Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was a prolific and versatile German composer and also an important teacher of musical composition.
Paul Hindemith was born on Nov. 16, 1895, in Hanau am Main. At the age of 9, he began violin lessons; advancing rapidly, he was soon able to enter a conservatory in nearby Frankfurt, where he studied composition. In 1923 he became concertmaster of the Frankfurt Opera orchestra. More important, however, was his career as violist, first in the Rebner Quartet and later (1922-1929) in the Amar Quartet, which toured Europe playing many major contemporary works.
In 1919 Hindemith signed his first contract with a music publisher (Schott), a connection he maintained throughout his life. That same year he wrote his first important compositions: the First String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 10, and the one-act opera Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen. These were rapidly followed by two more stage works: Das Nusch-Nuschi, a one-act play for Burmese marionettes, and the one-act opera Sancta Susanna. All these works were controversial, and Hindemith was considered a radical. Yet, later, his music remained firmly rooted in tonality; he rejected the twelve-tone method and was not interested in electronic composition.
From 1926 to 1929 Hindemith was active in the direction of the contemporary chamber-music festivals at Donaueschingen and Baden-Baden. During these years he wrote chamber music, including chamber concertos for piano, cello, violin, viola, and organ. Cardillac (1926) was an opera of major importance in his career. In 1927 he produced typical examples of his Gebrauchsmusik, that is, music intended for specific purposes or particular occasions: the Spiel-und Jugendmusiken Music for Youth), Op. 43 and 44.
In 1927 Hindemith accepted a professorship of composition at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. He remained there until 1934, when he was suspended as part of the Nazi campaign against "degenerate" (modern) music. It was under the impact of such turbulent political events that he composed his finest stage work, Mathis der Maler. Dealing with the problems and the duties of the artist in troubled times, this work draws deeply on Hindemith's own spiritual experiences while telling the story of the 16th-century German painter Matthias Grünewald. It was completed in July 1935 and premiered 3 years later in Zurich, Switzerland.
Also in 1935 Hindemith made his first journey to Turkey, where, at the request of the Turkish government, he drew up plans for the organization of Turkish musical life. While these plans were carried out over the next 2 years, he visited Turkey three more times. In 1937 he finally resigned from the Staatliche Hochschule; the following year he moved to Switzerland. In 1940 he emigrated to the United States and settled at Yale University, where he taught for the next 13 years.
During his American period Hindemith produced some of his most popular works, such as Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1943) and When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd (A Requiem for Those We Love; 1946). However, he became nostalgic for Europe and in 1953 returned to Switzerland, where he lived for the last 10 years of his life. Among the major works of these years were two operas: The Harmony of the World (1957) and The Long Christmas Dinner (1960). On his last journey to America, in 1963, he heard the first American performance of the latter work, as well as the premiere of the Concerto for Organ and Orchestra, which he had written to celebrate the opening of Philharmonic Hall in New York City. His last work, a Mass for mixed choir a cappella, was premiered in November 1963 in Vienna under his direction. On December 28 he died in Frankfurt.
Hindemith's philosophy of music is summed up in the speech he gave upon receipt of the Balzan Prize in 1963. "In which direction, " he asked, " can music still develop? Certainly not … in the ever greater extension and expansion of the limits of sound. … To express what has never been said before, the musician must enter another dimension. He must explore the heights and the depths, the heights of the spiritual and the depths of the human soul." Such rejection of new sound possibilities weakened Hindemith's influence on musical developments of the 1950s and 1960s. More influential are his theoretical textbooks, The Craft of Musical Composition (1941), Traditional Harmony (1943), and Elementary Training for Musicians (1946), which are widely used in American universities.
Further Reading on Paul Hindemith
Hindemith's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures of 1949-1950 were published as A Composer's World: Horizons and Limitations (1952). They offer interesting insights into the composer's views and experiences. A pictorial biography is Testimony in Pictures, with an introduction by Heinrich Strobel (trans. 1968). An excellent general study which discusses Hindemith is Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961).
Additional Biography Sources
Hindemith, Paul, Selected letters of Paul Hindemith, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Noss, Luther, Paul Hindemith in the United States, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Skelton, Geoffrey, Paul Hindemith: the man behind the music: a biography, New York: Crescendo Pub., 1975.
Yale University Music Library, The Paul Hindemith collection: Yale University Music Library archival collection mss 47, New Haven, Conn.: The Library, 1994.