Paul Hindemith, one of the most successful composers of twentieth 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 as a child. As a teenager he entered the music conservatory in Frankfurt am Main, where he studied violin from 1909 and composition from 1912. In 1915 he was appointed concertmaster of the Frankfurt Opera orchestra, leading the orchestra until 1923 (with a break when he was drafted in 1917-8). Hindemith’s father died in World War I.
By the early 1920s he had established a reputation for himself as a violinist and violist – establishing the Amar Quartet in 1921/22 – 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.
Hindemith cultivated relationships with many of the most important musicians of his day, notably Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. 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.
During the 1930s, he found it increasingly difficult to find concert engagements in Germany as a performer and composer. Nonetheless, his talent did impress some Nazi music-lovers, and some took his long-held interest in German folk-music to be an indication of a change in political artistic outlook, evidenced by a June 1933 review by a Nazi music critic:
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. 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. In 1935, 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, returning to Berlin later that year.
In January 1936 Hindemith was forced to sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler (a requirement by any civil servant that wished to continue working in Germany) in order to keep his job at the Academy. He was also commissioned to write a piece for the Luftwaffe (which has never been found). However, he was still struggling to find opportunities to perform as a soloist, and to have his compositions performed publicly. Hindemith’s works were banned by the Nazis in October 1936 (though, as was typical of Nazi policy, with several exceptions). In 1938, he appeared in the exhibition Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) in Düsseldorf. Concerned for their safety, Paul and Gertrud Hindemith left Germany for Switzerland in 1938, before emigrating to the United States two years later.
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 works free of Nazi influence. He experienced a boom in popularity, and was performed frequently on the stages of the occupied zones. He began his career as a conductor in 1947, having become a US citizen in 1946.
In 1953 he returned to Europe, relocating to Zurich, where he taught musicology at the university, and gradually began to conduct more frequently. He died in Frankfurt am Main in December 1963.
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