Music Well – Dosia McKay, Composer, Painter, Writer

Reflections on Art and Life

The Duty and Allegiance of an Artist – A Message of Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler

This essay was originally a part of a scholarly paper I wrote while in graduate school at New York University. The main body of my work consisted of detailed compositional analysis of the first and third movement of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony (read it by following this link). Here I only include the introduction and conclusion, focusing instead on the timeless message for artists found in Hindemith’s life and work. ~

The genesis of Paul Hindemith’s Symphony Mathis der Maler is not a straightforward one. Not only did Hindemith not conceive it as a symphonic work, he was not even interested in its subject proposed to him in 1932 by his publisher friend Willy Strecker and a music writer Franz Willms. Mathis der Maler was to be an opera based on the life of a German Renaissance painter Mathis Nithart (or Gothart), also known as Mathis Grünewald, but Hindemith could not quite picture a painter on the operatic stage and neither could his librettist Gottfried Benn.

The Mathis Grünewald idea was officially shelved and Hindemith’s attention was devoted instead 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 a German painter became more appealing, if not safer and prudent. 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. The character of Mathis Grünewald came to represent the life of Hindemith and his attempt to reconcile the artistic, moral, and social integrity.

In the opera, the painter gives up his art to aid the peasants in their rebellion during the Peasant’s War (1524-1525), but as he becomes disillusioned with the uprising, he comes to realize that he has betrayed his chief calling – his art, which is later restored to him in a vision. The primary message of the opera is that the artist’s responsibility lies first to his art and that his foremost social and political obligation is fulfilled by tending to his craft.

That Hindemith sympathized with the character of Mathis is evident from the way he spoke about the painter at the opera’s premiere in Zürich in 1938:

“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.”*(1)

Yet the parallels of human search for meaning and direction reach even deeper and further into the centuries past. Twelve hundred years before Mathis Grünewald and sixteen centuries before Paul Hindemith, the Egyptian hermit and desert father, Antony, who became the inspiration for one of the altar panels painted by Grünewald, faced very similar struggles to those of the painter and the composer. Having answered the call to the ascetic life during his teenage years, he later found others questioning his path of solitude. His secluded dwelling was increasingly trespassed upon by young disciples who sought guidance in their spiritual path, proclaiming Antony the father of the hermit movement.

Antony struggled between the responsibility of mentorship and the fidelity to his early calling to ascetic life. The issue was further complicated by his supernatural and medicinal healing abilities and his growing ministry to persecuted Christians. He feared that the increasing immersion in the outside world would disturb his inner sanctum and jeopardize the purity of his soul.

Siglind Bruhn in her book The temptation of Paul Hindemith: Mathis der Maler as a spiritual testimony argues that all three men; Hindemith, Grünewald, and Antony find themselves in the predicament of “the hermit’s plight”, torn between social responsibility, their calling to perform the acts of healing (whether physical or artistic), and the desire to devote themselves to the solitude of their creative tasks. *(2)

According to Vita Sancti Pauli written by St Jerome, Antony met his spiritual guide when he was ninety years old. Paul, an ascetic who lived in the desert for almost a century, reaffirmed Antony’s original calling telling him that God did not view his seclusion as an act of selfishness but rather as a fulfillment of divine destiny for which he was uniquely equipped. There are no historical records to confirm that a similar vindication was granted to Mathis Grünewald, or, for that matter, Hindemith, but in the opera the composer chooses to portray a parallel encounter for the painter, and if it can thus be inferred, also finds relief for himself.

Hindemith decided not to become involved in the Nazi conflict and chose the path of emigration (first to Switzerland and later to the United States) in order to disassociate himself from the major political force as well as from the resistance movement. Although some of his critics called his decision self-serving, and perhaps elitist, it is possible to imagine his inner conflict and motivation in the light of his artistic calling. If the composer lacked in guidance from an immediate mentor, he found one in Paul the hermit and rested his nightmares and temptations with St Antony and Mathis Grünewald.

Before the opera was completed, Hindemith was asked for a new orchestral piece by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Not wanting to divert his attention away from the project, Hindemith decided to expand on the Grünewald concept and embellish the drama with instrumental interludes based on the panels from the painter’s Isenheim Altarpiece. Thus were born the Engelkonzert (Concert of Angels), Grablegung (Entombment), and Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of St Antony) which together formed the symphonic work Mathis der Maler.

Mathis der Maler Symphony was premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on March 12, 1934 and performed a few times the same year in Germany and abroad. Although it was well received, due to the growing Nazi campaign against Hindemith resulting in his dismissal from the Berlin’s Hochschule and emigration to Switzerland, it was not heard again until the end of the Second World War.

