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Tuesday Night Opera: Mathis der Maler

Paul Hindemith with Viola, by Rudolf Heinisch, 1956

Paul Hindemith with Viola, by Rudolf Heinisch, 1956

Hindemith, Tuesday at 8:00 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

By 1933 Adolph Hitler was already consolidating power and persecuting people in German communities. 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, Reich Minister of Propaganda, 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 of Hindemith’s Symphony 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)

 
The first movement of the Symphony became the overture to the opera. The second movement became an interlude in the last act of the opera. Material from the third movement of the symphony was expanded into a large scene in the opera.

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