Born near Frankfort, the prolific composer Paul Hindemith
studied at the Frankfurt Conservatoire, where he proved himself a
versatile instrumentalist, demonstrating proficiency on the
violin, viola, piano, and clarinet. At the age of 19 he became
leader of the Frankfurt Opera orchestra, and also second violin in
the Rebner String Quartet. Work at the opera was interrupted by a
period of military service between 1917 and 1919, during which
Hindemith played in a regimental band and an army string quartet.
Hindemith's early works attracted immediate attention and even
notoriety: their sensational elements included violence and
sexuality in the one-act operas Morder (Murder), of 1919,
and Sancta Susanna, of 1921; and jazz and sleazy nightclub
music in the piano suite 1922 and the Kammermusik No. 1,
whose instrumentation includes a siren. Despite its air of
boisterous parody, the Kammermusik was the first of many
works by Hindemith to use Baroque models
such as Bach's Brandenburg concertos for form, texture, and rhythmic
In 1923 the success of the Amar Quartet, in which Hindemith was
now violist, enabled him to relinquish his Frankfurt Opera post. He
abandoned his musical shock tactics, and moved towards a style
distinguished by its energy and objectivity. The opera
Cardillac, for example, deals with a goldsmith who murders his
customers, but the horrific aspects of the story are mitigated by
the formal structure and unemotional clarity of the music.
Hindemith next turned increasingly to the composition of works
for amateurs, such as the Lehrstikk of 1929 with texts by
Bertolt Brecht, which encouraged directness and simplicity of
expression in his works. The Trauermusik for viola and
strings emphasized Hindemith's desire for immediacy in his music.
It was composed the day after the death in 1936 of the English
king, George V, and premiered the day after that.
A much larger-scale summing-up of Hindemith's ideas had come
earlier in the 1930s with the completion of the opera Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Artist) and the symphony based on it.
The German painter Matthias Grunewald symbolized for Hindemith the
dilemma of all artists caught up in political upheavals: Hindemith
had himself been attacked by the Nazis, and in 1937 was forced to
leave Germany. The three movements of the symphony Mathis der
Maler each represent one of the panels of Grunewald's
altarpiece at Isenheim, and the warmth and humanity of the work show the
composer coming to terms with his Classical and Romantic heritage,
and with his innate respect for tradition.
Hindemith found refuge from the Nazis in America, where he
taught at Yale University and took United States citizenship in
1946. A series of orchestral commissions included the Symphonic
on themes of Carl Maria von Weber, whose wordy title conceals a
work of the most deft and delightful humour, an antidote to the
common view of the mature Hindemith as a composer of unbending
Teutonic seriousness. In 1953 he moved to Switzerland, and there,
in his last years,
completed Die Harmonic der Welt (The Harmony of the World), a
mystical opera about the astronomer Johan Kepler.
Hindemith is today recognized as the leading German composer of
his generation, whose music, carefully formulated philosophy, and
dynamism as a performer were an inspiration to his contemporaries.