Paul Hindemith: Symphony Mathis der Maler

There is a Kurt Vonnegut story called Harrison Bergeron. The story takes place in the 2081 in some totalitarian society in which no one was supposed to be better than anyone else. Anyone with any natural talent, good looks or ability had to wear crippling or disfiguring accoutrements to prevent them from out-shining the next person. For example, a Barishnikov-type ballet dancer had to wear lead weights and gunny sacks filled with sand to prevent him from jumping higher than the other members of his troupe.

Paul Hindemith’s story is a bit like that.  Hindemith was a gifted composer who developed his own theory of music that encompasses the 12 tone system that Schoenberg and others were using to turn western music on its head in early 20th Century Germany.  Hindemith, however, is considered a late romantic, and managed to remain melodic.  Not melodic enough, it turns out, and the Nazi propogandist Joeseph Goebbels, denounced it as “degenerate” and Hindemith as an “atonal noisemaker.”

Hindemith was a violist and violinist and an influential music educator.  In the 1930, he went to Turkey and helped reform their musical educational system.  He fled to Switzerland in 1938 as his wife was Jewish.  He ended up emigrating to the US in 1940 where he ended up teaching at Yale, where he had a number of students who became influential in their own right.

Mathis der Maler was composed in 1934 for the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Wilhelm Furtwangler.  Hindemith took themes and melodies and sections from an opera by the same name that he was working on and turned them into a symphony.  The opera is about Matthias Grunewald, a painter who lived in the 1500s during the Protestant Reformation.  It explores the painter’s struggle to express himself in the face of a repressive religious and political climate.  It clearly mirrored Hindemith’s own struggles for artistic expression and freedom under the Nazis.

Hindemeth continued to work after coming to the United States and actively composed right up to his death in 1963. Unfortunately, his work wasn’t considered avant garde enough, so a lot of his music remains unrecorded. This is unfortunate for musicologists consider him to be one of the greatest influences on modern symphonic music. Mathis Der Maler manages to be experimental and ground-breaking while remaining quite accessible. His orchestration is as colorful as Ravel’s and the rhythms can be as complex as those of Stravinsky. He emphasized the brass section as well, and his Mathis is a robust piece for that reason as well.

I first came upon the piece in 1975, while living in the French house, and it reminds me of a guy, named Nick, whom I met there, who I became friends, which friendship lasted for many years.

In the French House there lived a plump little blonde whom we called Bettina. She had a friend named Mary who, how shall we say, had certain appetites. Bettina hosted a few soirees in her room and I had fun gossiping with them, hearing Mary tell of her exploits with men. She was “dating” a guy named “Doc” who lived in Nick’s dorm. One day at the cafeteria, Mary and Bettina waved me over to their table as I walked in. There sat Doc and this guy with a big grin on his face. He cut an impressive figure, dressed all in black with a Greek fisherman’s cap on his head. He had a grizzled beard and a big moustache above which rose up a majestic Gallic nose. He and I hit it off immediately.

Nick told me he was majoring in German language and dance. His mother taught Spanish at a university in Massachussets, and his father was a French poet who lectured in literature at some girl’s college in Pennsylvania. Nick worshipped Rudolf Nureyev, whom he had recently seen dance at our university. Nick was living with a girl named who, he said, “came from your neck of the woods, Michigan City.” It turned out that we had a similar sense of humor, loved puns, and that our favorite comedian was Woody Allen. Nick proceeded to tell me the plot and most of the jokes from two of Allen’s films I had missed: “Play it Again Sam,” and “What’s Up Tiger Lily?” He had me in stitches.

We couldn’t have talked for more than an hour, but in that short time, Nick had somehow managed to telegraph all that information to me. (Oh yes, he also told me how he had spent a year in England in high school and how he had been the only male dancer in his upper crust school’s dance troupe, nudge, nudge.) When dinner was over, we went our separate ways and I think I might have been a bit sad, for here was someone whom I would really like for a friend. As it turned out, however, for the rest of my time at Indiana University and on three continents our paths would cross and recross innumerable times.

Several weeks after our dinner, I was walking past the new and very modern performing arts center on campus when I heard someone call my name from above. This building was made of poured concrete and someone rumored that it had been designed by Claes Oldenburg. It had a semi-circular entrance area that was attached to a long, high, shoe-box shaped structure that rose up high above the surrounding trees. From afar, perched on a hill, the whole structure looked like a huge toilet. Actually, now that I think of it, I think Claes Oldenburg might have created a sculpture for it that was a huge water valve float from the cistern of a toilet.

When I heard my voice, I looked up, and there, high atop the auditorium on its roof stood Nick, dressed in leotards and waving at me.

“What are you doing up there?” I asked.

“We’re on break from dance class. We snuck out here because it was so hot in the studios. You should come on up.”

I did and Nick gave me a tour of the buildings, the studios, and took me up the stairway that lead to the roof. It was a bright late spring day, and we enjoyed the view and had fun yelling down at the passers-by.

Whenever he saw me after that, he greeted me like an old friend and we’d go somewhere and he’d tell me some fascinating story about his life. He always encouraged me in whatever I was reading, listening to, or interested in. He loved languages, literature, wine, women and above all, dance. When Nick learned that my ancestors came from Hungary, he started calling me a “hot-blooded Magyar.”

Needles to say, Nick blew me away, but he always puzzled me. I could not figure why he took such an interest in me. Especially since I came from such a boring background. Yet in the subsequent years he became my most constant friend. He always encouraged me and gave me almost brotherly advice. We raised families and our kids were close and we used to visit each other on summer vacations or call each other and talk for hours as our careers progressed.  Unfortunately, we’ve grown apart, but I still remember all the good times we spent together.  He was one of the people who taught me how to be human and the value of self-expression.

Is there a thread here running from Vonnegut through Nick to Hindemeth? Perhaps it has to do with the need to embrace life and express oneself artistically. I don’t see how one can get through life otherwise.


Downlad MP3s or CD of Hindemith: Symphonie ‘Mathis Der Maler’ / Trauermusik / Symphonic Metamorphosis


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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