Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

Paul Hindemith was one of the giants of 20th Century Classical music and one of the most important German composers of his generation. He was also an important music theorist, conductor, viola virtuoso, educator, and author.

Born near Frankfurt, Hindemith studied violin as a youngster and later had conducting & composition studies with Arnold Mendelssohn, (a distant cousin of Felix Mendelssohn) at the Hoch Conservatory. Hindemith played in various dance bands and was also the violist with the Amar Quartet. His early compositional style was greatly influenced by the expressionist style of Schoenberg and his music caused quite a stir at the ISCM Festival in Salzburg. He later helped found the Donaueschingen Festival, which promoted avant-garde composers such as Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. His early operas also reflect the influence and popularity of Kurt Weill.

Hindemith taught at the Hochschule in Berlin in the late 20’s. He was then asked by the government of Turkey to reform and establish the country’s musical training programs in the school system; a job that he undertook with great success and helped in the formulation of his mature compositional style. Hindemith broke with Schoenberg’s adoption of atonality and 12-tone music. He viewed tonality as an immutable law of nature, similar to gravity. Although he retained tonality in his music, he developed distinctive technique and musical theory based on the interval relationships of the 12 tones. Much of Hindemith’s harmony was based on the interval of a fourth, which was different from the dominant major-minor system of music based on thirds. He later published books on musical training and compositional technique.

One of Hindemith’s most important works of the 30’s was the opera Mathis der Maler, based on the life of Matthias Grünewald, the Renaissance painter. Hindemith later took parts and themes of the opera and fashioned his Mathis der Maler Symphony from it. Despite a ban by the Nazis, Wilhelm Furtwängler defended the composer and premiered it in Berlin in 1934. It remains his masterwork and a classic of the 20th Century orchestral repertoire. Hindemith’s mature style also became associated with the Neoclassical movement pioneered by Stravinsky. However, where Stravinsky drew inspiration from Mozart and Tchaikovsky, Hindemith’s biggest influence was the contrapuntal style of Bach. Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis was a set of fugues and interludes for piano that are often compared to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. His Kammermusik set of concertos is also somewhat derivative of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

Hindemith was also associated with the Gebrauchsmusik movement, music written for specific occasions, frequently for amateur performance. He believed that it was important for the amateur performer to have quality music available. As a result, Hindemith composed in virtually every musical genre, including serious and comic opera, ballets, orchestral and symphonic band music, concertos, songs, piano pieces, and chamber music. Most notably, he wrote a sonata for almost every instrument of the orchestra and reportedly could perform all of them, as well as the piano accompaniments. He championed neglected instruments, such as the tuba, string bass, saxophone, guitar, and recorder. He even wrote for extremely rare instruments such as the heckelphone and viola d’amore.

After moving to America to escape Nazi persecution, Hindemith composed two of his great works: the Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of [Carl Maria von] Weber, (probably his most frequently performed piece) and his Requiem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” based on Walt Whitman’s epic poem in memory of Abraham Lincoln.Hindemith taught at Yale and was also a guest lecturer at Harvard. His influence as a composition teacher is probably greater than any other composer of the last 100 years. In his final years, he retired to Switzerland and was active as a conductor with some of the world’s top orchestras, recording many of his pieces. Hindemith summed up his philosophy of composition and of life with this statement:

“There are only two things worth aiming for, good music and a clean conscience.”

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