Symphony Mathis der Maler
Composer: Paul Hindemith
Conductor: Thomas Wilson
Date: April 15, 2017
Contrary to what I initially thought, this piece was not by Gustav Mahler or even about Mahler (notice the absence of the “h” in the title). Instead, this symphony was an effective musical representation of an artist’s work which itself had a hermit saint as its inspiration. Through the “behind the scenes” provided by the Philharmonic before playing the entire piece, I learned that Hindemith paid a lot of attention to the symmetry and mathematical balances in his music. From utilizing the golden ratio to palindromes to balanced and unbalanced movements, there was more to Hindemith symphony than met the ear.
What was also interesting was the artist whose works were inspirations for this symphony (itself being part of a larger opera). Mathis Grunewald didn’t have many works to his name, but the ones we do know about are certainly impactful. Just as an example, the piece included in this post was just one of a selection created for the Isenheim altarpiece. Other movements in this symphony were equally inspired by other pieces of art from this altarpiece. From the Angelic Concert to the Entombment to the Temptation of St. Anthony (pictured here), the style doesn’t necessarily fit into traditional groupings of the era.
Finally, the man who inspired the artist who inspired the composer was none other than Saint Antony, a hermit who was believed to have supernatural healing abilities due to his longevity of life. While this piece of music was somewhat fitting considering the Easter weekend in which it played, there’s something profoundly dissatisfying in the progression from angels singing to Jesus’ burial to the demonic assault on a hermit saint. What’s clearly missing from the music is the resurrection of Jesus, which is what would give many of us hope in our demonic struggles.