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Paul Hindemith was a great German composer, teacher, and violist of the 20th century who lived through tumultuous times. In this lesson we will examine his life, music, and legacy.

The True Cost of Art

What would you do if you were a great musician whose music was denounced by the government? Would you be brave enough to persevere in the face of threats and bans on your work? These are very real questions that have been faced by many composers throughout history, and questions faced by Paul Hindemith in the early days of the Third Reich. Sometimes the true cost of pursuing your art is high, indeed.

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The Early Years

A young Paul Hindemith in 1923
Photo of Paul Hindemith in 1923

Paul Hindemith was born to an impoverished family on November 16, 1895 in Hanau, Germany. His father, Robert Rudolf Hindemith, struggled to make a living at various jobs.

His mother, Marie Sophie Hindemith, worked in other homes to help support the family. Paul also had two siblings, Antonia and Rudolf.Paul’s father had shown musical talent when he was younger and regretted his lack of success in that field. He insisted his children do better than he had.

To this end, Paul learned the violin, Rudolf the cello, and Antonia the piano. They formed the Frankfurt Children’s Trio and performed in the homes of the wealthy.Paul went on to study violin and composition at Hoch’s Conservatory. He did well there, receiving prizes and learning from teachers who would help him advance his career. His first jobs were as a violinist in the Frankfurt New Theater and then in the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra, a position he obtained at age 19.

Later that year he began playing viola in a string quartet. He became a world class violist, eventually premiering the William Walton Viola Concerto.Paul married Gertrud Rottenberg in 1924.

She was the daughter of the conductor of the Frankfurt Opera, Ludwig Rottenberg. She was a talented musician in her own right and dedicated her life to supporting Paul’s career.

The home in Frankfurt where Hindemith lived with his wife, mother, and sister. It was called the Cowherd Tower.

The Hindemith home in Frankfurt

Hindemith’s Musical Ideas

At the time Hindemith began composing, Arnold Schoenberg’s ideas of serialism and tone-rows were taking hold. Serial music treats all twelve tones of the scale as equals, with no home key or key relationships. Each tone is assigned a place in a tone-row that becomes the creative material for the composition. Hindemith did not jump on this bandwagon.

He instead called for an expansion of traditional harmony, not an abandonment of it.Hindemith also coined the term Gebrauchmusik, ‘Music for Use,’ or ‘Utility Music.’ Hindemith believed there needed to be music for people to play for themselves as opposed to music intended for concert performances. He also thought music should be written for a specific purpose. An example of his work in Gebrauchmusik is Sing- und Spielmusik für Liebhaber und Musikfreunde, or Singing and Playing Music for Amateurs and Friends of Music.

Interestingly, Hindemith renounced this concept in later years, saying that all music should be assumed to be useful.

Mathis Der Maler

Matthias Grünewald was a painter who struggled with artistic freedom in the 16th century. Hindemith found his story compelling as the Nazi Party was rising in Germany.

In the early 1930’s, Hindemith began planning an opera based upon Gr;newald’s life. In 1934 he composed a symphony titled Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter) that introduced the musical themes he would use in the opera. When the great conductor Wilhem Furtwängler premiered the symphony in Berlin it was a tremendous success with the audience, but a political lightening rod for the Nazi Party.

The stage design for a 1948 production of the opera Mathis der Maler
Stage design for the opera Mathis der Maler

Hindemith was denounced by no less than Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda for Adolf Hitler. Called by Goebbels an ‘atonal music maker,’ and facing a ban on public performances of his music in Berlin, Hindemith was astute enough to ask for a leave of absence from his teaching job at the Berlin Music Academy in 1938. He taught in Turkey for two years, then traveled to the United States where he taught at Yale University.

Later Years

Despite the political upheaval caused by World War II, Hindemith continued to compose and produced some of his greatest works during or shortly after the war. The Violin Concerto of 1939 and the Cello Concerto of 1940 are both strong examples of his spare, lean, yet emotionally accessible style.

Hindemith in the USA in 1945
Photo of Hindemith in 1945

One of his most popular and oft-performed works, Symphonic Metamorphoses After Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, was composed in 1943, in the midst of the war. This four movement work uses many of the traditional forms, such as fugues, canons, and chorales, of which Hindemith was so fond.

Yet the harmonies are creative and inventive and reveal Hindemith at his best in combining tradition with new ideas.In 1953, Hindemith and his wife were able to return to Europe. They bought a house called Villa La Chance in the small town of Blonay, Switzerland. Hindemith taught at the University of Zürich until 1958. He continued to compose right until the end of his life. He died after a brief illness on December 28, 1963 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Sadly, although his music is loved and respected by musicians, he has yet to be truly appreciated by audiences of the 21st century.

Lesson Summary

Paul Hindemith was born on November 16, 1895 in Hanau, Germany. His father had musical aspirations that included Paul performing with his siblings. Paul studied violin and composition at Hoch’s Conservatory. He began his musical career by playing the violin in various orchestras, but he soon switched to viola. Hindemith composed music that still relied upon traditional harmony and form, rejecting the serial movement of his peers.

His Mathis der Maler Symphony brought the ire of the Nazi Party, forcing Hindemith to leave Germany. He had a successful career teaching at Yale University, composing, and performing on the viola. He moved to Switzerland in 1953. He died in Germany on December 28, 1963.

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