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Symphony 'Mathis der Maler'
1933/4; first performed in Berlin in March 1934, Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting

'Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis & other orchestral works' (CDA68006)
Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis & other orchestral works
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Movement 1: Engelkonzert
Movement 2: Grablegung
Movement 3: Versuchung des heiligen Antonius

Symphony 'Mathis der Maler'
If the artistic and political debates of the 1920s had seemed quarrelsome, they were child’s play compared with the 1930s. The advent of the Nazis brought with it serious questions about an artist’s duty. Pondering these conundrums, just as his output was branded ‘cultural bolshevism’, Hindemith began work on a new opera. Both Mathis der Maler and the Symphony based on it were written between 1933 and 1934; they recall the life of the sixteenth-century painter Matthias Grünewald, who abandons art to fight in the Peasants’ War. Disappointed by his fellow rebels, Grünewald comes to realize that he has betrayed his most precious gift and, in a particularly visionary scene, his obligation to paint returns.

The three symphonic movements respectively recall the Overture, an interlude from the last scene of the drama and Matthias’s vision of the Temptation of St Anthony (in which he nigh assumes the role of the saint). These movements, like the opera, simultaneously refer to the panels of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, painted for a monastery in the Alsatian town that cared for Plague victims. One of the pictures, the ‘Concert of Angels’, forms the backdrop to the opera’s Overture (and the symphony’s first movement). Here Hindemith quotes from ‘Es sungen drei Engel’ (famous through its Mahlerian guises) and the ‘Lauda Sion salvatorem’ plainchant. The contrapuntal basis of Hindemith’s music remains, yet there is a newly pacific and spiritual quality, which not only reflects the dramatic context in which the music was written but also the composer’s pensive mood.

If the kinesis of Hindemith’s earlier work is less apparent, its dichotomies are even more pronounced. Having begun in G major, the second subject sounds in D flat major. This seemingly unstable tritonal relationship is the very axis on which the opera and symphony turn. We are slowly pulled towards that second key, which is trumpeted in bold Alleluias in the final bars. Of course these polarities can be read in terms of the opposing duties to which Matthias feels drawn, though they also serve a musical purpose. Ultimately they are one and the same thing, in which the objective serves the subjective (and vice versa), making for Hindemith’s richest work.

The allegory presented was, however, bound to antagonize the new powers. After the symphony’s highly successful premiere under Wilhelm Furtwängler in Berlin in March 1934 matters only got worse. Furtwängler tried to use his influence, not least in an article in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung in November 1934, yet the attempt failed and Goebbels was soon calling Hindemith a ‘dud’, a ‘charlatan’ and an ‘atonal noise-maker’. While Furtwängler returned to the Nazi fold in 1935, Hindemith stuck to his guns. He took an extended period of leave from the Berlin Musikhochschule, from which Jewish colleagues had already been expelled, and finally resigned in March 1937. Having been named the ‘standard-bearer of musical decay’ at the May 1938 Entartete Musik exhibition, running at the same time as the operatic premiere of Mathis der Maler in Zurich, Hindemith decided to move to Switzerland permanently. He settled in a village in the Rhône valley but in 1940, shortly after the outbreak of war, relocated to the USA. The commission from Boston in 1930, and subsequent trips in 1937, 1938 and 1939, had shown that he had the potential to work and earn a living in America, though he was reluctant about making a permanent move.

from notes by Gavin Plumley © 2013

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Details for CDA68006 track 4
Recording date
16 December 2012
Recording venue
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Recording producer
Michael George
Recording engineer
Mike Clements
Hyperion usage
  1. Hyperion monthly sampler – December 2013 (HYP201312)
    Disc 1 Track 2
    Release date: December 2013
    Download-only monthly sampler
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