Paul Hindemith

16/11/1895 Hanau, 28/12/1963 Frankfurt am Main  

“A composer should only write when he knows for what purpose he is composing. The days of simply composing for oneself have perhaps now been lost for ever.” Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith was a truly versatile musician. He was not only an outstanding composer, with his oeuvre encompassing perhaps all the classical genres, as well as film and radio music; but also a brilliant violinist and violist, a chamber music player, performing with several internationally renowned ensembles; a theoretician, educator and essay writer; and a sought-after conductor. He wrote a number of instructional books and studies, with one of the most significant being Unterweisung im Tonsatz (The Craft of Musical Composition), first published in 1937. After a tumultuous period of absorbing Expressionism, Surrealism and Dadaism, he ultimately found a world of his own, anchored in the sophisticated counterpoint system and Baroque forms, and became a prominent German champion of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement – music with stable polyphonic structures, rejecting the sentimentality and emotional agitation of Late Romanticism. 


Paul Hindemith was born on 16 November 1895 in Hanau, the first child of Robert Hindemith (1870–1915) and Marie Hindemith (née Warnecke, 1868–1949). In 1898, his sister Antonie (Toni) was born, followed two years later by his brother Rudolf. Around 1910, the siblings formed the Frankfurt Children’s Trio, with Toni playing the piano, Rudolf the cello and Paul the violin. An ardent music lover, Robert Hindemith made his children undertake drills from an early age. Besides the violin (Paul) and the cello (Rudolf), the boys played the piano and several wind instruments. Following probably the happiest years of his childhood, spent with his grandparents from father’s side in Naumburg, near Leipzig (1899–1902), Paul returned home, where he would be subject to his father’s tough upbringing. “The urchin had to make amends for that at first until the zest was in him again,” Robert Hindemith wrote in a letter to Emma Ronnefeldt, who would later on become a patron of Paul’s. The relationship between father and son would remain tense up until Robert Hindemith’s death, in 1915 in World War I on the French front. Rumour has it that Paul was haunted by his father long after his passing, terrified he would return. 

In 1905, the Hindemiths moved to Frankfurt. Paul finished primary school with excellent results, yet the family did not have the money to pay for his further education. Owing to the intervention of Adolf Rebner, concertmaster of the Frankfurter Oper, he was granted a scholarship, and in 1909 enrolled at Dr. Hoch’s Konservatorium, where he studied the violin. In 1912, he also began taking counterpoint lessons from Arnold Mendelssohn, while being taught score reading by Karl Breidenstein and conducting by Fritz Bassermann. In 1913, Paul Hindemith joined Bernhard Sekles’s composition class, in which he would remain until the end of his studies, in the winter semester at the turn of 1917. Extraordinary musical talent opened for Paul (and his brother Rudolf too) the doors to the upper echelons of Frankfurt society. As his reputation grew, he received material support from well-off families and individuals from Frankfurt, Aarau, Mainz and Friedberg, including the Ronnefeldts, Karl Schmidt, Emma Lübbecke-Job, Fried Lübbecke and Irene Hendorf, to whom Paul would be gratefully bound in friendship till the end of his days. 

Urian Club
In 1913, Paul Hindemith wrote in a letter to his friends: “The greatest achievement of recent months was the founding of our Conservatory Club 'Urian'. We are six members (each one crazier than the other) and our primary aim is to amuse ourselves. [...] We make music too, but such music that only specially prepared ears can endure. Best of all, those that are stuffed with cotton. We have committed the crime of making a drama with music that we shall perform after New Year's Day. You are also cordially invited. But please bring along some aspirin.” Under the influence of Urian, between 1913 and 1920 Hindemith conceived seven “dramatic masterpieces” – absurd, in places even surrealistic, works, mainly featuring autobiographical themes. The composition he mentioned in the letter was probably Das Leben dringt in die Zelle (Life Invading the Cell), of which just two sketches have survived. 

Frankfurter Oper
A gifted violinist, Hindemith was highly praised for his “soft, beautiful tone” and “soulful expression”. A review published in the Karlsruher Tagblatt on 5 February reads: “His playing is marked by serenity, utter flawlessness in fingering and bowing technique, a convincing noblesse of tone, thrilling élan and profound intimacy.“ Before even reaching the age of 20, Hindemith joined the first violin section of the Frankfurter Opernorchester. Two years later, in 1914, he was named deputy concertmaster, and in March 1916, he was promoted to concertmaster, the youngest in the opera house’s history. “They made the audition very difficult for me. First I was sent to the director without knowing at all what to do. I played the first movements of the Brahms and Beethoven concertos for the director and both conductors completely without preparation, the entire Mendelssohn concerto, as well as the Chaconne, which was of course a big surprise for the gentlemen. I played another audition on the following Thursday, at which, in addition to the aforementioned gentlemen, the Amsterdam conductor Willem Mengelberg (the director of the Museum concerts here) and a lot of members of our orchestra were present. [...] Everything went well; Mengelberg [...], however, absolutely did not want to grant me the position because I was much too young, but I heard that he already had another violinist up his sleeve. However, when I had to play extremely difficult passages from Salome (that I had never seen before) and sight-read them smoothly, he could no longer make any objections.” In 1922, Hindemith resigned from the time-consuming post of concertmaster, as the Schott publishing house, with which in 1919 he had concluded an exclusive contract on issuing his music, began paying him monthly allowances. Hindemith would remain loyal to Schott, whose co-director Willy Strecker was a close friend of his, for the rest of his life.

