Timeline: Paul Hindemith

Dec 26, 2016

German composer, Paul Hindemith was a central figure in music and music theory in the 20th century, especially in the period between the wars. His music, teaching methods and theoretical treatises influenced a generation of composers.

Hindemith was born near Frankfort. His father was a house painter and an amateur musician, playing the zither. But it was the violin that called a young Hindemith. He began taking lessons at the age of 8 and by the time he was 12 he earned a place at the Hoch Conservatory. He became a proficient musician on multiple instruments including the clarinet, piano and viola.

Paul’s father died at the Battle of Flanders during World War I and it fell on him to support the family financially by performing with various orchestras and ensembles. Later in the war, he too was called into service but spent most of his time playing with the regimental band.

After the war, he began to garner international attention as a composer. 1919 saw the first public performance of his original music. He also focused his attention on providing venues for new and unknown works, founding a festival that programmed music by Schoenberg and Webern. At the age of 31, he was appointed a professor of composition in Berlin. He fell in love with teaching and devoted a good portion of his career to it. He wrote treatises on musical theory that redefined tonality for the 20th century. During this time he also kept up a rigorous performance and composition schedule.

In the 1930s, Hindemith sought to walk a fine line as the Nazi regime came to power in Germany. But, in 1934 he was called out by the kulturgemeinde, a powerful political and cultural arm of the Nazi party. They denounced Hindemith for the “immorality” of his music, his so called “parody” of treasured German themes and especially for his association and collaboration with Jewish musicians. His music was banned and Goebbels, himself verbally attacked Hindemith at a Nazi rally.

In 1937, he gave up his teaching position in Berlin and left his homeland. He eventually immigrated to the United States and took a position at Yale University. He was a demanding professor but attracted some of the finest talent in the country. He was also a champion of early music and helped to establish a tradition of historically informed performances on period instruments.

He left the U.S. and moved to Switzerland in 1953. His later years saw several tours as a conductor, yet he never returned to Germany. Hindemith died of acute pancreatitis at the age of 68.

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