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Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012

Hindemith’s Masterpiece in Miniature

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Those unfamiliar with Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler are in for a pleasant surprise. Yet, the circumstances surrounding the composition of his beautiful little symphony were even more dramatic than the content of the piece itself. The political uncertainty of Europe in the1930s belies the spiritual serenity of this inspiring work, whose simple melodic beauty seems innocently impervious to the threatening turmoil of the times.

Written in Germany in 1934, it was intended as a trial run for an opera based upon the life and work of 16th-century German painter Matthias Grünewald. Grünewald’s depiction of the aftermath of the Peasant Revolt of 1524 -1525, however, provided a humanistic subject that did not sit well under Hitler. The opera was never performed in Nazi Germany, but the 1934 performance of what became the symphony precipitated a condemnation and ban of Hindemith’s work, forcing him to immigrate to Switzerland in 1938 and finally to the U.S. in 1940.

The music itself is a stunningly beautiful, joyous revelation—a delicate and moving set piece whose unabashed sincerity serenely transcends all earthly strife. Hindemith strived to bring greater harmonic richness to 20th century music in contrast to the dramatic dissonances of Berg and Strauss.

Mathis der Maler
was a musical representation of the painter’s most famous work, the Isenheim Altarpiece.

The first movement implies the nativity scene, richly programmed in contrapuntal ingenuity with sweet melodic phrases enhanced by horns and woodwinds with simple violin accompaniment. The second section is a haunting elegy with a lovely string choir referencing the moving portrayal of Christ’s burial. The concluding sections are the most intense, portraying the temptation of St. Anthony with wild chords and snapping brass. Even then, the music never loses its harmonic reticence. The moving restraint makes the concluding triumphal chorale all the more inspiring.

The appeal of Mathis der Maler lies in its reverential simplicity and restrained piety, along with a musical transparency which many may find even more affecting than the more portentously dramatic, but also inspirational, Franck’s Symphony in D minor appearing on the same program. Mathis der Maler remains a masterpiece in miniature, an unexpected delight deserving to be heard more frequently.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Michael Francis will perform Franck’s Symphony in D minor, Hindemith’s
Mathis der Maler and Weber’s Concerto No. 1 in F minor Nov. 2-3 at Uihlein Hall.
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