World War I
When World War I broke out, Hindemith was living in Switzerland, earning extra money as a violinist of the spa orchestra in Heiden. His initial determination to “serve the homeland” would, however, vanish upon receiving the first shocking news from the battlefields. He was conscripted twice into the Imperial German Army, yet not drafted for health reasons, before finally, in August 1917, being sent to Alsace, where he was assigned to play in the regiment band and where he also formed a string quartet. In addition to giving concerts beyond the frontline, he continued composing. At that time, he wrote String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10, and the first two of the five instrumental sonatas comprising Op. 11. In 1918, Hindemith was deployed to the front in Flanders, where he witnessed the horrors of war, as attested by the entry in his diary dated 27 May of that year: “Towards evening, eight bombs were thrown near the town. One hit the ammunition convoy that bivouacked 10 minutes away from us. [...] A horrible sight. Blood, bodies full of holes, brains, a torn-off horse's head, splintered bones. Dreadful! How mean and indifferent one becomes. I don't think I previously could have eaten or worked in peace after seeing such a sight – and now one sits at home again, writing, chatting, in a good mood – not thinking about how soon the bell could also toll for us.” 

An excerpt from Paul Hindemith’s early creation. String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10, composed beyond the frontline in 1918. Kocian Quartet, 1995.

A significant milestone in Hindemith’s career was the Donaueschinger Musiktage, whose first edition took place in the summer of 1921. The chamber music festival aimed to support unknown young contemporary composers and help them present their works on concert stages. Merely 10 of the more than 600 registered pieces were selected for the programme, including the Czech composer Alois Hába’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 4. The highlight of the festival’s first edition was Paul Hindemith’s String Quartet No. 3, Op. 16, which immediately propelled its creator among the most celebrated German avant-garde composers. The critics were enthused: “Hindemith's composition reveals a rich, original gift for invention, a boldness of disposition and composition that allow him to be recognised as an outstanding talent.” Hindemith would also triumph in Donaueschingen in 1922, when the festival presented to great acclaim his Kammermusik No. 1, Op. 24, and song cycle Die junge Magd (The Young Maid), Op. 23, based on poems by Georg Trakl. In 1923, he was named a member of the festival’s programming committee. Owing to his initiative, the 1924 Donaueschinger Musiktage premiered works by Arnold Schönberg and Anton Webern. In 1927, the festival relocated to Baden-Baden and was renamed Deutsche Kammermusik Baden-Baden.

String Quartet No. 3, Op. 16, presented at the Donaueschinger Musiktage in 1921, propelled Paul Hindemith among the most distinguished German avant-garde composers. Danish String Quartet.

Chamber music Paul Hindemith showcased his extraordinary violin and viola skills at solo performances, and also brought to bear his instrumental brilliance as a member of several chamber ensembles. In 1914, he joined the Rebner Quartet (first playing second violin, before changing to viola), mainly focusing on Joseph Haydn’s and Ludwig van Beethoven’s music, which, however, soon began to grate upon the progressive Hindemith. “This music should be banned for five years!” he wrote. Dissatisfied with its repertoire, in the autumn of 1921 Hindemith left the Rebner Quartet. During the first edition of the festival in Donaueschingen, he was compelled to set up an ensemble so as perform his String Quartet No. 3, Op. 16.  The outfit, in which Paul played the viola and his brother Rudolf the cello, would in 1922 become a permanent formation. Named after Licco Amar, first violin, the Amar Quartet specialised in contemporary music. Hindemith remained with it until 1929, when he, the violinist Josef Wolfsthal (who, after his untimely death in 1931, was succeeded by Szymon Goldberg, a pupil of his) and the cellist Emanuel Feuermann founded a string trio, with whom he gave well-received concerts until March 1934. 

