Commentary Magazine

The Last German Master

Few reputations in classical music have fluctuated so widely as that of the German composer Paul Hindemith. From the mid-1920’s on, he was acknowledged both as one of the key modernist composers of the 20th century—a peer of Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók—and as a teacher and theorist whose influence on younger musicians was unrivaled. His stock rose still higher when, as one of the relatively few prominent non-Jewish artists to leave Nazi Germany, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1940 to teach at Yale.

As a young man Hindemith was considered a musical radical. But in his middle years he rejected atonalism, the hermetic form of musical modernism associated with the name of Arnold Schoenberg, and later in life he outspokenly declared nontonal music to be “a mental activity scarcely superior to the invention or solution of a crossword puzzle.” Thanks to these and equally sharp statements about the avant-garde trends that had succeeded atonalism, younger composers responded in turn by dismissing the music of Hindemith’s middle years as passé, and the critical line on his work—and thought—likewise changed accordingly. By the time of his death in 1963, performances of his music were far less frequent than they had been as late as the 1950’s, and The Craft of Musical Composition, the treatise in which he had set forth his belief in the absolute primacy of tonality as a method of musical organization, ceased to be read.

Hindemith’s story is not an unfamiliar one. Most of the composers who dominated classical music in the 1930’s and 1940’s underwent similarly harsh criticism after the war, and for similar reasons. But his eclipse has outlasted the collapse of the avant-garde and the revival of tonality, two events that have triggered a revaluation of the older tonal modernists. Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich, for example, now seem well on the way to winning general acceptance as major composers. But Hindemith’s music, except for two or three orchestral pieces, is still rarely performed professionally in the U.S.1

On the other hand, scholarly interest in Hindemith is on the upswing. In the past decade and a half, the first English-language edition of his correspondence has been published, as well as an important biographical study by Luther Noss, Paul Hindemith in the United States. In addition, the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, published earlier this year, contains an unexpectedly sympathetic article on Hindemith by Giselher Schubert, based in large part on recent research.

Whether this activity will lead to more performances of Hindemith’s music remains to be seen. But it has already given us a clearer view of his life and character, and the figure who has emerged turns out to be more complicated—and in certain ways much more impressive—than had previously been suspected.



Paul Hindemith was born in Hanau, a factory town near Frankfurt, in 1895. Though his musical gifts were evident from an early age, he was not a full-fledged prodigy, nor was his background in any way auspicious; his father was a house painter, and his mother came from a family of shepherds. In later life, he preferred not to talk about his youth and refused to cooperate with biographers, but it is evident that his father pushed all three Hindemith children (of whom Paul was the eldest) toward musical careers in order to make money off them.

From the Frankfurt Children’s Trio, an ensemble organized by his father, Hindemith went to the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where he studied violin and took intensive training in composition. He joined the orchestra of the Frankfurt Opera in 1914, becoming its concertmaster three years later and meeting (and impressing) such noted conductors as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Willem Mengelberg. Though his career was interrupted by military service in World War I, he spent much of his time in uniform playing music.

As it happened, Hindemith was performing Claude Debussy’s String Quartet with a group of German soldiers when they were informed of the French composer’s death. This event, taking place in the midst of a conflict in which Germany and France were bitter and bloody foes, made a deep and lasting impression on him. He later recalled:

It was as if our playing had been robbed of the breath of life. But we realized for the first time that music is more than style, technique, and the expression of powerful feelings. Music reached out beyond political boundaries, national hatred, and the horrors of war. On no other occasion have I seen so clearly what direction music must take.

Upon returning to Frankfurt, Hindemith switched to the viola, the deeper-voiced brother of the violin, making it his main instrument. At the same time, he began to concentrate on composition. He had already written a large amount of fluent if derivative music before the war, but now the outlines of an individual style began to emerge. He also embarked on a program of self-education—learning Latin, among other things—that was intended to plug the gaps in his sketchy schooling.



By this time, the modern movement in art was starting to have a noticeable impact on Austro-German composers, who had previously dominated Western classical music for upward of two centuries. Many younger musicians—though by no means all—believed that post-Wagnerian romanticism had exhausted itself, and were looking for new alternatives. This is where Arnold Schoenberg came in. Intensifying still further the already ambiguously chromatic tonal language of Wagner’s influential opera Tristan und Isolde, Schoenberg found a way to break with tonality altogether. By 1920, he had worked out a method of nontonal harmonic organization, the 12-tone system, with which he hoped (in his own memorably hubristic phrase) to “ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.”

