Paul Hindemith


German-born Paul Hindemith was the foremost composer of his generation and a central figure in musical thought and composition between the wars. A teacher, theorist, viola player and conductor in addition to a composer, Hindemith was the complete musician.

Born on 16 November 1895, the son of a painter and decorator, Hindemith received extensive musical training as a child, learning the violin. He was offered a free place at the conservatory by the famous violinist Adolf Rebner and expanded his studies in 1912 to include composition.

In 1914 he joined the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra and by 1917 was leading the ensemble. Indeed it was not until after the war that Hindemith began to think of himself as primarily a composer. He continued playing the violin in public until 1923 when he switched to the viola.

Hindemith's new self-confidence as a composer, aided by Schott who offered to publish his works, manifested itself in a remarkable outpouring of creative activity. He seemed to find his compositional voice, severing all ties with late-romanticism and embracing expressionism and later Neue Sachlichkeit or 'New Objectivity'.

This 'New Objectivity', exemplified in the opera Cardillac, concentrated on simple, polyphonic music that rejected the excesses of late romanticism. Hindemith felt that the style of the work should depend on its function, remarking in 1927 that: ‘The composer today should write only if he knows for what purpose he is writing. The days of composing only for the sake of composing are perhaps gone for ever.’

His personal and professional life were both going well. In marrying Gertrud Rottenberg in 1924 he became part of one of Frankfurt's most respected families; and in 1927 he took up a teaching post at the Berlin Musikhochschule where he taught composition, offered courses in film music and researched theory and acoustics.
Things began to go awry, however, when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Half of Hindemith's works were branded as manifesting 'cultural Bolshevism' and he endured attacks in the press by Goebbels. After helping many fellow Jewish musicians emigrate to Turkey and following a total ban on all his works, Hindemith eventually emigrated to Switzerland in 1938. In February 1940 he moved further away, to the USA, and began teaching at Yale.

Hindemith's star began to rise once again. He became known throughout the world as a composer and founded an early music group, Yale Collegium Musicum. He published theoretical works including parts of the unfinished Unterweisung im Tonsatz (The Craft of Musical Composition) that he had begun in 1935, and finally took American citizenship in January 1946.

After the war, Hindemith's interest in conducting strengthened and when he finished his last teaching at Zurich in 1957, it was conducting that occupied his time when he was not composing. In 1953 the Hindemiths returned to Switzerland where they lived until Paul's unexpected death in Frankfurt on 28 December 1963.

In his last works, Hindemith became drawn to the older genres such as the madrigal and motet, and developed a theory of 'total tonality' that recognised tonality as merely one means of harmonic organisation.

However, although he died a well-respected musician, Hindemith's influence on the next generation was largely lost. In recent years, though, there has been a marked renewal of interest in his work, particularly after the centenary celebrations of 1995. Popular works include the opera Mathis der Maler and the Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.

Related composers: StravinskyBartókWeill 

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