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Composed: 1934
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, triangle), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 29, 1934, Otto Klemperer conducting

There has been questioning for some years of how deeply committed to the struggle against Nazism Paul Hindemith actually was. Some say his should have been a louder voice for reason, considering his high standing in the artistic community of early 1930s Germany. That his music would be excoriated and banned by the regime and that he would in 1938 flee his native land for Switzerland and then the United States, there to spend much of the rest of his life, isn’t enough for some tough-minded moralists.

His own viewpoint is subtly stated in his opera Mathis der Maler – Mathis the Painter – dealing with the creator of the spectacular Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar (Alsace) by Mathis (or Matthias) Grünewald (c. 1475-1528).

Hindemith built his libretto around what little is known of Grünewald’s life, with as central image the figure of the painter working on his altar triptych during what would become one of the bloodiest events of the Reformation, the so-called Peasants’ War. Attracted at first to the downtrodden peasants’ plight, Mathis feels that art has no relevance amid such cataclysmic struggles. He leaves his artistic calling at the moment of a burning of “heretical” books in the Mainz marketplace: a barely-veiled reference to events taking place in Hindemith’s Germany. But Mathis becomes disillusioned with the ensuing bloodshed in the name of social equality and religious belief and, finally, returns to his art, certain of its humanizing value.

The opera was scheduled for production by the Berlin State Opera in 1935, but the Nazis banned it as “cultural bolshevism,” the work of a “degenerate” artist. The opera was not performed until 1938, in Zurich. The “Mathis” symphony, drawing on music and events in the opera, was in fact completed before the stage work and premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler in March of 1934.

The symphony comprises three movements, related to scenes from the Isenheim Altarpiece:

1. Angelic Concert, the prelude to the opera. Its slow introduction is built around a German folk melody, Es sungen drei Engel – Three Angels Sang. The chorale tune is stated softly by the trombones, then taken up by the other instruments in what will sound like a gigantic Bach organ chorale transcribed for orchestra. The subsequent themes are related to the instrument-playing angels who entertain the infant Jesus in the first panel of Grünewald’s triptych.

II. Entombment. This is an orchestral interlude in the final act of the opera, where Mathis prepares for his own death and bids a final farewell to his art. The music here relates to the Altarpiece’s depiction of the entombment of Christ.

III. The Temptation of St. Anthony. This is the opera’s dream sequence, in which Mathis is engulfed by the same horrific demons that torment St. Anthony in the Altarpiece. The battle for Mathis’ soul grows increasingly fierce, with a series of raucous climaxes over the last of which rises the old chorale tune Lauda Sion – Praise your Savior, Zion. The symphony ends in a blazing affirmation of faith, in God and in the power of art.

Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.