Hindemith Advances Music as a Social Activity Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Paul Hindemith emphasized a new trend toward music as a social activity through his concepts of Gebrauchsmusik(music for use) and Hausmusik(music to be performed at home).

Summary of Event

Paul Hindemith began his composing career as an expressionist, exploring musical territory opened up by Arnold Schoenberg and Béla Bartók. His 1919 setting of dramatist Oskar Kokoschka’s Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (pr. 1909; Murderer, the Women’s Hope, pb. 1963) is an example of his use of dissonance with an extremely shocking text. [kw]Hindemith Advances Music as a Social Activity (1930’s) [kw]Music as a Social Activity, Hindemith Advances (1930’s) [kw]Social Activity, Hindemith Advances Music as a (1930’s) Music;Gebrauchsmusik and Hausmusik Hausmusik Gebrauchsmusik [g]Germany;1930’s: Hindemith Advances Music as a Social Activity[07410] [c]Music;1930’s: Hindemith Advances Music as a Social Activity[07410] Hindemith, Paul Orff, Carl Grünewald, Matthias Furtwängler, Wilhelm

Hindemith’s early creative years coincided with the Weimar Republic, which governed Germany in the wake of World War I after Emperor William II abdicated in defeat and was replaced by a democratic regime. The culture of the Weimar Republic Weimar Republic;culture was the first self-consciously modern one and saw striking advances in literature, drama, art, architecture, and film as well as in music. Although the republic’s early years were characterized by foreign occupation, strikes, attempted putsches (including one by Adolf Hitler in 1923), and drastic inflation, Germany after 1924 settled into a period of stability and economic growth that was abruptly terminated by the Great Depression that began in 1929. The high levels of support for the arts were curtailed by the economic stringencies, which also resulted in the polarization of the German population between Nazis and Communists. When Hitler was voted into power early in 1933, the Weimar Republic was over, and many of its leading figures emigrated.

Beginning in 1922 and for most of the remainder of the decade, Hindemith associated with a movement known as New Objectivity New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), a repudiation of both Romanticism and expressionism. In literature, New Objectivists sought to be detached and unemotionally matter-of-fact and to focus on objective reality and ordinary people. The movement’s music renounced the nineteenth century past by being unemotional and concentrating on everyday life. Elements of popular music and even jazz were included in New Objectivist music, but such elements were treated with satire and parody.

Hindemith’s piano suite of 1922 clearly shows elements of both expressionism and New Objectivity. The harmonic texture is extremely dissonant, but the individual movements have parodistic subtitles: The opening march is a circus, not a military march, and is treated parodically. Such popular dances as the shimmy and the Boston (a kind of waltz) and even ragtime are included in the suite. The ragtime movement bears directions that tell the performer to forget skills learned in piano lessons and to treat the piano as an interesting kind of percussion instrument.

The opera Neues vom Tage (news of the day), Neues vom Tage (Hindemith) which Hindemith completed in 1929, is an excellent example of New Objectivity. The opera, which focuses on the marital problems of a couple, includes offices, a hotel room, a jail cell, and a nightclub in its stage settings and contains many elements of popular music, which are often used in a parodic style. The opera mocks the legal system, bureaucracy, the commercialization of daily life, and the power of the news media, especially tabloid journalism. Musical effects include a chorus of typists, an operatic aria sung in a bathtub, and a cabaret revue featuring a chorus line.

Hindemith’s rise in the 1920’s was meteoric. He developed a style that, in its spare lines and linear writing, can be compared to the contemporaneous architecture of the German Bauhaus school. In 1927, he was appointed professor of composition at the Berlin Staatliche Hochschule für Musik despite his lack of formal academic training and his activity as a practical musician, writing music for his own performances (he was one of the world’s foremost violists) as well as concertos and solo pieces for others. He received prestigious commissions, including one to produce concert music for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1930. He felt, however, that much modern music was becoming too isolated from its audience; in 1929, he wrote an article in which he stated that the old music public was dying out and that a new one would have to be created. Here lay the roots of a musical philosophy called, for want of a better name, Gebrauchsmusik, or “music for use.”

The term itself derived from the work of musical historians who wrote about the dance suite of the early seventeenth century; these scholars made distinctions between music written to accompany actual dancing and dancelike music written for artistic performances. In its strictest sense, Gebrauchsmusik has no independent value in itself but serves a special use, especially for radio or film, and is the opposite of art or concert music. Hindemith was later to repudiate this term, saying that it sounds as ugly in German as it does in English. His goal, rather, was the creation of community music (Gemeinschaftsmusik), with the idea that the young public he was striving to educate should be making music themselves rather than listening to compositions in a concert hall or on records.

Hindemith’s model in this effort was Hausmusik, works of music from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries that were written for performances in the home. Examples are the Glogauer Liederbuch, a set of vocal and instrumental pieces by mostly unnamed composers written in the late fifteenth century, and various collections of ensemble pieces by German composers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Franz Joseph Haydn’s early string quartets, for example, were written for mostly amateur performers.