The angst-ridden emotional climate of Schoenberg’s atonal music was of a piece with the late-romantic expressionism that had already come to the fore in both Germany and Austria. But Schoenberg’s renunciation of tonality appealed to few other composers, and several young German artists, led by Paul Hindemith, chose to chart a different course.

Hindemith began writing pieces that were at once distinctively modern and clearly inspired by baroque polyphony and the musical forms of the 17th and 18th centuries. They included his Third String Quartet (1920), the song cycle Das Marienleben (1922-23), and a series of chamber concertos published under the collective title of Kammermusik. Some of these pieces, like the popular Kleine Kammermusik for wind quintet (1923), were tart and witty, while others, like the Third Quartet and Das Marienleben, had a strongly expressionistic flavor. But in all his music of the 20’s, Hindemith remained faithful to the laws of tonality—a tonality, to be sure, far more complex and wide-ranging in its implications than that of, say, Schumann or Brahms, but nonetheless grounded in the traditional harmonic usage of Western classical music.

The anti-romantic style in which Hindemith and other like-minded German composers of the time were working was briefly known as the Neue Sachlichkeit, or “new objectivity.” But composers in other countries, most notably Igor Stravinsky, were writing in much the same vein, and the resulting international movement, which came to be called “neoclassicism,” soon evolved into a significant force in music between the wars.

Hindemith’s embrace of neoclassicism was the turning point in his career. From the outset, he had seen himself not as a world-saving musical messiah but as a hard-working craftsman who hoped for inspiration but was prepared to make do without it if necessary. The neoclassical aesthetic, with its emphasis on craft and control, suited his no-nonsense temperament. Starting in 1927, he had also taught composition, first at the Berlin Musikhochschule and later at Yale. Asked why he chose to devote so much time and energy to this activity, he answered with typical straightforwardness: “I don’t get ideas just sitting around waiting for them. They come from somewhere, and I get them teaching.”

This earthy practicality was also connected with Hindemith’s long experience as a performing artist. Even after he became a famous composer he continued to appear professionally as a conductor and violist (he gave the world premiere of William Walton’s Viola Concerto in 1929). He was just as happy composing for children or amateurs as for world-famous soloists and orchestras, though it exasperated him when the term he used to describe these unassuming pieces—Gebrauchmusik, or music for use—was taken up by hostile critics and applied to his more ambitious efforts as well.



But if Hindemith was in some things the soul of practicality, he was also an idealist: one who believed passionately in the power of music to embody visions of a transcendent spiritual order, accessible to all men in all conditions. This was the possibility he had first glimpsed while wearing a German uniform and playing the music of the French nationalist composer Debussy. “People who make music together cannot be enemies,” he once remarked, “at least not while the music lasts.” Though not a religious believer in the conventional sense, he had a deep-seated mystical streak that seemed oddly incongruous with his half-brusque, half-jolly personality. As he grew older and more introspective, the streak became more pronounced.

Hindemith’s idealism led early on to a conscious attempt to refine his compositional style. As early as 1925, he had told his publishers that he was striving to attain “the highest degree of purity and orderliness” in his music. Within a few more years, as the hectic 1920’s gave way to the stormy 1930’s, the remnants of expressionism heard in the Third Quartet, as well as his efforts to incorporate elements of jazz and popular music into his musical language, had given way to a simpler style, better suited to the metaphysical questions that increasingly preoccupied him. His sharp-angled melodies were now flavored by touches of German folksong and hymnody, and his austere harmonies became more mellifluous without losing any of the immediately distinctive quality that had already become his “signature.”

The key work in this transformation was the opera Mathis der Maler (1933-35). Written to the composer’s own libretto, Mathis uses the life of Matthias Grünewald, the 16th-century German altar painter, as the basis for a parable about the place of the artist in society. In the opera, Grünewald gives up painting to become involved in the Peasants’ War, with disastrous results; St. Paul then comes to him in a vision, ordering him to “go forth and create,” and he resolves to renounce the temptations of politics and reconsecrate himself to the art that is his true calling.

Like virtually all of Hindemith’s theatrical works, Mathis der Maler has failed to hold the stage (though it was produced to impressive effect by the New York City Opera in 1995). But in 1934, he prepared a three-movement “symphony” based on instrumental interludes from the opera, and this piece, known as the Mathis der Maler Symphony, quickly entered the standard orchestral repertoire. Among the first fully realized works of Hindemith’s maturity, it is a locus classicus of his middle-period style, in which he purged himself of the acerbities of 20’s neoclassicism and strove instead for a more lyrical approach. (Stravinsky’s music underwent a similar transformation around the same time.)

