“Mathis der Maler” Symphony (1934)

By Bernard Jacobson

Written for the concert Music and Visual Imagination, performed on Nov 11, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It may seem curious that a composer as closely allied as Hindemith to the central tradition of German music should not have produced a substantial series of orchestral works bearing that most centrally traditional of titles, “symphony.” The duly numbered cycle of eight symphonies left, for example, by his younger compatriot Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) is much more what we expect, and even Hans Werner Henze (b. 1926), despite profound alienation from the political and social aspects of his German roots and consequent relocation to Italy, has followed suit.

By contrast, the E-flat Symphony of 1940 was the only one to which Hindemith assigned a tonal designation and no other distinguishing adjective or title. That exuberant and refreshingly unpompous symphony nevertheless takes its place with five others that he composed, in addition to two works (one early and unpublished) bearing the title Sinfonietta. Clearly he did not lack the impulse to organize his thought symphonically. It may be that what inhibited him from producing a symphonic “corpus” along traditional lines was the same consiDeration that held Brahms back until well into his forties before he released his First Symphony to the world: that is, the sheer weight of prestige that this of all forms possesses, and more specifically the burden Beethoven’s genius and fame have laid on the shoulDers of all his successors, especially those whose birth and background stamp them as bearers of the August Austro-German banner.

Of Hindemith’s six full-scale symphonies, three were originally conceived as orchestral works: the E-flat, the Symphonia serena of 1946, and the Pittsburgh Symphony of 1958. The B-flat Symphony of 1951 is scored, not for orchestra, but for concert band. The other two stem from operas whose titles they share. These are the Symphony Die Harmonie Der Welt of 1951 and the Mathis Der Maler Symphony that concludes this program.

Where Ciurlionis and Schoenberg evoked various aspects of the picturesque and the dramatic, and Scriabin celebrated a hero of universal mythic stature, it was the figure of the artist as hero that furnished Hindemith with the subject-matter for Mathias the Painter. It is perhaps appropriate that he, of all composers, should have been the man to tackle the story of the German painter Matthias Grünewald, for Hindemith took a deeply serious view of the artist’s responsibility to society. His glowing portrait does justice to a great predecessor who went to the length of abandoning the practice of art to devote himself instead to his people’s political and military struggle for freedom.

The historic struggle that seized Hindemith’s attention was the bitter conflict known as the Peasants’ Revolt (1524-25). The composer wisely concentrated his thinking on the experiences of one individual, the painter of the celebrated Isenheim altarpiece, created between about 1512 and 1515, and now housed in the museum of Colmar in eastern France. Grünewald was a man who, according to Hindemith, “speaks to us still today through his art with uncanny intensity and warmth”; his exploits, Hindemith wrote later, “shattered my very soul.” Born Mathis Gothart Niethart, circa 1460, Grünewald wielded a brush that renDered apocalyptic scenes of terror with rare vividness. He died in 1528, and is now widely regarded as not only the last but the greatest exponent of the German Gothic style.

The composer started work on his opera in 1932, creating his own libretto, and devoting most of his energies to this one project over the next three years. Laid out broadly in seven scenes, Mathis Der Maler remains one of the masterpieces of 20th-century lyric theater, and probably Hindemith’s finest achievement. It had its premiere on 28 May 1938 at the Stadttheater in Zurich–by then one of the few remaining German-speaking cities in Nazi-shadowed Europe where an opera on so politically provocative a subject could be produced.

Long before the opera reached the stage, Hindemith had produced his symphony of the same title, naming its three movements after the three panels of the Isenheim altarpiece: Concert of Angels, The Entombment, and Temptation of St Anthony. It holds in Hindemith’s orchestral production a place as central as that of the opera among his stage works. In some moods and contexts, Hindemith may fairly be accused of dryness, or in his early period of an enfant terrible approach that comes close to frivolity. But the nobility of this music, by turns muscular, contemplative, and radiant, presents a vivid summation of German traditions, and in particular of the Lutheran chorale style that is specifically recalled at its climactic moments.

The technical means to this exalted end are of particular interest at a time when attitudes to the classical key system have shifted away from the hard-nosed atonal position espoused by many composers in the middle years of the century. Sometimes described in his own day as an atonal or polytonal composer, Hindemith himself repudiated such labels; atonality, indeed, he dismissed in characteristically bracing terms as a cheap excuse for mental laziness. He based his highly personal harmonic language on the application of acoustical laws to the notes of the chromatic scale, treating its various degrees as harmonics ultimately Derived from one funDamental, and grading chords from strong to weak depending on the relative nearness of their component notes to the funDamental. His concern was always to organize the melodic progress and rhythmic pulse of his music in a harmonic “rise and fall” that places the weight of any passage just where it is needed. While his mature music is seldom straightforwardly tonal, it inhabits a world with many parallels to that of tonality. The multiplication of technical terms is not in itself a good thing; but since, by Hindemith’s own avowal, the wrong ones have been applied to his work, it might be a good idea to distinguish his method by a new and more accurate one and call it “paratonal.” His firm opinion was that composers have always been subconsciously aware of the harmonic laws he explicitly codified. For rules he had no use.