Paul Hindemith: The 20th Century’s Most Neglected Composer

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

Hindemith, Paul

Often dismissed today as a dry neo-classicist, the German composer Paul Hindemith was in fact one of the most visionary figures of his time, says John Allison. Here he explores his life and works

For over 20 years, Paul Hindemith and his wife Gertrud made a habit of sending self-made greeting cards for Christmas and the New Year. A brilliant cartoonist and graphic artist, the composer designed them all, and the final one, for 1963-64, is especially poignant.

It’s a double self-portrait showing Hindemith playing his new Organ Concerto on an instrument whose bellows are being pumped by a benign-looking lion. The lion, a recurring motif throughout his drawings, was a light-hearted hommage to Gertrud, whose sign of the zodiac was Leo.

She outlived him by five years, but Hindemith was to die between that Christmas and New Year, on 28 December 1963 in Frankfurt am Main, a city that shaped his life more than any other.

Who was Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith was a leading German composer and one of the most significant of his time. Few major composers have a less cuddly reputation than Hindemith. But he had a sense of humour that is often overlooked, and it comes through not only in his surrealist drawings but in much of his music.

The early series of seven Kammermusik works for various chamber-orchestra ensembles, dating from the 1920s, are characterised by the high jinks of a hoped-for new world order. His lifelong friend Paul Sacher, the patron and conductor, summed him up much later as ‘the bad boy of contemporary music.

‘His early music was really impudent, without consideration for his listeners, outside the tradition. In contrast to that of the Second Viennese School, his music – like Stravinsky’s – had a strong rhythmic element, and that appealed to me greatly. And he could be merry and humorous.’

Sacher also left a memorable description of the composer. ‘He was fairly small, and had a big skull, and then this huge viola.’ Either a viola or a violin were to accompany Hindemith everywhere he went during the first part of his career.

When was Paul Hindemith born?

Paul Hindemith was born on 16 November 1895 in Hanau, Germany, and is brought up in draconian style by his father, a painter and decorator. His musical talent spotted early and he learns the violin as a child.

When did Hindemith start composing?

He joined the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra in 1914 and was appointed leader in 1917, and his remarkable series of violin sonatas was begun during this period. Even more significantly, he would write several masterpieces (solo, with piano or concertante) for the viola, the instrument he played as founder of the Amar Quartet in 1921. His own seven quartets were composed between 1915 and ’45, and show all the stylistic progress that implies.

But the label of Hindemith as a dry and craggy contrapuntalist still persists. His craft was grounded in the tradition of Bachian counterpoint, a preoccupation that never left him: at the height of his powers, in 1942 he composed his mammoth piano cycle Ludus Tonalis (‘Game of Tones’, as it were), comprising interludes and fugues in all 24 keys, a clear response to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

Some might say Ludus Tonalis is more rewarding to play than to listen to, but then Hindemith was used to alienating listeners when necessary, as in his early expressionist operatic trilogy of Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (based on a text by Oskar Kokoschka), Das Nusch-Nuschi and Sancta Susanna. The last of these, about a young nun driven by sexual ecstasy into the ‘arms’ of an altar crucifix, had its premiere delayed by a year until 1922 after Fritz Busch refused to conduct it.

One of Hindemith’s major if still under-appreciated masterpieces, a work connecting these heady early years with his later, more experienced creative voice, is the song cycle Das Marienleben (‘The Life of Mary’), first heard in 1923 and again in revised form in 1948. Based on poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, it is one of the 20th century’s greatest song cycles. One admirer was Glenn Gould (one of the best pianists of all time), who recorded it in 1977 with the soprano Roxolana Roslak. The Canadian pianist, who had previously recorded Hindemith’s sonatas for brass and piano as well as his three piano sonatas, traced his passion for 20th-century music to a teenage encounter with the composer’s Mathis der Maler Symphony.

Gould was perhaps the most ardent champion Hindemith ever had, and wrote that his art represented a ‘true amalgam of ecstasy and reason’. It was thanks to Hindemith that Gould received his only Grammy – and not for his piano playing.

He won for the Best Liner Notes of 1973 with an essay accompanying this recording of the piano sonatas; entitled ‘Hindemith: Will His Time Come? Again?’, it blamed the Stravinsky-Schoenberg axis for panic selling on the ‘futures market of Hindemithian repose’. That was ten years after Hindemith’s death, a time traditionally when composers’ stocks are at their lowest.