The experience gained as a member of chamber ensembles evidently influenced Hindemith’s work. Between 1920 and 1934, he wrote a considerable amount of chamber music: three String Quartets (Opp. 16, 22 and 32, 1920-1923); Kleine Kammermusik (Little Chamber Music), Op. 24/2, for wind quintet (1922); Drei Stücke für fünf Instrumente (Three Pieces for Five Instruments) for clarinet in B♭, trumpet in C, violin, double-bass and piano (1925); String Trios Nos. 1 and 2 (1924, 1933); sonatas for solo violin, solo viola and solo cello, Op. 25 and Op. 31; Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 25; “1922“. Suite for Piano, Op. 26; the two-part suite for piano Klaviermusik (Piano Music), Op. 37 (1924–1926); Kanonische Sonatine (Canonic Sonatina) for two flutes, Op. 31/3; Acht Stücke (Eight Pieces) for solo flute (1927); Kleine Klaviermusik (Little Piano Music, 1929); and pieces for solo double-bass (1929). Dating from between 1922 and 1927 is the Kammermusik (Chamber Music), a cycle of concertos grouped in three opus numbers, 24, 36 and 46, made up of seven parts and scored for interesting combinations of orchestra and solo instruments (piano, cello, violin, viola, viola d’amore and organ). In the second half of the 1920s and the early 1930s, Hindemith wrote the Triosatz for three guitars (1925–1930); Trio for Viola, Heckelphone (or Tenor Saxophone) and Piano, Op. 47 (1928); Konzertstück (Concert Piece) for two alto saxophones (1933); Morgenmusik (Morning Music), a sonata for trumpet, trombone and tuba (1932); Abendkonzert (Evening Concert) for three recorders; and the seven pieces for three trautoniums Des kleinen Elektromusikers Lieblinge (The Little Electro-Musician’s Favourites; 1930).

In the late 1910s and in the 1920s, Hindemith also composed a great deal of songs. He was fascinated by literary Expressionism, particularly Else Lasker-Schüler and Georg Trakl, and he also set poems by Christian Morgenstern and Rainer Maria Rilke. Dating from this period are the song cycles Melancholie, Op. 13, based on  Morgenstern’s texts (1919); Drei Hymnen von Walt Whitman (Three Hymns by Walt Whitman), Op. 14 (1919); and Acht Lieder (Eight Songs), Op. 18 (1920). In 1922, he composed Des Todes Tod (The Death of Death), Op. 23a, set to Eduard Reinacher’s poems, and the aforementioned Die junge Magd, Op. 23b, set to Georg Trakl’s poems. Furthermore, he created the cycle Das Marienleben (The Life of Mary), Op. 27, based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems (two versions, from 1923 and 1948), and Die Serenaden, Op. 35 (1924). The pieces he conceived in the 1930s and the 1940s include Lieder nach Gedichten von Friedrich Hölderlin (Songs to Poems by Friedrich Hölderlin) for tenor and piano (1933–1935), English Songs for voice and piano (1942–1943), and many other separate songs and song cycles, set to texts by Angelus Silesius, Clemens Brentano, Friedrich Nietzsche, Friedrich Rückert, John Keats, Charles Baudelaire, etc. The type of texts Hindemith sought for setting is elucidated in a letter to the poet Eduard Reinacher, written in 1930: “If I am to make a song out of a text, it must have loose places, left blank by the poet to a certain extent, left free for the composer in such a way that the music is needed there.”  

When it comes to vocal music, Paul Hindemith also created numerous works for boys’, female, male and mixed choirs. They include Chansons for male choir (1939); Apparebit repentina dies (1947), four sacred pieces for mixed chorus and brass, based on medieval poetry; The Demon of the Gibbet for male choir (1949); and Canon for male choir and tuba (1959). 

Das Marienleben (The Life of Mary), Op. 27 (1948), set to Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems, as splendidly performed by Rachel Harnisch and Jan Philip Schulze. © Naxos

In 1927, Hindemith was appointed professor of composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. After Franz Schreker, named its director in 1920, he was another distinguished composer to work at the music academy. While in Berlin, Hindemith developed a great penchant for cinema, primarily loving films starring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. He also frequented cabaret shows and spectacular modern productions at the Kroll-Oper, where from 1927 Otto Klemperer held the post of music director (in 1927, the opera house also engaged Alexander Zemlinsky). In Berlin, Hindemith made friends with Darius Milhaud, Igor Stravinsky, Artur Schnabel, Walter Gieseking, and other superb artists. Embracing the athletic ethos in Berlin, every morning he would start his daily routine with exercises and a walk through the forest. He took boxing and swimming lessons, and attended football matches with his wife Gertrud (née Rottenberg). During his time in Berlin, he also got his driving licence, and studied Latin and mathematics. Besides composing and teaching, Hindemith regularly played the viola. In October 1929, he premiered William Walton’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra at Queen’s Hall in London; in December of that year, he gave the first performance of David Milhaud’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra No. 1, Op. 108, at the Koninklijk Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. (Milhaud dedicated the piece to him.) In 1927 and 1929, he made concert tours of the Soviet Union.