It is ironic that Mathis der Maler Symphony was deemed anti-German by the Nazis. From the stylistic standpoint, as a tonal work reviving the German symphonic tradition, with a nationalistic focus, and use of folk melodies, it should have been a model work of a Third Reich composer. Yet its melodic and post-romantic sound palette puts it in the category with other European works of 1930s by such composers as Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich who reacted in their music against totalitarianism.

Hindemith’s music influences are varied. His early musical roots are late Romantic. His first composition teacher Arnold Mendelssohn, a great-nephew of Felix Mendelssohn, was dedicated to reviving the German Protestant music. Later he studied with a modernist composer Bernhard Sekles and under his tutelage Hindemith explored the influences of Brahms, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Reger, Schreker, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss. His own works from this period exhibit opulent late Romantic harmonic language which he later renounced and attacked.

In 1920s Hindemith experimented with his own brand of expressionism. He expanded his harmonic language beyond the limits of tonality and expanded his orchestral palette, yet at the same time explored two-voice polyphonies and remained faithful to the traditional formal designs, such as sonata form and variations. Hindemith also became associated with the New Objectivity movement and began preferring the linear polyphonic idiom, abandoning formal coherence, thematic development, and tonal harmony in favor of metrically uniform structure, pulsating meter, irregular accents, dissonance, and independence of the voices.

In parallel, as a performer, Hindemith played violin and later viola in a string quartet, which often performed works by such composers as Bartók, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Kurt Weill, Philipp Jarnach, Ernst Krenek, Ernst Toch, Alois Hába and Hans Pfitzner. His discovery of the viol and viola d’amore during this period stimulated his interest in early music of which he became a student, practitioner, and a proponent. His works began to exhibit a neo-Baroque characteristics, employing tonality colored by modality. Mathis der Maler belongs to this stream.

Inasmuch as Hindemith was willing to experiment in certain areas, he was adamant and dogmatic about others. Of the Schonberg’s 12-tone technique he said: “What is art in this technique was already art beforehand, without it, and can continue to be so after it. The technique as such does not create any works of art.”*(3) He described himself as skeptical of progress and “profoundly unmodern”.*(4) Yet his works had a wide appeal and during the American period (1940-1953) his fame grew not only in the United States, but back in Europe.

In compositional circles his star rose and faded. At first he created a following of students at Yale, but later on, as stylistic expectations changed, he was marginalized by the avant garde, especially as his criticism of new techniques became more intense. When the new music enthusiasts at the Darmstadt summer courses had described his recent compositions as “old iron”, he responded, “It is an honor to belong with the ‘old iron’. Music history is full of old iron, and it was always more durable than new bullshit’ (unpublished letter to Schott, 29 July 1949).*(5)

In spite of the ever-shifting musical styles and the battle between the old and the new, the legacy of Hindemith remains. Upon his death, he was recognized as the greatest musician of his time. As a teacher, he influenced a generation of American composers, including Samuel Adler, Norman Dello Joio, Lukas Foss, and William P. Perry. In 1968 the Hindemith Foundation was established in order to encourage the study of his compositional output. His works have enjoyed multiple performances, as his eclectic style tends to appeal to wider audiences.

Mathis der Maler is Hindemith’s credo, his mission statement, his own libretto to the opera of his life, and a legacy to other composers and artists. His music continues to speak to the importance of remaining faithful to one’s artistic calling amidst distractions and criticism. Pursuing one’s art is not selfish or cowardly, it is one’s duty and destiny.
*(1) Paul Hindemith, “Zur Einführung”, in Textheft zur Uraufführung im Stadttheater Zürich am 28. Mai 1938, pp. 3-5. (Translation Siglind Bruhn)
*(2) Siglind Bruhn, The temptation of Paul Hindemith: Mathis der Maler as a spiritual testimony. (Pendragon Press, 1998), xv
*(3) Ian Kemp, “Preface”, Paul Hindemith, Mathis Der Maler Symphony. Ernst Eulenburg Ltd., 1984.
*(4) Ibid.
*(5) Ibid.

The paintings: Mathis Grünewald – The Meeting of Saint Antony with Paul the Hermit, Temptation of Saint Antony – inspiration for Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of St Antony), the third movement of Hindemith’s symphony.

©2010 Dosia McKay. If you intend to copy any portion of my work, please cite me in the credits/bibliography. To fail to do so would be to plagiarize.

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