Mathis der Maler
Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter) was Paul Hindemith’s masterpiece and artistic manifesto. In it he uses episodes from the life of the painter Matthias Grünewald (c. 1475 – 1530), the creator of the Isenheim Altarpiece, to examine the question of the position that artists have in society. Most of these episodes are fictional, thought up by Hindemith himself, and reflect his own moral conflict in 1930s’ Germany. The symphony Mathis der Maler was written before the opera and after its premiere in 1934, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, the scheduled premiere
of the opera was allegedly prohibited by Adolf Hitler himself. Hindemith left Germany in 1938 and went into exile. Mathis der Maler was premiered that same year in Zurich.
During the time of the Peasants’ War, the artistic seclusion of the painter Mathis is disrupted: his friends are fighting on the side of the Reformation against the Catholic rulers. What is he, who works for the Catholic church in the person of the apparently tolerant bishop of Mainz, to do? Continue to paint or join the rebels? His conscience urges him to fight. Ursula, the daughter of a wealthy Protestant citizen of Mainz, is in love with him, but he rejects her advances. The outbreaks of violence in the war appal him. He withdraws again and accepts that painting is the life’s work appointed to him by God. He is able to illustrate his experiences in works of supreme artistic expression.
Explaining the source of his inspiration, Hindemith said that “old folk songs, polemic songs from the time of the Reformation and Gregorian chants form the fertile ground for the Mathis score”. He wove these and other elements of European musical tradition such as the concerto grosso, the chaconne and hymns delicately into his compositional technique which was trained in the context of the developments in the 1920s. The structure of the musical setting is always governed by the clarity of the voice-leading and the audibility of the words. Owing to its tremendous topicality and masterly compositional technique, Hindemith’s drama about an artist immediately became firmly established in the operatic repertoire after 1945.