1920s operas
The most notable of Paul Hindemith’s operas are Cardillac (1925–1926/1952), Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter, 1934–1935) and Die Harmonie der Welt (The Harmony of the World, 1956–1957). His approach to music drama starkly differed from that of Richard Wagner, whose style he openly rejected in the 1925 parody Ouvertüre zum Fliegenden Holländer, wie sie eine Kurkapelle morgens um 7 am Brunnen vom Blatt spielt (Overture to the Flying Dutchman as Sight-read by a Spa Orchestra at 7 in the Morning by the Well). 

In 1921, an enormous uproar was engendered in Stuttgart by the premieres of Hindemith’s one-acters  Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer, Hope of Women, 1919), based on Oskar Kokoschka’s eponymous play, and Das Nusch-Nuschi (The Nusch-Nuschi, 1920) to Franz Blei’s libretto. A year later, an equal furore was stirred by the first performance in Frankfurt of another Hindemith one-acter, Sancta Susanna, to August Stramm’s libretto, written within a mere two weeks in late January and early February 1921. Depicting the story of a nun descending into sexual frenzy and subsequently being mercilessly denounced by her Sisters, the opera reflects the composer’s embracing Expressionism, as manifested both in the theme and musical principles, reaching the very limits of tonality.  

The second half of the 1920s marked a turning point in Hindemith’s operatic oeuvre. In 1926, he completed Cardillac, his first full-length opera, set to Ferdinand Lion’s libretto. Depicting the story of a goldsmith murdering his customers, it can be deemed the “showcase” of the Neue Sachlichkeit style, with the music being dispassionate, coming across as somewhat detached, yet precisely matching the setting and the context of the plot. Cardillac features arias blending voice with instruments, it contains a duet in the form of prelude and fugue, and also employs passacaglia. 

In 1929, following long seeking of a comic subject, Hindemith made fun of his contemporaries with a “parody of opera“, Neues vom Tage (News of the Day), to a libretto by Marcellus Schiffer, who had previously supplied the text for his “sketch with music” Hin und zurück (Back and Forth, 1927). Making use of a range of musical styles, Neues vom Tage involves elements of jazz, characteristic of the Zeitoper (“opera of the time”), mingled with conventional arias with exorbitant cantilenas. Particularly witty is the scene in which the heroine Laura sits naked in a hotel bathtub, singing about the wonders of hot water supply – the scene that enraged the Nazis, above all Adolf Hitler. Neues vom Tage premiered in 1929 at the Kroll-Oper in Berlin, conducted by Otto Klemperer.

Cardillac, about a goldsmith murdering his customers, marked a turning point in Hindemith’s operatic oeuvre, becoming a “flagship” of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) style. A recording of a performance at the Bayerische Staatsoper in 1985, directed by Pierre Ponnelle and conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch.

New media
The post-WWI accession of new media thrilled Hindemith. A great fan of cinema, back in 1921 he composed the score for the movie In Sturm und Eis (In Storm and Ice) by the German director Arnold Fanck, a pioneer of the mountain film genre. Moreover, Hindemith created the player piano score for the silent cartoon Felix the Cat at the Circus (1927) and the soundtrack for the animated short film Vormittagsspuk (Morning Apparition), an abstract piece foregrounding the motifs of motion so underpinned by music that the visual aspect transforms into an intensive musical experience, made by the German Dada painter and avant-garde film producer Hans Richter. Regrettably, neither of the scores has survived. While in Berlin, Hindemith eagerly experimented at the radio research centre. His 1925 Anekdoten für Radio (Anecdotes for Radio) is one of the very first original compositions for the medium. In 1930, Hindemith created for the Neue Musik Berlin conference the radio play with music Sabinchen, to Robert Seitz’s text. In the event’s programme, he wrote as follows: “I don't deem the way musical radio plays have been written up to now to be right. They are either a mixture of acoustic tricks that rarely meet artistic requirements, with the music interfering with the speaking voices and sounds, or they are so full of music that there is no difference between them and an opera, a cantata or any piece of absolute music. In the radio play Sabinchen. I have striven to use the music as the basis for all acoustic events. The music determines not only the formal sequence, but also the rhythm, tone strength and colour of the other sound ingredients required in each case. Instead of a meaningless series of acoustic impressions, the listener is offered a composition that satisfies his artistic needs, works with microphone transmission and consciously applies performance without a visible performer as a means of art.”

Paul Hindemith composed music for cinema too. An excerpt from Arnold Fanck’s silent mountain film In Sturm und Eis (In Storm and Ice). Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, 1996.

