Despite all its intellectual rigor, Paul Hindemith’s Life of Mary is a very approachable piece of twentieth-century vocal music. I can think of no other work that treats the totality of Mary’s life, including episodes that even the most devout rarely think about.
A giant among 20th-century composers, Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) went from an expressionist enfant terrible of the 1920s to a humanistic neoclassicist, one deeply rooted in the German tradition and with Bach as his guiding star. Over time his dissonant counterpoint became tempered with a romantic warmth he had previously eschewed. Compositions from his maturity such as the Mathis der Maler symphony, The Four Temperaments, Nobilissima Visione, and Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes of Weber have become repertoire staples and are accessible to a broad audience.
The mellowing of Hindemith’s style coincided with his exile from Germany and settling in America. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had banned Hindemith’s work from the Reich, condemning it as “the foulest perversion of German music.” Hindemith came with his wife to the United States in 1940, ostensibly for a tour, though in reality with the intention of settling here. Hindemith became a professor of music at Yale and taught there for thirteen years, influencing and mentoring many young American composers. In 1946 he became an American citizen.
That same year Hindemith wrote a work that could legitimately be called “American”: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for Those We Love, based on poetry by Walt Whitman commemorating the death of Abraham Lincoln and the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. The parallels with Franklin Roosevelt and the end of World War II were apparent to everyone at the premiere in New York on May 14, 1946, conducted by Robert Shaw.
Hindemith was a meticulous musical craftsman, honing his pieces to perfection. One of the works he lavished the most attention on was Das Marienleben (The Life of Mary), a cycle of songs for soprano and piano. Hindemith originally published it in 1924 but kept revising it over the years to bring it up to date with his evolving musical thought. The final version was published in 1948, right in the middle of his American period.
The work is based on poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, fifteen in all, covering episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary. The poems are highly symbolic, at times somewhat obscure, and Hindemith sets them to lyrical and intricately crafted music. Here is the eleventh poem, on the Pietà:
Now my misery is made
complete, and it fills me,
ineffably. I am rigid, like the
of a stone is rigid.
Hard as I am, I know only one
You became great—
…and became great,
in order to exceed,
as a pain that is all too great,
my heart’s powers of comprehension.
Now you like crosswise over my lap,
now I can no longer
give birth to you.
Hindemith worked out an elaborate system of musical symbolism in The Life of Mary, using keys to signify theological ideas. The work’s overall tonality of E symbolizes “that which gives [Mary’s] existence its meaning, and without which we should not be able to understand and revere the life of Mary”—Christ. Mary herself is symbolized by the tonality of B (the dominant of E), while the tonality of A symbolizes the divine nature of Christ. Other keys stand for ideas such as “the infinite and eternal,” “trust and confidence,” “purity,” and “the acknowledgment of the smallness that one feels in the face of the exalted and incomprehensible.”
According to musicologist Donald J. Grout, Hindemith embraced the medieval idea that music symbolizes a higher order within the moral and spiritual universe. The symphony Die Harmonie der Welt (The Harmony of the World) expresses this idea explicitly, dealing with the conception of “harmony” within man and the cosmos as expressed by Boethius and other ancient thinkers.
In a similar way, Hindemith sought to give The Life of Mary a stronger sense of integrated order. The original 1924 version had been colored by the aesthetic of Expressionism, with its highly subjective and arbitrary musical gestures. The vocal part was in many places difficult to sing, with wide leaps and melodic lines that seemed to bear little relation to the piano part. Now Hindemith regularized and systematized the work so that it expressed a deliberate, overarching design in all its details.
One of the ways he accomplished this is by subdividing the work into four distinct sections, each with a different purpose and musical character. The first consists of personal experiences of Mary: her birth, her presentation in the temple, the Annunciation, and Visitation. Then come the major incidents in Mary’s life: the Anguish of Joseph, Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Nativity, Rest on the Flight to Egypt, and Wedding Feast at Cana.
The next group of songs depicts Mary as sufferer: the Passion, Pietà, and (most intriguingly) The Calming of Mary with the Resurrected One; the music of these songs is intensely emotional. Finally there are three songs about Mary’s death, with music of an abstract and intellectual character.
Despite all its intellectual rigor, this is a very approachable piece of twentieth-century vocal music. Hindemith’s ode to Mary is certainly one of the more unusual religious works of all time, and even more unusual coming from a Protestant composer. I can think of no other work that treats the totality of Mary’s life, including episodes that even the most devout rarely think about. The music is challenging but also deeply rewarding. You don’t even need to be able to follow German closely to enjoy or be moved by it. The songs of Mary’s infancy are tender and lyrical, the songs of the Passion apply expressionistic rhetoric; the whole work has a classic beauty and serenity.
That The Life of Mary was perfected and polished in the United States is cause for additional pride. At a time when Europe was engulfed in political chaos, America offered a haven where creative artists like Hindemith (and Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, and others) could grow and flourish. As his native country descended into the abyss, Hindemith made an eloquent argument out of New Haven, Connecticut on behalf of the best and highest in German culture.
As he developed and matured as an artist, Hindemith came to reject conceptions of modernism that were self-centered and alienating. He embraced the social and practical dimensions of music-making, writing for human beings rather than abstractions, crafting compositions that expressed a transcendent order rather than mere feelings and whims. The following quote sums up well Hindemith’s personal aesthetic and the deeply conservative approach to art and life he preached:
“Your task is, amid confusion, rush and noise, to grasp the lasting, calm and meaningful, and finding it anew, to hold and treasure it.”
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail of “The Virgin in Prayer,” by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, courtesy of Wikipedia; the image at top is a photograph of Paul Hindemith, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.