Hindemith: Mathis der Maler – Angelic Concert

Ever thought about angels? Do you like art from the Renaissance? How about hiking? If yes, then you can relate to this piece.

Paul Hindemith was born in Germany in the late 1800s and lived and composed through two world wars. Mathis der Maler (translated Matthias the Painter) was an opera about the life of a painter. The opera was composed during the time Nazis came to power in Germany and was suppressed by the party. There are some interesting details about this in this wiki article.

Hindemith composed a purely instrumental symphony based on themes in the opera. The three movements in this symphony capture the essence of Matthias Grunewald’s Renaissance era paintings, the Isenheim Altarpiece (1515). This is another example of art inspiring art.

The Angelic Concert is on the second view of the altarpiece. The detail is incredible. You can hear the various depictions of angels and their instruments in the music from the very beginning of the movement. Here are two examples:

In the first example, it is the shimmering major chords that seem to reflect a powerful, yet innocent angelic beauty. In the second half of this example, it is the violins playing very high in the background that reminds me of angels.

Other than those examples, this piece reminds me of hiking. The first couple of measures reminds me of waking up at dawn, getting out of bed, eating a modest breakfast, and going out the door before it gets too hot. Everything is still, quiet, and dark.

What follows are a series of sights one may encounter on a hiking trail from trees, birds, streams, water falls, large and small rocks, and wind in the trees to feeling tired, taking a break, or snapping some quick photographs. Something I love about Hindemith is the way his music always moves forward and upward. Listen to the unison strings keeping time and going higher in pitch in the background behind the trombone and horn melody:

Some of my favorite parts of hiking, especially in the mountains, is when I’ve hiked long enough to get above some trees and see my first scenic view. It is both majestic and breath-taking. On our hike through this music, I imagine that the sun is coming up on the horizon just as we reach the clearing:

Hindemith takes us on several bunny trails until we reach the top of the mountain. The powerful brass at the end of this movement reflect the power I feel in my body having conquered the long hike and made it to the top. There is an even greater majesty and feeling of satisfaction as we out and down on the landscape, perhaps seeing the trail we’ve just hiked hundreds of feet below. It is such a satisfying moment after the degree of uncertainty in parts of the music where it didn’t seem like we would make it. In short, it’s literally a mountaintop experience!

I love Hindemith’s use of power chords in this clip. While most chord progressions move in intervals of a second, fourth, or fifth, these power chords are a third apart. This kind of chord progression adds intrigue because it is not the typical way Western Classical music functions. You would never hear Beethoven or Mozart use chords of this kind because their resolution is a surprise. Beethoven, for example, does the opposite: he spends the length of his pieces building tension by taking you to a home he describes, but one at which you don’t arrive until you’ve anticipated it for several minutes. The ending here feels like a surprise, harmonically. To me, that is what makes it so interesting. I will be sure to give more examples of the surprises composers write into their music. Hindemith wasn’t the only one.

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