Collaboration with Bertolt Brecht
The radicalisation of music theatre in the late 1920s and early 1930s affected Paul Hindemith and came to fruition in his brief collaboration with Bertolt Brecht. At the time, Brecht sought forms of “kollektive Kunstübung“ (“collective artistic exercise”), which  Hindemith too developed in his “Gebrauchsmusik zum Selbstspielen” (utility music for amateurs to play for themselves). In 1929, Brecht proclaimed that “music-making” is useful in and of itself and “need not be orientated towards useful aims”. In 1929, the Brecht–Hindemith tandem conceived two stage works. The first was Der Lindberghflug (Lindbergh’s Flight), inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s account of the first transatlantic flight, with music by Hindemith and Kurt Weill, who, however, would soon remove Hindemith’s sections and replace them with his own music, following which he presented the new version, referred to as a "cantata“, in December of that year at the Kroll-Oper in Berlin, conducted by Otto Klemperer. The second piece was Lehrstück (Learning Play), based on an avant-garde music-theatre concept didactic in purpose, aiming to edify through collective music-making, combining collective experience and music education. In 1930, Brecht and Hindemith drifted ideologically and terminated their collaboration. The open break between them occurred during the preparations for the Neue Musik Berlin festival, whose programming committee, of which Hindemith was a member, rejected Brecht’s agit-prop piece Die Maßnahme (The Measure). The disgruntled Brecht accused the committee of political censorship.

In 1929, Paul Hindemith, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill conceived Der Lindberghflug (Lindbergh’s Flight), a play with music, responding to the rise of Nazism in Germany. 

Hindemith and the Third Reich
Although having garnered success at home and abroad alike, Paul Hindemith’s standing in Germany in the early 1930s was complicated. His situation kept deteriorating with the rise of the Nazis, notwithstanding that he was praised by a number of prominent music figures, including the composer Richard Strauss and Wilhelm Furtwängler, the principal conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker. After Adolf Hitler had been named Chancellor in January 1933, the Nazis began, unofficially yet systematically, withdrawing Hindemith’s works from stages in Germany, and concert organisers ceased incorporating his music into programmes. The reactionary circles, headed by the NSDAP ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, considered his music “culturally Bolshevist” due to his performing in a trio with Simon Goldberg and Emanuel Feuermann, both of Jewish descent. Hindemith also faced difficulties on account of wife Gertrud, who in the records of Berlin’s Akademie der Künste in 1937 was registered as an “Aryan”, yet just a year later, at the Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) exhibition in Düsseldorf was referred to as “Half-Jewish”. Hindemith’s position and image as an ideal representative of the “New Germany” was further undermined by his performance on Christmas Eve 1933 at the Moabit remand prison in solidarity with the people persecuted by the Nazi regime (at the time, his brother-in-law Hans Flesch was held there). From 1934, Hindemith’s music could not be broadcast on the radio, and in 1936, upon the Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels’s direction, the President of the Reichsmusikkammer Peter Raabe (although being a champion of Hindemith’s) issued an absolute ban on performance of Hindemith’s works. In spite of the controversy surrounding him throughout the 1930s, Hindemith was able to continue giving performances abroad. Between 1935 and 1937, he toured Italy, Switzerland and other countries. In 1935, he accepted Turkish President Kemal Atatürk’s invitation to help with the foundation of the Ankara State Conservatory. Subsequently, until 1937, Hindemith made another three several-month visits to Turkey, where he led the reorganisation of music education in Western style.  

Hindemith began giving serious consideration to leaving Germany following a scandal caused by an article in which the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler came to his defence, published in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung on 25 November 1934 under the title Der Fall Hindemith (The Hindemith Case): “It is certain that no one of the younger generation has done as much for the reputation of German music abroad as Paul Hindemith. Today we, naturally, cannot know the significance of Hindemith’s music in the future, but that is not the point. There is more at stake than the ‘Hindemith Case’: a general question of a crucial nature. Also, we must bear in mind that we cannot afford to do without someone like Hindemith, given the global lack of truly good musicians.” The response came presently. In a speech before the Reichskulturkammer on 6 December 1934, Goebbels denounced Hindemith as an “atonal noise maker” and declared: “National Socialism is not only the political and social conscience, but also the cultural conscience of the nation. [...] That has to be said in order to create clarity in the conflict of opinions.”  Hindemith quickly saw the writing on the wall: on the day before Goebbels's speech, he had asked the Director of the Hochschule für Musik to be “given leave for an indefinite period of time due to the events of the last few days”. The steps he made over the next three years attest to his preparation for life abroad, primarily with a view to sustaining himself and his wife in the USA. In 1937, Gertrud Hindemith wrote to Willy Strecker, co-director of Schott: “You know, after all, that P. never acts hastily in blind passion, but that all decisions mature within him slowly but surely.”  

