Paul Hindemith, one of the most successful composers of 20th century Germany, had a relationship with the Nazi Party plagued by inconsistencies and paradoxes.  The same man whom Goebbels recognised in 1934 as 'unquestionably... one of the most important talents in the younger generation of composers' had his compositions banned only two years later.  Although a committed modernist who collaborated with both leftist and Jewish musicians, Hindemith’s apolitical attitude and willingness to compromise, as well as his international reputation, allowed him to have a surprisingly long career in Nazi Germany, and to enjoy periodic support from high-placed Nazi officials. Despite, or perhaps because of, the Nazi censure he was subject to, Hindemith remained the pre-eminent example of a modern German composer, and his name became synonymous with Nazism’s tortured relationship with modernity.

Born in 1895 in Hanau, Hindemith studied violin, viola, piano and percussion as a child.  As a teenager he entered the music conservatory in Frankfurt am Main, where he studied conducting, composition and violin.  When his father died in World War I, the family’s financial situation worsened, and Hindemith took on a variety of jobs to support them.  In 1915 he was appointed concert master of the Frankfurt Opera orchestra, conducting there until 1923, with a two-year break when he was drafted in 1917.

By the early 1920s he had established a reputation for himself as a violinist and violist, and especially as a composer.  His expressionist operas showed the influences of atonal harmonies and especially jazz, but his compositions ran the gamut in terms of genre: he wrote children’s songs, chamber music, experimental theatre music and Lieder.  His very range of interests was the source of condemnation from the right; already in the 1920s he was condemned for being 'at home everywhere, except in the German folk’s soul'.  Despite this negative press, his career blossomed.  He was offered a position teaching composition at the Berlin Academy of Music in 1927, and two years later he founded the Amar Quartet.

Hindemith cultivated relationships with many of the most important musicians of his day.  During these early years, his relationship with the growing Nazi movement was complex.  His operas were often denounced in the Nazi press; his marriage to a Jewish woman and his friendships with leftists only made things worse.  One critic wrote that

Hindemith’s music is foreign to the German style, as it is not art in the higher sense, rather simply empty games with tones, an artistic acrobatic artistic-ness.

Nonetheless, his talent impressed some Nazi music-lovers, and he became more accommodating of the new regime.  He began to stress his 'Germanic' outlook, focusing on a long-held interest in German folk music.  In June 1933, a review by a Nazi music critic praised his change in political and artistic outlook:

After the searching and roving restlessness of the years of development, new instrumental works have been composed with an allegiance to classicism and a sense of clarity and firmness which expresses the essence of German music in masterly economy of sound and form.

In March 1934, what became known as the 'Hindemith affair' erupted.  The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler planned to premiere Hindemith's opera Mathis der Maler (Mathis the Painter) for the 1934-35 season.  However, Nazi official Göring prohibited the performance.  (Hindemith’s continued collaboration with Jewish artists, his family connections, and his earlier work with such artists as Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, all counted heavily against him.)  Furtwängler threatened to resign unless the boycott of Hindemith was lifted, and wrote open letters to the press defending the composer.  However, he sought to avoid conflict with the Nazi party by avoiding all but the most mild critique.  Ultimately the power of the Nazi regime over artistic expression was established.  Under pressure from Goebbels, Hindemith requested an indefinite leave of absence from his post at the Berlin Academy, and accepted an invitation from the Turkish government to establish a music school in Istanbul.

This was not, however, the end of Hindemith’s relationship with Nazi Germany.  On 17 January 1936 he signed an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and began a slow process of integration.  He was commissioned to write a piece for the Luftwaffe, and his works were being played in German concert halls.  Once again, however, he was not able to overcome his reputation: this time the tension over the state’s commitment to the purging of German music from ‘degenerate influences’ signalled the end of his career within Nazi Germany.  In October his works were finally banned (though, as was typical of Nazi policy, with several exceptions) and he and his Jewish wife were included in the 1938 exhibit on ‘degenerate’ music.  Finally convinced that he could not work productively in Nazi Germany, the composer left for Switzerland, finally emigrating to the USA in 1940.

Despite his years of attempted conciliation with Nazism, Hindemith went on to build a successful career in the United States, where his music had been performed since the 1920s.  He was granted a professorship at Yale in 1941.  Immediately after the war, his music was considered to be among the rare contemporary German work free of Nazi influence. He experienced a boom in popularity, and was performed frequently on the stages of the occupied zones. 

In 1953 he returned to Europe, relocating to Zurich, where he taught composition at the university, and gradually began to conduct more frequently.  He died in Frankfurt am Main in December 1963.


Dümling, A., 1993. On the Road to the "Peoples' Community" (Volksgemeinschaft): The Forced Conformity of the Berlin Academy of Music under Fascism. Musical Quarterly, 77(3), 459-83.  

Kater, M.H., 1997. The Twisted Muse: Musicians and their Music in the Third Reich, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Kater, M.H., 2000. Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Levi, E., 1994. Music in the Third Reich, London: Macmillan.  

Prieberg, F.K., 1982. Musik im NS-Staat, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.  

Schubert, G., 2003. The Aesthetic Premises of a Nazi Conception of Music. In Music and Nazism: Art under Tyranny, 1933–1945, ed. Michael H. Kater and Albrecht Riethmüller. Germany: Laaber