Paul Hindemith | Biography


Paul Hindemith
One of the most important composers of the first half of the 20th century, Paul Hindemith dominated German musical life during the Weimar Republic (1919–33). A versatile musician, he sustained an astonishing level of productivity in his composing while pursuing a successful career as a solo violist and member of a professional string quartet. These gifts, coupled with his dedication to teaching, ensured that he was able to prosper even after he chose to leave Germany during the Third Reich and make his home in the United States. Hindemith came from a humble background and faced severe poverty during his childhood. Nevertheless his parents encouraged him to learn music and his burgeoning talent as a string player was quickly recognised. Awarded a scholarship at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt just before the First World War, he was taught composition by Arnold Mendelssohn and Bernhard Sekles while still continuing his violin studies. Initially, Hindemith composed in an extravagant late-Romantic manner inspired by Richard Strauss, Franz Schreker and Arnold Schoenberg. But by the beginning of the 1920s he had repudiated this style, first of all enthusiastically embracing Expressionism and then subscribing to the then-fashionable idea of a ‘new objectivity’: music created for music’s sake rather than being accompanied by some kind of philosophical message. He scandalised conservative audiences with a series of three one-act operas setting contemporary texts which explored sexual issues in a deliberately provocative manner, most shockingly, in Sancta Susanna, a nun’s erotic fantasies. Controversial in a different way was his decision to feature a foxtrot in the Finale of his Kammermusik no. 1, a short ensemble work which includes unconventional instruments such as accordion and slide whistle. This iconoclastic approach was also reflected in his performance directions. In the score of the Finale of his Suite ’1922′ for piano, Hindemith urges performers to ‘play this piece in a very wild manner, but always keep it very strict rhythmically, like a machine. Look on the piano here as an interesting kind of percussion instrument.’ And the fourth movement of his Sonata for solo viola op.24/1 advises that ‘beauty of tone is of marginal importance’. Hindemith was astonishingly prolific during this period, turning out music in all genres. A particularly notable achievement was the series of seven pieces with the title ‘Kammermusik’. This is a series of neo-Baroque concertos for individual solo instruments and chamber orchestra, excepting the first, mentioned above, which does not have a main soloist. These are often regarded as a 20th-century equivalent to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. At the same time Hindemith was an active performer with a growing interest in historical performance practice. He also premiered numerous chamber works as a member of the Amar Quartet, and gave the first performance of William Walton’s Viola Concerto in 1929. On top of all this he undertook administrative duties at the Donaueschingen and Baden-Baden contemporary music festivals. His programmes featured mechanical music, radio and film music and chamber operas. With his move in 1927 to Berlin, where he took up the post of professor of composition at the Musikhochschule, Hindemith began to reflect on the role of a composer in modern society. He was firmly convinced that the days of composing only for the sake of composing were over and that creative artists should write music for specific practical purposes, in some cases involving amateurs and children. Although living through a period of great turmoil, Hindemith had steadfastly refused to allow political issues to affect his compositional activity. But after the Nazis came to power in 1933 and denigrated much of his work as ‘degenerate’, this position became untenable. Ironically, his music had changed, becoming far more conventionally tonal. The symphony drawn from the opera Mathis der Maler (‘Mathis the Painter’, 1934) included quotations from German folksong and chorales, features that might have endeared him to the Nazi hierarchy. In the end, however, Hindemith proved unwilling to kowtow to the Nazis and in 1937 decided to leave Berlin for Switzerland. He re-examined his musical language, asserting the primacy of tonality in a theoretical book on composition which formed the basis for his subsequent output. One practical realisation of his theories came with a series of sonatas for virtually every orchestral instrument, which he began writing in 1935. Hindemith arrived in the USA in February 1940. He was showered with invitations to teach and eventually was appointed professor of music at Yale University. He received prestigious commissions and became one of the most frequently performed of contemporary composers. Taking American citizenship in 1946, he intended to remain in the USA. But after the award of professorship at the University of Zürich, Hindemith left for Switzerland in 1953, making the country his home for the rest of his life. By this time, Hindemith no longer commanded the same degree of influence over contemporary composition as he had done before the Second World War. The avant-garde dismissed his recent work as outmoded. His tendency to undertake drastic revisions of some earlier works, robbing them of their freshness and audacity, seemed misguided. Nevertheless, his final compositions by no means re-tread familiar ground. The Pittsburgh Symphony (1958), for example, contains passages of extraordinary textural and rhythmic complexity. After his death, Hindemith’s music fell even further out of fashion until his centenary year (1995) after which some of the more daring works from the 1920s underwent reappraisal. He has been criticised for dryness and academicism and the impression that some of his work lacked inner passion. Yet the pianist Glenn Gould proclaimed him ‘a composer of prodigious gifts’. Even a cursory glance at his output reveals not only his versatility and breadth of imagination, but also a wit and ingenuity in reviving traditional forms.