Paul and Gertrud Hindemith left Berlin in August 1938, four months after the Entartete Musik exhibition in Düsseldorf, which also featured Hindemith’s works. Following two years in Switzerland, in 1940 they moved to the USA. On 6 April 1939, Paul wrote to his wife: “The artistic measures taken in Germany are completely in line with all the undertakings of the Reich, which still seems to be dictated to solely by megalomania, sadism and brutality. I feel like a mouse recklessly dancing in front of the trap door through which it had gone in and which snapped shut when it was outside for a moment!” 

Music from the 1930s
During the 1930s, Hindemith conceived several seminal works. In 1935, he wrote the concerto for viola and orchestra Der Schwanendreher (The Swan Turner). In the Middle Ages, the “swan turner” was a cook assistant turning the spit on which swans were roasted. Within the context of the concerto, however, the title seems to refer to a wandering minstrel, playing a barrel organ or hurdy-gurdy with a handle shaped as a swan neck. In 1936, Hindemith composed Trauemusik, a suite for viola and strings, and, most significantly, the opera Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter), focusing on the life and work of Matthias Grünewald, a German Renaissance painter who created the famous Isenheim Altarpiece. In August 1933, Hindemith had penned the first version of the libretto, in which he mirrored the abuse of power, the repressive climate of the day and the struggle for artistic freedom (in the book-burning scene, for instance). In June 1935, he finished the definitive libretto, and on 27 July of that year the entire opera was completed. In Hindemith’s conception, Mathis gives up his art so as to fight for the oppressed, yet is ultimately bitterly disillusioned, realising that he has betrayed the best within himself: art. The protagonist arrives at the conclusion that an artist forsaking his talent is socially useless, which is highly likely the stance Hindemith himself assumed in order to withstand the political pressure. 

In the middle of 1933, while working on the first version of the libretto, Hindemith received a commission for a new composition for the Berliner Philhamoniker from Wilhelm Furtwängler. The conductor thus showed his support for a gifted artist. Hindemith decided to compose three symphonic movements that he could also use in the opera Mathis der Maler. The Symphony: Mathis der Maler premiered on 12 March 1934 in Berlin. Both Hindemith and Furtwängler believed that the performance would pave the way to the opera Mathis der Maler reaching German stages, yet they were mistaken. The opera would only receive its opening night three years later, on 28 May 1938, in Zurich. 

The Symphony: Mathis der Maler was first performed in Bohemia by the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Václav Talich, half a year after its world premiere, on 17 October 1934. In the following year, on 4 May 1935, the Neues deutsches Theater orchestra under Georg Széll played it in Prague.

Symphony: Mathis der Maler. Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, conducted by Herbert Blomstedt. BBC Proms, 2010.

In the USA
Hindemith established his first US contact back in 1930, when he composed the Konzertmusik for Piano, Brass and Harps, Op. 49, for the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Festival in Washington, D.C. That year he also created the Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass, Op. 50, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to mark the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Hindemith set out on his debut concert tour of the East Coast of the US in late March 1937, at the time when his music was officially banned in Germany. He performed in Washington, D.C., Boston, Buffalo and New York City, as well as Chicago, where he presented in world premiere his Sonata for Solo Viola (1937). From February to April 1938, he made another tour, of New England. In 1938, he spent almost five months in the USA. His objective was clear – to gain a foothold in Hollywood. Yet after visiting the film studios, he expressed complete disillusionment: “I think I am quite cured of the idea of doing something here in film (based on the completely crazy notion of creating something of artistic value). One cannot do anything of that kind in earnest.”  

Hindemith branded the USA a “land of limited impossibilities”. At moments of deepest despair, he complained to his wife: “If you feel like I do after your arrival in this blessed country, we shall make a delightful duo. I'm afraid I shall never really get accustomed to things here; if the monetary transactions run smoothly and the course of time does not travel in ever more idiotic orbits, one can really only be here temporarily, unless one wants to be driven to desperation or to drink – but not even that tastes good here!” His dismissive attitude, however, began changing when he was afforded the opportunity to give lectures at the University at Buffalo, Cornell University in Ithaca and Wells College in Aurora, as well as to teach composition at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer academy in Tanglewood (upon Serge Koussevitzky’s initiative). Most significantly, in early March 1940, Hindemith received the invitation to give a series of lectures at Yale University in New Haven, which he duly accepted. He so impressed the students and management that they offered him the post of visiting professor in the 1940–1941 winter semester. On 7 April 1940, Hindemith wrote to his wife: “Our immediate future seems to be secured”, adding that she should start packing. The couple subsequently moved to the USA.