The first movement of this symphony, “Angelic Concert,” shows Hindemith at his best and most characteristic. A broadly expansive, chorale-like introduction in which he quotes the traditional German tune Es Sungen Drei Engel (“I saw three angels”), leads to a large-scale movement whose themes are developed contrapuntally over a vigorous, baroque-flavored rhythmic background. The square-cut melodies are memorable, the scoring clean and uncomplicated, and the harmonic language is at once unequivocally modern and unequivocally tonal.



In the course of writing the Mathis der Maler Symphony, Hindemith had found himself, and under more favorable circumstances he might soon have become the dominant figure in Austro-German classical music. But his timing could not have been worse. At the very moment when he was purging his style of the excesses of 19th-century German romanticism, the country of his birth was being plunged into a political and spiritual crisis precipitated by a music-loving madman who idolized Richard Wagner.

In recent years, Hindemith’s relationship with the Hitler regime has been a subject of close scholarly inquiry. Though he became a target of considerable official persecution—and without question loathed Hitler and all that Hitler stood for, including his virulent anti-Semitism—Hindemith’s initial response to the Nazi takeover of Germany was a mixture of cynicism and indifference. Like many Germans (and countless other people around the world), he seems to have assumed at first that the Nazis were simply another political party, albeit one more thuggish than most, and his correspondence reveals that he was initially prepared to cooperate with them in return for being left alone.

As he wrote to his publishers in April 1933:

One must just be patient for the next few weeks. So far in all the changes nothing has happened to me. Recently, just after my return from England, I had a long talk with some of the higher-ups in the Kampfbund [the Nazi party’s “Combat League for German Culture”]. It concerned only educational matters, but I got the impression (after I had satisfied them that I was neither a half nor any other fractional Jew) that they have a good opinion of me there.

But Gertrud, Hindemith’s wife, was half-Jewish, and in any case he was too famously outspoken to “curry favor” (as he put it) with a band of brutes. Moreover, his neoclassical style, though utterly German in character, was unpleasing to Hitler and his artistic gauleiters, who regarded the romanticism of Wagner, Bruckner, and Richard Strauss as the only acceptable models for music in the Third Reich. Though Hindemith tried on several occasions to come to terms with the Hitler regime, he eventually realized there was no place for him in the musical world of Nazi Germany.2

The libretto of Mathis der Maler, whose hero rejects politics for art, reflected Hindemith’s growing alienation from the land of his birth. It also made the opera unperformable in Germany, though the Mathis Symphony, premiered by Wilhelm Furtwängler early in 1934, met with widespread acclaim. His situation came to a head when Furtwängler published a newspaper article, “The Hindemith Case,” arguing that Hindemith was a major composer whose indifference to politics was irrelevant to his artistic significance:

[T]here are very few real musicians in the world today, and we cannot afford to deprive ourselves of a man like Hindemith. . . . Hindemith has never been politically active: what is to become of us if political denunciation is to be applied in the fullest measure to matters of art?

This article was part of an ill-judged scheme, concocted by Hindemith himself, to persuade Hitler to approve the production of Mathis by the Berlin Staatsoper. The scheme backfired completely: Furtwängler was forced to recant in order to continue conducting, and German musicians subsequently stopped playing Hindemith’s music. “Purely German his blood may be,” Joseph Goebbels said of the composer, “but this only provides drastic confirmation of how deeply the Jewish intellectual infection has eaten into the body of our own people.”

For the next few years, Hindemith kept a low profile, writing a theoretical treatise in which he systematized his thinking about the place of tonality in Western music. In this book, The Craft of Musical Composition, published in 1937, he sought to show that the triad-based system of tonal harmony arises from the acoustical properties of sound itself, and thus constitutes a “natural law” that cannot be violated without destroying the underlying basis of musical order. “Music, as long as it exists,” he wrote, “will always take its departure from the major triad and return to it. The musician cannot escape it any more than the painter his primary colors or the architect his three dimensions.”



