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On the 50th anniversary of Hindemith's death

Marita Berg/gnbDecember 28, 2013

First an enfant terrible, then written off as a minstrel. Paul Hindemith is one of the 20th Century's most important composers, yet to this day much of his work remains on the fringes.

Komponist und Dirigent Paul Hindemith
Image: picture-alliance/Robert Lebeck

"I can't give an analysis of my work because I don't know how to explain a piece of music in a few words. Moreover I think my work is easy to comprehend just by listening to it, so an explanation is unnecessary." Paul Hindemith introduced himself with these words in his autobiography published in 1922. He confidently added: "People without ears can't be helped with mnemonic trickery."

Paul Hindemith im Jahr 1928
A young Paul Hindemith in 1928.Image: CC BY-SA 3.0/Axel Hindemith

A wild youth

Indeed several critics and music fans in the 1920s would have been glad of a few mnemonic pointers. Hindemith's music was uncompromising and headstrong, bold and bizarre. Many saw him as an enfant terrible while as many again regarded him up as a bright hope of the musical avant-garde.

His breakthrough came in 1921 at the first Donaueschingen Chamber Music Festival for the Promotion of Contemporary Music. Hindemith didn't just successfully introduce his own works. As co-organizer and violinist he was a passionate supporter of new music and soon became a central figure at the festival. Thanks to his efforts, the first works by Arnold Schönberg and Anton Webern debuted at the event in 1924.

Passion for new music

By that time Hindemith was having ideas about how to overhaul the concert business. He feared an alienation between musicians and audience: "The fact that I was in constant contact with the audience made one thing immediately clear to me; this idea that the musician has all the freedom in the world and the audience has none can't last." In particular Hindemith was keen to introduce youngsters and laymen to the world of contemporary music.

But he also wanted to go a step further. Not wantinf audiences to be made up simply of "passive listeners," he demanded: "Musicians should activate the audience and encourage them to participate." His motto was "Making music is better than listening to music." During this period his first educational writings appeared, as did his "Spielmusik" series which included works such as the Christmas fairytale "Tuttifäntchen" and the children's song "Wir bauen eine Stadt" (We're building a city).

Paul Hindemith
A staunch supporter of contemporary music.Image: Getty Images

Atonal noise maker

After the Nazis came to power on January 30, 1933, Hindemith soon began to feel the effects of the regime's new cultural policy. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels denounced him as an "atonal noise maker." Many of his works were deemed "Culturally Bolshevik" and forbidden by the Reich's Chamber of Music. Included was his latest composition, the opera "Mathis der Maler" (Mathis the Painter), which brought him considerable trouble with the authorities. They chose to interpret the seemingly innocuous story of Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald and his fight for freedom as a denunciation of Hitler. Hindemith went into exile and "Mathis der Maler" premiered in Zurich. "That was a dangerous time, when this whole Hitlerism thing began. During the war, during the so-called Thousand Year Reich, when all of these works were forbidden and couldn't be played, this piece ("Mathis der Maler") ran all over the world."

To those we love

In 1953 Hindemith returned from exile in America and settled in Switzerland but found he wasn't able to build upon his pre-war successes. The assessment of Hindemith as a mere "minstrel" and "workman" the music theorist and philosopher Theodor W. Adorno would influence future generations. Avant-garde colleagues regarded him as a reactionary, while audiences perceived his music as academic.

Many of Paul Hindemith's works were and are rarely performed in concert halls, particularly those composed during his self-imposed exile such as the 1946 requiem based on a Walt Whitman poem. The work is dedicated "to those we love." Hindemith explained the dedication while it was still a work in progress: "It will be a kind of American requiem based on Walt Whitman texts. Works such as 'When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd', a beautiful poem about death, dying and the sad fate of mankind. This seems to be an important undertaking in the present, post-war time after so much death and sadness."

Paul Hindemith
Hindemith's music remains largely unknown.Image: CC BY-SA 3.0

Paul Hindemith died on December 28, 1963 in his hometown of Frankfurt am Main. Shortly before, on his last visit to the United States, Hindemith conducted the requiem one last time in New York. It is arguably one of the most effective pieces of music in the Hindemith canon.