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Paul Hindemith: Conductor, Violinist, Composer of Modern Germany

Paul Hindemith was one of the most prolific music conductors, violinists, violists, and composers of modern Germany. He heavily advocated the incorporation of “Neue Sachlichkeit,” or the “New Objective” approach to music. He also enjoyed a relationship with the ruling Nazi Party, which was borderline inconsistent and paradoxical.

Hindemith (left) received the Wihuri Sibelius Prize in 1955
Hindemith (left) received the Wihuri Sibelius Prize in 1955

Early life

Hindemith was born on the 16th of November 1895 to Robert and Marie Hindemith in Frankfurt, Germany. He received violin lessons from in an early age, and also joined Dr. Hoch's Konservatorium to study the violin under Adolf Rebner. He also took composition and conducting lessons under Bernhard Sekles and Arnold Mendelssohn respectively. He also performed with musical-comedy bands and dance groups to support his expenses. 

Musical Journey

In 1914 he was made the deputy leader of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra and was further promoted to the role of “concert master” two years down the line. He was also a part of the “Rebner String Quartet,” where he played the “second violin.” In 1917, he was called up to the Imperial German Army and joined the Alsace regiment, taking up a position in the regiment band. He used to play the bass drum and even created his own “string quartet.” After the war ended, he returned to home town and rejoined the “Rebner String Quartet.”

In 1921, he created the “Amar Quartet,” and toured Europe extensively. The following year he came into prominence and gained international recognition at Salzburg, courtesy of a performance at the “International Society for Contemporary Music festival.” In 1923, he joined the “Donaueschingen Festival” at an organizational level and arranged the works of multiple “avant-garde” music composers, namely Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern.  

In 1927, he joined the “Berliner Hochschule für Musik” as a professor. In 1928, he created the music for Hans Richter's movie titled “Vormittagsspuk,” and even acted in a small role. The original film and musical score were later destroyed by the Nazi party. The following year he gave a solo performance at the premiere of the “viola concerto” by William Walton. In 1924, Paul married Johanna Gertrude or Gertrud Rottenberg, a singer and actress.

Relationship with the Nazi’s

Hindemith’s relationship with The Nazi party was somewhat puzzling and can be termed as a mixture of “love-hate.” In the early stages, the party members used to term his music “degenerating.” In 1934, Joseph Goebbels publicly criticized Paul Hindemith as an “atonal noisemaker.” The Nazis even banned his music a couple of years down the line. In 1938, they further included him in the national “Degenerate Music” exhibition.  

However, some officials shared an alternate viewpoint. They considered him as an example of a modern German music composer, who frequently referred to folk music and offered impetus on tonality. Wilhelm Furtwängler publicly defended his work. Hindemith was a self-proclaimed modernist who regularly collaborated with Jewish and leftist musicians. However, his willingness to compromise, apolitical attitude, combined with his international recognition, allowed him to prolong his career in a war-torn Germany. He even enjoyed the occasional support from high-ranked Nazi officials.

Other Works 

In the 1930s, he made several visits to Turkey and Egypt. In 1935, Joseph Goebbels pressured him to take an “indefinite leave of absence” from his position at the Berlin Academy. Subsequently, he accepted the Turkish government’s invitation to oversee a music school in the Turkish city of Istanbul. He became a leading musical figure under the leadership of the Kemal Atatürk government. He played a vital role in the reorganization of musical education in the country and even made initial efforts to inaugurate the Turkish State Ballet and reorganization. The State Conservatory at Ankara was established under his guidance. He was highly appreciated and respected by young Turkish musicians, who considered him a “real master.” He also made multiple tours to the USA during the decade and also emigrated to Switzerland, as his wife was part Jewish.

In the 1940s, he started teaching at the Yale University and also created the “Yale Collegium Musicum.” Some of his notable students were - George Roy Hill, Leonard Sarason, Ruth Schönthal, Harold Shapero, Mel Powell, Andrew Hill, and Lukas Foss. He also joined the faculty at Wells College, Cornell University, and the University at Buffalo during this time. In 1946, he was granted U.S. citizenship but soon returned to Europe at the turn of the decade. He joined the Zürich University and eventually retired in 1957. In 1955, Hindemith was awarded the Wihuri Sibelius Prize and in 1962, the Balzan Prize for the variety, extent, and affluence of his work in contemporary music, including several chamber masterpieces, symphonies, and opera music.  Some of his notable works include - ”Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes” by Carl Maria von Weber, “Der Schwanendreher” for orchestra and viola, the opera titled “Mathis der Maler,” and a song cycle titled “Das Marienleben.”

During the late 1960s, his health gradually declined, and on the 28th of December, 1963, he passed away from pancreatitis in Frankfurt. He was buried at the “Cimetière La Chiésaz” in Switzerland.

The Last of the German Baroque Era

Hindemith possessed the extraordinary knack of connecting with the performers, perfectly interpreting his own flow of music. His early works can be termed as “romantic idioms,” while his late works are more expressionist. He had successfully developed a contrapuntally intricate style, which was termed “neoclassical” in the 1920s. This was particularly evident in his chamber music. The pieces were crafted for a small and diverse “instrumental ensemble,”  many of which were unusual. He created music for the instrument “viola d'amore,” which had almost lost relevance since the golden Baroque period. Like the greats of the Baroque era, he adopted a practical and utilitarian approach towards his music. His music was mostly antiromantic, and so was his philosophy - a perfect blend of classical German, with a pinch of mainstream Baroque. His place in musical history will always be that of a creative force, as no musician can deny that he was probably one of the complete musicians of his era.

In music, a perfect pitch is prevalently considered as “inborn.” However, Hindemith persisted that “pitch” can be developed. He was also responsible for coining the phrase “music for use” (Gebrauchsmusik). His exploits as a composer and theoretician resulted in some fascinating yet provocative books on musical form and harmony. His nimble contrapuntal writings for piano and other musical instruments offer a fascinating reflection of a mind of a true artist - a musical revolutionary. 


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