In 1938, Hindemith figured prominently in the infamous anti-modernist exhibition of Entartete Musik (“Degenerate Music”) in Düsseldorf, a sign that he could no longer delay his departure from Germany. He and his wife emigrated to Switzerland, and two years later moved to the U.S. There he set up shop as a professor of music at Yale, attracting such pupils as Lukas Foss and Norman Dello Joio.

For all his love of teaching, Hindemith saw it mainly as an adjunct to his work as a composer, and once in the United States he produced a long series of works intended to exemplify the principles he had variously worked out in the writing of Mathis der Maler and The Craft of Musical Composition. These included sonatas for virtually every musical instrument (including tuba and double bass), a revised edition of Das Marienleben rewritten to accord more closely with his new thinking about tonality, and an impressive number of large-scale orchestral compositions.

Though Hindemith quickly established himself as a force in American music, some critics—especially those who, like the Francophile Virgil Thomson, sought to diminish German influence on American composers and performers—expressed skepticism about his work. Writing in 1941, Thomson described the Mathis der Maler Symphony in devastating terms:

It is dogmatic and forceful and honest and completely without charm. . . . It has no warmth, no psychological understanding, no gentleness, no gemütlichkeit, and no sex appeal. . . . It is neither humane nor stylish, though it does have a kind of style, a style rather like that of some ponderously monumental and not wholly incommodious railway station.

Thomson’s attack was a caricature. But, like all good caricatures, it contained certain elements of truth. Hindemith’s post-Mathis music is inconsistent in quality, and at its not-infrequent worst it sounds like the work of a talented but pedestrian pupil who has painstakingly absorbed all of his master’s well-known techniques but lacks the ability to do anything interesting with them. The melodies are dull, the polyphony overcrowded, the rhythms four-square to the point of banality. (Rhythm was always the weakest link in Hindemith’s style.)

On the other hand, when he was visited by inspiration, he was capable of producing pieces of extreme beauty in which the now-familiar elements of his mature style were transfigured. Francis Poulenc, whom one would scarcely have expected to appreciate so wholly German a composer, wrote perceptively of this side of Hindemith:

The form is not what I admire most in Hindemith—I find it often too academic. What I admire most is his lyricism, both heavy and lively, like quicksilver, in works such as his ballet The Four Temperaments.

Indeed, The Four Temperaments, a ballet score for piano and strings commissioned in 1940 by George Balanchine and choreographed by him six years later, is a near-perfect example of the “good” Hindemith. A set of variations on a three-part theme, it is both formally ingenious and melodically fresh, completely free of the dryness found in many of his later works. Nor is it unique: one can easily point to a half-dozen post-1934 pieces that are equally inspired, and many others that come close.

Starting in the 50’s, Hindemith wound down his teaching activities, resettling in Switzerland and launching a new career as a celebrity conductor. He produced one more large-scale opera, Die Harmonie der Welt (1957), a companion piece to Mathis in which he used the life of the astronomer Johannes Kepler to symbolize his own search for “harmony in all things of life and the world, and . . . the loneliness of him who finds it.”

Though he knew his loyalty to tonality had become unfashionable, he had no doubt that the tide would turn some day, and he remained active to the very end of his life, conducting the premiere of his last composition, a hauntingly austere Mass for unaccompanied chorus, just weeks before his unexpected death in 1963.



In retrospect, Paul Hindemith’s place in the Austro-German classical-music tradition is clear: he is its “road not taken.”

With Hindemith’s departure from the German musical scene in 1940, young composers either embraced the sterile conservatism of “official” music in the Third Reich or, following the war, chose a different dead end by joining one branch or another of the avant-garde. Not coincidentally, he was the only German classical composer of his time whose work appealed to an international audience—and he has had no successors.

For a time, it seemed as if Hindemith’s generation of tonal modernists might also represent the end of the line for classical music itself. But as I have already indicated, and as can be seen in the Norton lectures he delivered at Harvard in 1949 and 1950, he took it for granted that such a fate was impossible. Written without assistance in a pungent English of his own devising, and published in book form as A Composer’s World: Horizons and Limitations (1952), these remarkable lectures set forth Hindemith’s own artistic credo mostly by implication—he was not given to making self-important pronouncements—but nonetheless with complete clarity.

In one of the book’s most striking passages, he explains the essential defect of 12-tone music as follows:

The ethical power of music is entirely neglected; the composer’s obligations toward his fellow men are degraded to a game of double-crostics. . . . If music written on this basis has any message for others, it is the crassest order “you have to obey, you have to believe in my constructions,” in a time when we are all so terribly in need of some shiny little reflection of that other message, the one that Schiller and Beethoven gave to mankind: Seid umschlungen, Millionen—be embraced, ye millions.

