Composer, Violist, Conductor, Teacher. The outstanding German composer of his generation, he enjoyed his peak fame – and endured his greatest controversy – in the 1930s. Hindemith was born in Hanau, near Frankfurt, Germany. He began violin lessons at age six and attended the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt from 1907 to 1915, excelling not only in violin but in viola, piano, clarinet, and composition. In 1915 his father was killed in World War I, and to support the family Hindemith joined the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra, serving as its concertmaster through 1923; this was interrupted by conscripted (non-combatant) military service in 1917 and 1918.
Favoring the viola after the war, he promoted contemporary music as a member of the Amar-Hindemith Quartet (1921 to 1929) and gave the first performance of William Walton’s Viola Concerto in 1929. As a composer Hindemith was initially known as an avant-gardist. His one-act operas “Murder, the Hope of Women” (from a play by Oskar Kokoschka, 1919) and “Sancta Susanna” (1921) and first three string quartets (1919 to 1923) showed an early attraction to expressionism; of deeper significance was “Kammermusik” (1922 to 1927), a series of seven modern reinterpretations of the Baroque concerto grosso form. Much of his 1920s work is experimental, making use of jazz, Dadaism, and mechanical music. With his first full-length opera, “Cardillac” (1926), Hindemith was hailed as Germany’s leading young musician. He became professor of composition at the Berlin Hochschule in 1927.
A growing sense that modern composers were losing touch with the public brought about a gradual change in his creative directions. He advocated “Gebrauchsmusik” (“functional music”), such as his “Music for Youth” (1927), and encouraged amateur musicmaking. By the early 1930s his style had become resolutely tonal, though it remained harmonically complex and contrapuntal; reflecting this trend was the “Konzertmusik for Brass and Strings” (1930), commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His mature music is often characterized as “neoclassical”. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Hindemith found himself in an equivocal position. The Nazis did not immediately seek to discredit him, and he did not wish to leave Germany. He made no secret of his distaste for Nazism, however, and started composing an opera on a subject he had rejected just a year earlier. The historical drama “Mathis der Maler” was loosely based on the life of 16th Century painter Matthias Grunewald. The protagonist’s dilemma was Hindemith’s own, the ethical role of an artist in troubled times. Set during the German Peasant War – a people’s uprising crushed by autocratic forces – it had dangerous political overtones.
Before the opera was finished Hindemith offered a preview by adapting some of its material into the purely orchestral “Mathis der Maler Symphony” (1934); it was premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler and soon heard around the world. This was noted by Hitler’s cultural watchdogs. That November a boycott of Hindemith’s music was announced by the Kulturgemeinde, a semi-official Nazi organization; Furtwängler defended the composer in print and as a consequence was forced to resign from the Philharmonic. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels denounced Hindemith as an “atonal noisemaker” and he was suspended from the Hochschule for six months. Despite this there were signs the Nazis still wanted to draw the composer into their orbit, and to which he was not wholly immune.
He was restored to his post at the Hochschule, his work continued to be published, and he was permitted to travel abroad. He accepted an invitation from the Turkish government to reorganize musical education in that country, which he accomplished to international acclaim over two years (1935 to 1937); back home this was heralded as a coup for German culture. In the end, the fact that Hindemith’s wife Gertrud was Jewish, and his continued association with Jewish musicians, proved too irksome to Goebbels. In 1937 his music was officially banned in Germany. Hindemith immediately resigned from the Hochschule and the following year he went into exile in Switzerland, telling his publisher, “There are only two things worth aiming for: good music and a clear conscience, and both of these are now being taken care of”. The 1938 world premiere of the complete “Mathis der Maler” in Zurich, an outstanding success, capped this turbulent period of his life.
In 1940 Hindemith moved to the United States to join the faculty of Yale University as professor of composition and theory (1940 to 1953), and as director of its Collegium Musicum (1945 to 1953) in performances of early music on period instruments. His students included Lukas Foss, Norman Dello Joio, and Mel Powell. He became a US citizen in 1946. A highlight of his American phase was the “Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber” for orchestra (1943), his most popular work today. After World War II Hindemith was urged to return permanently to Germany but he refused, settling instead in Blonay, Switzerland in 1953. His final decade was devoted mainly to composition and conducting, including concert tours of Europe, the US, South America, and Japan.