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Born in Hanau, Hindemith was taught the violin as a child, but his parents objected to his musical ambitions, and he left home at the age of eleven as a result. He entered the Hoch Conservatoire in Frankfurt am Main where he studied conducting, composition and violin under Arnold Mendelssohn and Bernhard Sekles , supporting himself by playing in dance bands and musical-comedy outfits. He led the Frankfurt Opera orchestra from 1915 to 1923 and played in the Rebner string quartet in 1921 in which he played second violin, and later the viola. In 1929 he founded the Amar Quartet, playing viola, and extensively touring Europe.
In 1922, some of his pieces were heard in the International Society for Contemporary Music festival at Salzburg, which first brought him to the attention of an international audience. The following year, he began to work as an organiser of the Donaueschingen Festival, where he programmed works by several avant garde composers, including Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg. From 1927 he taught composition at Berlin and in the 1930s he made several visits to Ankara where he led the task of reorganising Turkish music education. Towards the end of the 1930s, he made several tours of America as a viola and viola d'amore soloist.
Despite protests from the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, his music was condemned as "degenerate" by the Nazis, and in 1940 he emigrated to the USA, where he taught music at Yale University and Harvard, and influenced younger American composers such as Harold Shapero. He became an American citizen in 1946, but returned to Europe in 1953, living in Zürich and teaching at the University there. Towards the end of his life he began to conduct more. He was awarded the Balzan Prize in 1962.
Hindemith died in Frankfurt am Main from acute pancreatitis.
Hindemith is seen by some as the most significant German composer of his time. His early works are in a late romantic idiom, and he later produced expressionist works, rather in the style of early Arnold Schoenberg, before developing a leaner, contrapuntally complex style in the 1920s, which some people found (and still find) difficult to understand. It has been described as neoclassical, but is very different from the works by Igor Stravinsky labelled with that term, owing more to the contrapuntal language of Bach than the Classical clarity of Mozart.
This new style can be heard in the series of works he wrote called Kammermusik from 1922 to 1927. Each of these pieces is written for a different small instrumental ensemble, many of them very unusual. Kammermusik No. 6, for example, is a concerto for the viola d'amore, an instrument which had not been in wide use since the baroque period, but which Hindemith himself played. He continued to write for unusual groups throughout his life, producing a sonata for double bass in 1949, for example.
Around the 1930s, Hindemith began to write less for chamber groups, and more for large orchestral forces. In 1933-35, Hindemith wrote his opera Mathis der Maler, based on the life of the painter Matthias Grünewald. Like many of Hindemith's works, it is respected in musical circles, but unpopular with audiences, and it is rarely staged. It combines the neo-classicism of earlier works with folk song. Hindemith turned some of the music from this opera into a purely instrumental symphony (also called Mathis der Maler ), which is one of his more frequently performed works.
Hindemith, like Kurt Weill and Ernst Krenek, wrote Gebrauchsmusik ("utility music"), music intended to have a social or political purpose and often intended to be played by amateurs. The concept was inspired by Bertolt Brecht. An example of this is his Trauermusik (Funeral Music), written in 1936. Hindemith was preparing a concert for the BBC when he heard news of the death of George V. He quickly wrote this piece for solo viola and string orchestra to mark the event, and the premiere was given on the same day. Hindemith later disowned the term Gebrauchsmusik, saying it was misleading.
In the late 1930s, Hindemith wrote a theoretical book The Craft of Musical Composition in which he ranks all musical intervals from the most consonant to the most dissonant. It laid out Hindemith's compositional technique he had been using throughout the 1930s and would continue to use for the rest of his life, and added to his reputation as a composer theoretically interesting, but lacking in emotional interest. His piano work of the early 1940s, Ludus Tonalis is seen by many as a further example of this. It contains twelve fugues, in the manner of Johann Sebastian Bach, each connected by an interlude during which the music moves from the key of the last fugue to the key of the next one.
Hindemith's most popular work, both on record and in the concert hall, is probably the Symphonic Metamorphoses of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, written in 1943. It takes melodies from various works by Weber, mainly piano duets, but also one from the overture to his incidental music for Turandot, and transforms and adapts them so that each movement of the piece is based on one theme.
In 1951, Hindemith completed his Symphony in B-flat. Unlike most symphonies, it is scored for full concert band. It is a brilliant example of a piece of music that, though it does not conform to the traditional idea of what it means to be melodic and tonal, is nevertheless melodically satisfying; indeed, Hindemith's deep understanding of musicality shines through in all three movements.
Partial list of works
- String Quartet No. 3 in C, Op. 22 (1922)
- Mathis der Maler
- Der Schwanendreher
- Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber
- Symphony in B-flat
- Ludus Tonalis
- When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd (Requiem for those we Love) For chorus and orchestra, based on the poem by Walt Whitman
- Das Marienleben Soprano and Piano, based on poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, existing in two versions.
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