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Grunwald: “Symphony Mathis der Maler”

The painter Matthias Grunewald (d. 1528), master of the German Renaissance, was a near contemporary of Albrecht Durer. Probably the best of his paintings is a multipaneled altarpiece done in the early sixteenth century for the monastery at Isenheim in Alsace, eastern France.The Annunciation and Nativity panels show a masterly, almost Flemish control of colour and light; the crucifixion, with its twisted, ravenged body of Christ, is of glacial stillness.In the hellish panels, by contrast, Grunewald creates a lurid turbulence of images.In sum, this powerful altarpiece, now displayed in Colmar, is well worth a visit.

Hindemith’s opera on Grunewald’s life and work was composed in a white heat, due in large measure to intimacies of intellectual stance shared between the Renaissance artist and twentieth-century composer. It is a tale, set during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524 and the dawn of Protestantism, wherein the artist discovers the futility of political and social engagement: the price of true art is the isolation of the artist. Hindemith drew his symphony from passages in the opera where Grunewald envisages the various panels of the altarpiece; it was finished and performed before the operatic Mathis was done.

To the left of the Virgin and Child in Grunewald’s Nativity panel, angels in glorious raiment offer concerted music from their gilded pavilion. Hindemith’s jubilant angel chorus, a sonata, begins with a slow introduction where the trombones state an old and apt tune, “Es sungen dei Engel” (There sang Three Angels). The opening melody of the Allegro merits close attention, as it typifies Hindemith’s imaginative intervallic structures, melodic open-endedness, and Baroque-style spinning out. The new theme you hear when the forward motion subsides and the texture broadens seems almost a mirror of the first. An innocent flute solo over light strings introduces the closing section of the exposition. In the development, where the two main themes are treated frugally as antecedent and consequent of each other , and in the recapitulatory synthesis as well, all these elements are woven together in a triumph of neo-Baroque imitative device. At length, the slow-moving brass chorale returns, though now surrounded by the faster moving material from the other sections. Last reminiscences of the main thematic materials culminate in the breathtaking cadence for brass with triangle. The brilliance of the Angel Concert represents, to my mind, Hindemith at his very best.

The Entombment scene is obviously a mediation on death. One has the sense that the somber musing so well expressed in the first theme find a certain release in the tender dialogue of solo winds that follows. this sensation is reconfirmed by the adjustments to the passage at its recapitulation, where the violins soar gently from the bottom of their range heavenward.

The Temptation of St. Anthony, the most surreal of the Isenheim panels, has to do with the artist’s temptations by the baser riches. (St. Anthony of Egypt was a hermit and prototypical monk, who endured unspeakable trials from all manner of devils.) A violent recitative introduces a long and complex movement imbued with sonata design, the exposition characterized above all by the near-continuous galloping rhythms in the accompaniment. At the center is a slow, intense episode for the strings, then a fast and crafty episode for brass, and various recapitulations, growingly harsh. The conclusion begins as a macabre dance in triple meter; out of this emerges, in the woodwind, the hymn Lauda Sion Salvatorem (Praise of Zion our Salvation). Temptation, in short, has been withstood: tribulation is banished with a glorious Alleluia from the brass.

Particularly interesting throughout Mathis der Maler is the deft deployment of the brass and percussion, and the thick, parallel voicing that often suggests the sound of a pipe organ. The contrapuntal practice is exceptionally fine, and Hindemith’s strong sense of orchestral colour makes the interplay of the voices, even in the densest passages, easy to perceive.

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