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Work of the week – Paul Hindemith: Symphonie “Mathis der Maler”

The Symphonie “Mathis der Maler” (“Matthias the Painter”) was conceived whilst Paul Hindemith was working on his opera of the same name, and its musical material forms the opera’s orchestral interludes. The piece relates to German renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald and his masterpiece, the Isenheim Altarpiece. An essential work of the 20th century, the symphony will receive three performances over the Easter period by the Filharmonica della Scala and Daniele Gatti (10 April), Philharmonie des Nordharzer Städtebundes and Johannes Rieger (14 and 15 April), and Colorado Springs Philharmonic Orchestra and Thomas Wilson (15 April).

Each of Mathis der Maler’s three movements describes one tableau of the Isenheim Altarpiece. The first, Engelkonzert, corresponds to the opera’s overture and represents an angelic consort for Mary and the baby Jesus. The short second movement Grablegung is centred around the section of the Isenheim depicting Jesus being entombed after the crucifixion. The music here is gentle, countering the violence of the crucifixion. The final movement, Versuchung des Heiligen Antonius is based on Saint Anthony being tortured and led into temptation by demons and grotesque figures. The slow opening of this movement is interrupted by a sudden outburst from the percussion, leading to a fast ostinato section. Medieval song portrays the victory of Saint Anthony over his temptation, and leads back to the angelic consort of the first movement, which concludes the symphony.


Hindemith’s Symphonie “Mathis der Maler”: A sounding triptych


Symphonie “Mathis der Maler” marks the beginning of a change in style from Hindemith, who explores new timbres and uses more brass than in previous works. Despite this, he retains elements of his earlier neo-classical music language. Hindemith also incorporates German folk songs, such as Es sungen drei Engel ein’n süßen Gesang (“Three angels sang a sweet song”), which is used as a Cantus firmus. The folk songs are given new life within Hindemith’s music:

What the orchestra plays is not entirely newly created. Old folksongs, controversial songs from the Reformation period and Gregorian chant form the fertile ground for Mathis der Maler. – Paul Hindemith

Further performances of Symphonie “Mathis der Maler” in the coming weeks include those by the Badische Philharmonie Pforzheim on 30 April with conductor Markus Huber and Philharmonisches Orchester Cottbus with Ivo Hentschel on 12 and 14 May. Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler runs at Staatstheater Mainz until 7 May.


Photo: Jörgens.mi (CC BY-SA 3.0)