesture and its impact on the German public would not be forgotten.) Hindemith retained his base in Germany, the meanwhile visiting the United States and taking up a project for the Turkish government, until 1937, when he moved to Switzerland. Three years later he settled in the U.S.; he took U.S. citizenship in 1946, and conspicuously enriched our musical life as pedagogue, violist and conductor in addition to his creative activity. He returned to Switzerland in 1953.

The opera Mathis der Maler was not performed until May 28, 1938, when it was staged in Zurich, but some of its music was heard four years earlier than that—and in Berlin. It was because of the difficulty in bringing about the stage premiere that Hindemimth fashioned a three-movement symphony from portions of the opera early in 1934. Furtwängler was able to perform it, and shortly after the premiere his orchestra recorded it with the composer himself conducting. The first American recording of the Symphony, by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, was issued a few weeks after Hindemith's native country and his adopted one went to war against each other; within a few years its position in the repertory was assured. In his article on Hindemith in the 1980 New Grove , Ian Kemp noted that although this work

may on superficial examination appear to be a suite of movements extracted from the opera, Hindemith chose his title deliberately. It is his first symphony, and his first major work employing the tonal and dialectic organization inherent in such a title.

Each of the three movements bears the title of one of the panels of Grünewald's famous altarpiece (on which Mathis's visions in the opera are based). The first movement, A NGELIC C ONCERT , is the instrumental prelude to the opera—or rather, what Hindemith composed in place of a conventional overture or prelude—in more or less its original form. The second, E NTOMBMENT , is an orchestral interlude from the last of the opera's seven scenes. The final movement, T EMPTATION OF S AINT A NTHONY , is an instrumental adaptation of the climactic penultimate scene, in which the confrontation between Saint Anthony and Saint Paul serves as a symbolic representation of Mathis's confrontation and reconciliation with his Archbishop; following citations of the hymns “ Ubi eras ” and “ Lauda Sion Salvatorem ,” the work ends with a majestic affirmation based on the alleluias of the two saints