Paul Hindemith conducting his Konzertmusik for String and Brass, Op. 50, written in 1930 to commission from Serge Koussevitzky for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A recording made at a concert in 1963, given by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. 

Yale University
Paul Hindemith found life in New Haven satisfactory, writing: “It is the first place in the country where I feel that one could be a little bit at home …” His teaching at Yale was so successful that the university offered him a full professorship. Hindemith accepted the appointment, as he was able to negotiate a very favourable contract, with the terms and conditions including a total reorganisation of music studies. His colleague Leo Schrade, who had worked at Yale since 1938, involved Hindemith in leading the Collegium Musicum ensemble, whose repertoire ranged from Pérotin to Johann Sebastian Bach. Yet it soon transpired that Schrade’s and Hindemith’s opinions as to the historical performance of early music differed to starkly that from 1948 Hindemith led Collegium Musicum himself. Over the decade of heading the ensemble, Hindemith presented 12 concert programmes, aiming to comply with the 17th-century style as faithfully as possible. Preparing performance materials from manuscripts, he became a pioneer of authentic interpretation of early music in the USA. One of Hindemith’s students noted: “Collegium Musicum is viewed as the most extraordinary musical experience you can savour at the university.” 

Paul Hindemith was a dexterous viola da gamba and viola d’amore player. In 1922, he even composed a piece for the latter instrument, titled Kleine Sonate (Little Sonata), Op. 25. His penchant for and proficiency in counterpoint were brought to bear in the 1942 Ludus Tonalis, a cycle of preludes and fugues in the fashion of J. S. Bach’s collection The Well-Tempered Clavier. 

The cycle for piano Ludus Tonalis demonstrates Paul Hindemith’s passion for Johann Sebastian Bach’s music. Composed in the fashion of The Well-Tempered Clavier, it comprises 12 fugues in all major and minor keys, separated by interludes. Sviatoslav Richter, 1985.

The American legacy 
In the wake of Nazi Germany’s declaration of war on the USA, the American authorities considered the Hindemiths “enemy aliens“, and duly imposed travel restrictions on them. Leading an anonymous life in New Haven, the couple spent their few holidays during WWII within New England. They resumed their home music-making for their friends and Paul’s students. In 1946, Hindemith was granted US citizenship, which he would retain until his death. As a professor of composition, music theoretician, initiator of historically informed performance and, particularly, a renowned composer of critically acclaimed music, Hindemith markedly influenced the music milieu in the USA. A distinguished educator, many of his pupils became brilliant players, theory teachers, conductors, musicologists and composers (although Hindemith only deemed Lukas Foss a truly talented music creator). He received numerous awards and honours, including Yale University’s Howland Memorial Prize Medal (1940), honorary doctorates from the Philadelphia Academy of Music (1945) and Columbia University (1948). In 1940, he was also appointed an honorary member of the exclusive Institute of Arts and Letters, which named him a regular member after he had become a naturalised US citizen. In 1949 and 1950, Hindemith gave a series of lectures at the Charles Eliot Norton department at Harvard University, which would serve as the basis of his book A Composer's World. In 1952, he received the coveted New York Music Critics' Circle Award for the best chamber work of the season. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy sent him a letter of appreciation. Without making any essential modifications to his musical style, during his time in the USA Hindemith attained global fame as a composer.  

Back to Europe 
The Hindemiths would not set foot back on European soil until 1947. During their stay, from mid-April to September, Paul also visited his native town and met his family, and reunited with old friends, including the Schott publishers Ludwig and Willy Strecker. Post-war Germany began expressing appreciation too: he received honorary doctorates from the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt (1949) and the Freie Universität Berlin (1950), as well as the Bach Preis from the City of Hamburg (1951). Nonetheless, Hindemith would never again settle in Germany, resolutely rejecting all offers to participate in the revival of its cultural scene. “For all of them, one is merely a chess figure that they try to push around, with the entire force of their egoism, into the best position for them, to gain the best profit for themselves. And all this in the name of artistic idealism!” he wrote to Willy Strecker in July 1946. On the other hand, in 1951 Hindemith accepted the offer to teach composition, music theory and education in Zurich. Over the next two years, he split his time between the Universität Zürich and Yale. While in Europe, he also performed at concerts and gave lectures in various countries. Moreover, he completed the second version of his opera Cardillac, which premiered in June 1952 in Zurich. In 1953, the Hindemiths left the USA and returned to Europe for good. They moved into the La Chance villa in the village of Blonay by Lake Geneva.  

The Harmony of the World
The opera Die Harmonie der Welt (The Harmony of the World), about the astronomer Johannes Kepler, distils Hindemith’s opinions of music and aesthetics in a manner not found in any other work of his. The composer started giving thought to the opera back in 1940. At Christmas 1941, he completed the motet In Principio erat Verbum, whose melody would serve as the basis of the opera’s first scene. Just like in the case of Mathis der Maler, prior to finishing the opera Die Harmonie der Welt, Hindemith had written a symphony of the same name, in 1951: “The three movements are pieces of music from an opera adapted for concert performance. They are about the life and work of Johannes Kepler, the contemporary events that encouraged or hindered him, and the search for the harmony that doubtlessly rules the Universe.” In 1956, Hindemith hastily penned the libretto, and in May 1957 he finished the score. The opera Die Harmonie der Welt received its world premiere on 11 August 1957 at the Prinzregententheater in Munich, with the composer himself conducting.

In the opera Die Harmonie der Welt (The Harmony of the World) Paul Hindemith distilled his music-theoretical and aesthetic opinions. The drama about the astronomer Johannes Kepler premiered in 1957 in Munich. Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, conducted by Marek Janowski.

The final years
Due to numerous commitments as a performer and conductor, in 1957 Hindemith retired from teaching at the Universität Zürich, so as to concentrate solely on giving concerts and composing. He worked with Europe’s finest orchestras, including the Berliner and Wiener Phiharmonikers, and the London Symphony Orchestra.  He made extensive tours of South America (1954) and Japan (1956, with the Wiener Philharmoniker). In his final years, he also gave performances in the USA. Mainly focusing on regular symphony concerts, he conducted a few opera productions, though almost exclusively of his own works. The last piece he composed is the Mass for mixed choir a cappella (1963). Paul Hindemith died of pancreatitis on 28 December 1963 at a clinic in Frankfurt, after having suffered several strokes. He left behind almost 500 works, of a variety of styles and for diverse instrumental formations.

Paul Hindemith’s last work is the 1963 Mass for mixed choir a cappella, bringing to bear his profound familiarity with early music, blended with elements of 20th-century creation. SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, led by the chorus master Marcus Creed, 2023.

Hindemith and the Czech lands
Paul Hindemith first visited Czechoslovakia in 1922, and gave his final performance there on 27 May 1961, within the Prague Spring festival. All in all, he appeared in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia 21 times. He was especially fond of Ostrava. His name is even included in the memorial Ostrauer Stammgast (Ostrava Regular Guest) list of the U Rady restaurant. In one of his letters to the conductor Jaroslav Vogel, who held the post of director of the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre from 1927 to 1943, Hindemith, possessing a good sense of humour, wrote: “When I have not been in Ostrava for a longer time, I feel sick, like people do when lacking vitamin C.” Besides Vogel, he was a friend of the pianist Emma Kovárnová and the bass-clarinettist Josef Horák (Due Boemi di Praga), as well as, particularly, the violist Ladislav Černý, to whom he dedicated his 1922 Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 25 No. 1. In 1921, he made friends with the Czech composer Alois Hába, whose String Quartet premiered at the Donaueschinger Musiktage that year. In 1923, within the newly founded International Society of Contemporary Music’s festival, the Amar Quartet performed Hába’s String Quartet No. 3, Op. 12, in the quarter-tone system, dedicated to Hindemith. In 1932, Hindemith and Hába participated in the Congress of Arab Music in Cairo, a large-scale international symposium and festival. “With great gratitude and love, I recall my dear friend Paul Hindemith, the crucial, selfless, generous help he provided to my personal development, as well as the development of quarter-tone music. I highly regard and admire his lifetime work, which constitutes a momentous part of the evolution of contemporary music,” thus wrote Alois Hába in his Hindemith obituary, published in the Hudební rozhledy magazine.

Paul Hindemith had several hobbies. One of his great passions was playing with a model railway, for which he invited friends and acquaintances – including such renowned figures as the pianist Artur Schnabel, and the author and pathologist Gottfried Benn, whose book Morgue and Other Poems gave rise to an uproar in Germany – to his flat in Berlin during the 1930s. The Swiss harpsichordist Silvia Kind, a pupil of Hindemith’s, described the sessions as follows: “At the time, he possessed 300 metres of track and the most sophisticated electric equipment with remote-control switches and signals. On Sundays, he would sit down and work out a meticulous timetable that would have done honour to any station manager. The hours in normal operation were represented in minutes, the minutes were in seconds. When the participants got together, the railway was built up for half a day through three rooms. Operation started in the afternoon; each person received a timetable and a stopwatch, and had to operate a train that was required to adhere exactly to the indicated stops and passing places, and arrive precisely at the right second. Mrs. Hindemith said that the men would often appear pale and exhausted at 2 or 3 in the morning and ask for schnapps, especially when Artur Schnabel, another railway fanatic, was present”. 

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