Symphony Study 53 | Hindemith: Symphony, Mathis der Maler

by Glenn on September 7, 2016

Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)
Symphony, Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter)

Angelic Concert (In quiet motion—Fairly lively half-notes)
Entombment (Very slow)
Temptation of Saint Anthony (Very slow, not in strict time—Very lively—Slow—Lively—Very lively)

 first performance: 12 March 1934, Berlin Philharmonic, Wilhelm Fürtwangler


Up to now, politics in this symphony study have seemed either remote in time and removed from my experience (e.g. Beethoven changing the dedication of his Symphony No. 3 because he had become disillusioned with Napoleon) or provincial (e.g. The Vienna Philharmonic not immediately taking to the symphonies of Antonín Dvořák because of their foreign and rustic melodies), but with Paul Hindemith’s Symphony, Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter) things get ugly.

Wilhelm Furtwängler premiered this symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic on 12 March 1934. It’s based on (and was completed before) an opera by Hindemith, Mathis der Maler. Fürtwangler had hoped to conduct the premiere of the opera in Berlin as well, but as Michael Steinberg writes, “this was verboten.”

Adolf Hitler became the German chancellor in January 1933. Hindemith’s wife was half-Jewish but “a Catholic convert since her youth.” Like other Germans who couldn’t see the coming Holocaust, when Hitler’s government began its “racial and other policies,” Hindemith, according to Steinberg, watched these changes “with surprising equanimity, certainly with more irony than fury or fear.”

However, in September 1938, the Hindemiths left Germany for Switzerland. Paul, just months before, “had been prominently featured, along with Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Weill, Irving Berlin, and Louis Armstrong, among others, in a much publicized traveling exhibition of ‘Entartete Musik’—degenerate music.” He had abandoned work on (and would never return to) another opera, Étienne und Luise, “about the love of a German woman and a French prisoner of war in World War I.”

One of the debates about this symphony is whether it was a form of artistic opposition to the Nazi regime or an act of conformity with some sort of ideal. Steinberg concludes, “Mathis seems to have been intended as a salvage operation, as a move on Hindemith’s part to establish himself as a good German artist.”

The odd thing is that while initially it was a huge success with invitations for Hindemith himself to conduct, just a month later “Hans Rosbaud was forbidden to conduct the work for Frankfurt Radio” and Furtwängler lost his conducting jobs by denouncing government pressure on artists.


A symphony is a set of packages (usually four) that when opened create an occasion. The packages normally come labeled Fast, Slow, Triple, and Fast as codified by Franz Joseph Haydn and others.

One of the things that’s fascinating about this study is to see what various composers do with this pattern. Some try their best to imitate that basic pattern. Beethoven did, while he also stretched the parameters. Gustav Mahler, for example, took it to extremes where in his Symphony No. 3 he had six movements and the first movement, by itself, was longer than any complete symphony Haydn ever wrote. Dvořák kept the containers but added a rustic flair—like a familiar meal of chicken cooked with spices from a different part of the world—somehow the same and totally different.

Hindemith approached this symphony through a visual work of art and the artist who created it. Mathis is the painter, Mathias Grünewald, whose real name was Mathis Gothart. His most famous work is an altarpiece for a monastery at Isenheim.

The movements of Mathis der Maler are each based on panels from this work, some of which cannot be seen in this photo.


Hindemith was an extraordinary musician:

“He had been active as a performer since childhood and at nineteen was concertmaster of the Frankfurt opera; he was regarded … as one of the outstanding violists in the 1920s and 1930s; he was enough of a pianist to handle the keyboard parts in his own sonatas; he was an excellent clarinetist and, beyond that, proud of being able to play every part on every instrument in all seven of his Kammermusiken (a set of even 1920s Brandenburgs)—some, he admitted, with more effort than others. He was a good conductor, a renowned teacher of composition, a gifted and inventive pedagogue altogether, an importan author of books on the theory of music and the craft of musicianship and composition, and not least, an indefatigable organizer of concerts, festivals, and collegia musici.” [Steinberg, pp. 249–250]

This is another symphony on this list that I had never heard. I thought it was appropriate to listen to an 8 February 2014 performance by the Berlin Philharmonic from their Digital Concert Hall.

The first movement has, to my ears, a vague allusion to “Blow the Man Down,” which I read is in fact an old German song, “Es sungen drei Engel ein’ süssen Gesang” (“Three Angels Were Singing a Sweet Song”). The music is tuneful and I think I was surprised how tonal it all is. One gorgeous feature of this symphony is an emphasis on the woodwinds in beautiful counterpoint. The brass is used sparingly, but to great effect, primarily at the ends of each movement.

The second movement is quite peaceful. The woodwind soloists make this piece come alive with long, demanding lines.

After a slow beginning, the tempo picks up in the final movement. Again, the woodwinds are the star of the show, in particular the oboe here. The brass punctuate but aren’t allowed to overwhelm what is an enjoyable string sound. Back to a slow pace where the strings take over. And then the full orchestra is back at pace for the end. There is a bit of a fugue near the end that was really impressive. It reminded me a bit of the fugue at the end of William Walton’s Symphony No. 1.

This is a work I wouldn’t mind hearing again, but isn’t one that I would go seeking. I am shallow, but at the end of it all I’m neither tapping my foot nor humming a tune, the kinds of things that make me come back to music. It’s exquisitely crafted music without being, at least at this point for me, moving music.

It is an impressive work and impressively performed. There are big moments, but much of this music feels like chamber music on top of a string foundation. At just over 30 minutes, Hindemith doesn’t overstay his welcome. The placement of this symphony in the first half of the concert was smart. I’m not sure how this would play as the big finale to a concert.

Herbert Blomstedt conducted this performance and as a bonus feature spoke about the work. He was then 87 years old conducting energetically and from memory.