Hindemith’s stocks may still not be soaring, at least when compared with Bartók and Stravinsky, with whom he used to be bracketed, but he remains valued as the patron saint of neglected instruments. Over his career he composed over 30 sonatas for diverse resources, not only the double bass and bass tuba but even the althorn. His sonata for viola d’amore reflects his interest in early music which he balanced with the contemporary music he promoted as a member of the programme committee of the Donaueschingen Festival.

What was Paul Hindemith famous for?

Having emerged in the world of German expressionism, and written pieces that were as lurid as the Weimar Republic milieu demanded, Hindemith went on to adopt a more severe neo-classicism in his music.

In 1927, he moved to Berlin to teach composition at the Musikhochschule, and undertook research that would lead to his eventual publication of theoretical studies including The Craft of Musical Composition and A Composer’s World. Always striving to be a ‘useful’ composer, his works reflected the mood of the times.

With its contemporary setting, Neues vom Tage (premiered in Berlin in 1929) was described as a Zeitoper, yet his three major full-length operas – Cardillac (1926), Mathis der Maler (1938) and Die Harmonie der Welt (1957) – go deeper, exploring a creative mind’s relationship with society and point to Hindemith’s deep humanity.

An allegory on the artist’s role amid social unrest, his operatic masterpiece Mathis der Maler (and earlier symphony of the same name) was inspired by the painter Matthias Grünewald, creator of the Isenheim Altarpiece, who struggled to find freedom and artistic truth when he abandoned his art to fight in the Peasants’ Revolt.

Nothing is more representative of German resistance to Nazism from within than Mathis, and already after the successful premiere of the symphony, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, the composer had been denounced as an ‘atonal noisemaker’ and registered as one of many ‘degenerate’ musicians. Ironically, Hindemith was actually quite tonal and very German in his craft. As shown by his Gebrauchsmusik (‘utility music’), no one had worked harder to make music central to ordinary German lives, yet Hindemith would soon be forced into exile.

When did Hindemith leave Germany?

Hindemith’s first response was internal exile – and travel. Between 1935 and ’39 he made visits to Ankara as an adviser on musical life in Turkey. He helped establish the conservatory in the Turkish capital, and assisted German Jewish musicians in escaping to Turkey. The composer also enjoyed close connections with Britain.

He had premiered Walton’s Viola Concerto in 1929 and was in London in January 1936 for the premiere of his Viola Concerto Der Schwanendreher when the death of King George V led to the concert’s cancellation.

He sat in a BBC office for six hours composing his Trauermusik (‘Mourning Music’) for viola and strings and performed it the same night in a memorial broadcast. He conducted the premiere of his ballet Nobilissima visione (depicting scenes from the life of St Francis of Assisi) at Covent Garden in summer 1938.

Unlike his Jewish colleagues, Hindemith was not immediately endangered but went to the US in 1940 and soon began teaching composition at Yale. A shift towards big orchestral works, including the popular Symphonic Metamorphosis after Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, reflects the burgeoning of the American orchestral scene during the war and post-war years. Hindemith toured widely (including to South America in 1954 and Japan in ’56) before and after settling back in Europe in 1953, making his last home in the Swiss village of Blonay, above Lake Geneva.

When Hindemith found himself out of fashion in the cultural re-alignment after World War II, history was repeating itself. He had been the new composer Germany so badly needed at the end of World War I when Richard Strauss fell out of step with the times. Now his response, like Strauss’s, was to carry on composing regardless, and his music took on a deeper melancholy, addressing life’s biggest questions.

His two final operas, though contrasting in scale – sprawling versus intimate, cosmic versus domestic – sum up his artistic credo. Where Die Harmonie der Welt, based on the life and theories of the astronomer Johannes Kepler, explores notions of an infinite universe, The Long Christmas Dinner (1962) represents a world of no beginnings and no ends, taking as its basis Thornton Wilder’s play about the unending cycles of birth and death as presented in a family scene, with succeeding generations gathered around the same Christmas table.

Though fate decreed that Hindemith would make his exit at Christmas the following year, his music still matters: as the composer himself said, ‘Only a coward retreats into history’.

When did Paul Hindemith die?

After suffering a bout of fever and then a series of strokes, he died aged 68 on 28 December, 1963 in hospital in Frankfurt. He is buried in the cemetery in St Légier, close to his home.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *