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Art and Music: Mathis der Maler

Sketch of John the Baptist, long held to be a self-portrait of Matthias Grünewald

Sketch of John the Baptist, long held to be a self-portrait of Matthias Grünewald

Hindemith: “Symphony: Mathis der Maler”

July 29 4:00 PM

“(Hindemith) is so caught up in the material, by the familiar atmosphere and the magnitude of the accusation, the parallels of that period with ours and especially by the lonely artist’s fate, that he will create with an unprecedented enthusiasm and personal involvement.”

—Ludwig Strecker, publisher

In 1933, Adolph Hitler was already consolidating power and attacking civil liberties. Composer Paul Hindemith reacted with an original libretto based on the life and work of Renaissance artist Matthias Grünewald, focusing on the painter’s struggle for artistic freedom.

(Hindemith is an) “atonal noisemaker.”

—Joseph Goebbels, 1934

Like most people, Hindemith underestimated the Nazis. He openly derided their ideologies, and quickly became marked as a dissident. In an attempt to keep the door open for him, Wilhelm Furtwängler commissioned a symphony; this grew directly out of the work being done on the opera, Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter). Furtwängler conducted the premiere of the Symphony in 1934; it was an immediate success, but the political message carried more bite than the Nazis could bear. They began suppressing Hindemith’s music. The opera, which came the following year, could not be premiered in Germany, but took place in Switzerland.

In the opera, Hindemith interweaves the lives of Matthias and the subjects of his paintings for the Isenheim altarpiece. Each movement corresponds with one of the paintings (view the paintings below).

  1. Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert)
  2. Grablegung (Entombment)
  3. Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of Saint Anthony)

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