In this reference to the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Hindemith leaves no doubt of his own commitment to the ethical power and potential of music—its unparalleled ability to reconcile man with man by offering a vision of superworldly order. Hence his unswerving philosophical opposition to nontonal methods of musical organization that instead deliberately embrace disorder and chaos, an opposition whose wisdom has now been definitively borne out by history.

Hindemith’s mature music was at all times exemplary of his philosophy, though it did not always attain the expressive heights to which he aspired—a limitation that he humbly acknowledged and accepted. But in looking back on his life’s work, it is far more noteworthy how often he did succeed in writing music worthy of his noble purpose. In the Mathis der Maler Symphony, The Four Temperaments, and many other works of the 30’s and after, we hear the Austro-German musical tradition as it could and should have been revitalized, had history taken a different turn. These are true masterpieces, composed by the last German master of music.



Hindemith on CD: A Select Discography

Paul Hindemith recorded his own music as conductor, pianist, and solo violist, and as the violist of the Amar-Hindemith String Quartet. These recordings are out of print in the U.S., but fortunately his music has also attracted the attention of a large number of gifted interpreters, and many of their performances are available on CD. Here are eight of the best, arranged chronologically by date of composition:

1920: Perhaps the most successful example of the young Hindemith’s attempt to fuse the emotional intensity of expressionism with the formal control of neoclassicism is his Third Quartet in C Major, performed to perfection by the peerlessly virtuosic Hollywood String Quartet (Testament SBT 1052).

1923: The witty, incisive Kleine Kammermusik for wind quintet, Op. 24, No. 2, is one of a series of ensemble pieces in which Hindemith moved away from romanticism to embrace the Neue Sachlichkeit of the 20’s. It can be heard in a superior recording by the Ensemble Wien-Berlin, coupled with an equally effective performance by Wolfgang Schulz and Ferenc Bognár of the pensive Flute Sonata (1936) and three other works from his long series of two dozen instrumental sonatas (Sony Classical SK 64400).

1934: Among the many noted conductors who performed the Mathis der Maler Symphony was Eugene Ormandy, whose eloquent 1962 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra refutes the canard that Hindemith’s best music was dry or inexpressive. (Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra recorded the complete opera in 1979, with the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing the title role, but it is currently out of print.) Ormandy’s performance is now on a budget-priced CD, coupled with a spectacular 1964 recording by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra of Hindemith’s most enduringly popular composition, Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber (1943), a boldly colored orchestral showpiece based on an unproduced ballet score (Sony Classical SBK 53258).

1939: The rarely played Violin Concerto, one of the most compelling large-scale works of Hindemith’s middle years, can be heard in an outstanding performance by Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, and the New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical SMK 64507).

1939: Hindemith’s music is rarely thought of as having overt sensual appeal, but his Harp Sonata, as played by Mariko Anraku, makes sensitive use of that instrument’s delicate, evanescent timbre (EMI Classics CDC 56515).

1940: Hindemith’s “quicksilver” lyricism can be heard at its most engaging in The Four Temperaments. The best modern recording, featuring the English pianist Howard Shelley as soloist, is part of a series of Hindemith’s complete works for orchestra currently being done by Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos CHAN 9124). Also available is a videocassette of a New York City Ballet performance of the ballet, restaged by Balanchine in 1977 for PBS’s Dance in America series (Nonesuch 40177-3).

1951: Die Harmonie der Welt, like Mathis der Maler, has not held the stage, but the three-movement symphony Hindemith wrote as a preparatory study for the complete opera continues to be performed occasionally, and it can be heard in a fine version by Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic, coupled with the expansive Symphonia Serena of 1946 (Chandos CHAN 9217).

1963: Uwe Gronostay and the Danish National Radio Choir have recorded a breathtakingly lucid performance of the Mass for unaccompanied chorus (Chandos CHAN 9413).

CD’s listed in the discography can be purchased online by viewing this article on COMMENTARY’s website:



1 Recordings of several of Hindemith’s most important compositions are discussed in the discography at the end of this article.

2 By 1939, he deeply regretted his early willingness to compromise with the Nazis. “I always see myself,” he wrote in a private memorandum, “as the mouse who recklessly danced in front of the trap and even ventured inside; quite by chance, when it happened to be outside, the trap closed!”


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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