A good example of Hindemith’s community music is the Plöner Musiktag (day of music at Plon), Plöner Musiktag (Hindemith) written in 1932 for a daylong music festival at a boarding school that culminated in a concert in which all the students were participants. Another notable work is the children’s operetta Wir bauen eine Stadt (we build a city), Wir bauen eine Stadt (Hindemith) written, as Hindemith explained, for the instruction and practice of children rather than for the entertainment of adult observers. In both works, the style is simple without being naïve, dissonances are employed sparingly, and the children are treated with respect; as Hindemith explained, there should be some difficulties to be solved by the performers, even if they are children.

At the same time, Hindemith was changing his musical style. Characteristic of much Weimar culture during the early 1930’s was an artistic conservatism marked by the use of older forms and structures; Hindemith followed this trend by reviving older musical forms, such as the sonata, the fugue, and the passacaglia (a repeated melodic pattern in the bass over which new and increasingly elaborate designs are contrived).


When the Nazi Party took power in Germany in the 1930’s, the party’s leaders stressed the need for community—but in a restricted ethnic and racist sense that was unlike the universal community Hindemith had in mind for his music. When the Nazis attacked Hindemith’s music as degenerate, it was for the music of his New Objectivity period, his parodies of marches, and his association with Jewish musicians such as Kurt Weill and Otto Klemperer. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels attacked Neues vom Tage as obscene and sensational.

Hindemith’s major work of these years was his opera Mathis der Maler (1934), Mathis der Maler (Hindemith) based on the life and career of the medieval painter Matthias Grünewald. The concert symphony taken from the opera, one of Hindemith’s most enduring compositions, reveals the basic features of his mature musical style: finely arched melodies harmonized by sturdy chords in a carefully arranged system of tension and release; energetic rhythms; dramatic climaxes reinforced with powerful chords; and the idea of a musical continuity from the Middle Ages to the present emphasized by the use of musical techniques and even quotations from earlier periods.

Mathis der Maler received its long-delayed premiere under the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1938. Furtwängler had championed Hindemith’s music; he had conducted the premiere of the symphony drawn from the opera in 1934 and had gotten in trouble with the Nazis for doing so. Hindemith had been given an extended leave of absence from the Berlin Hochschule, during which he toured and even advised the Turkish government on music education. He visited the United States for the first time in 1937, and he gladly accepted a position on the faculty at Yale University in 1940.

At Yale, he taught theory and composition for thirteen years and also organized and directed the Collegium Musicum, a group organized to perform early music from the Middle Ages through the time of Johann Sebastian Bach. A strict teacher who granted only twelve graduate degrees in composition during this period, he influenced a number of musicians and, despite a heavy teaching load, continued to compose.

His attitude toward community music and music for use revealed itself in a variety of ways. Foremost are the sonatas he wrote for virtually every instrument, not only those with a substantial repertoire but also those, such as the English horn, tuba, double bass, trombone, or viola, for which there were few worthwhile compositions. His trumpet sonata particularly set the standard for all subsequent extended compositions for the instrument. Despite their difficult and sometimes thickly written piano parts, these sonatas remain Hindemith’s most frequently performed compositions.

Second are his orchestral showpieces, beginning with the 1930 concert music written for the Boston Symphony. Among the most popular of his orchestral works are his Symphonic Metamorphoses of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1943), Symphonic Metamorphoses of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (Hindemith) arrangements of piano pieces originally intended as a ballet. His numerous concertos for various instruments are scored counterparts to his sonatas. His Symphony in B-flat, written in 1951 for the U.S. Army band, set a high standard for concert-band music.

Hindemith’s most American work, the Requiem: For Those We Love of 1946, Requiem (Hindemith) is a setting for soloists, chorus, and orchestra of Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Whitman’s poem was written as an elegy for Abraham Lincoln and the dead of the Civil War; Hindemith regarded it as a fitting text for his work, which was written to commemorate Franklin D. Roosevelt and the dead of World War II. The piece was composed for performance by a high-quality amateur chorus and professional orchestra, but since 1946 it has been presented by many university music schools.

Finally, Hindemith codified his musical ideas and techniques in a series of treatises. His Unterweisung im Tonsatz (1937-1939; The Craft of Musical Composition, 1941) Craft of Musical Composition, The (Hindemith) consisted of a theoretical explanation followed by various exercises in part writing. In his book A Composer’s World: Horizons and Limitations (1952), Composer’s World, A (Hindemith)[Composers World] a collection of lectures originally delivered at Harvard University, Hindemith stated his musical philosophy for the general reader, reaffirmed the importance of tonality (which he compared with gravity and artistic perspective) and the continuity of musical tradition, and proclaimed the moral imperative of music, arguing that it is a form of communication between author and listener. Practical music, he claimed, should be the basis of musical instruction (he expected his composition students in Berlin to learn the instruments for which they were writing). Although he favored open admission to schools of music instruction, he believed that such a policy should be complemented by a well-functioning weeding system to remove the presumptuous and the untalented. His enthusiasm for community music did not wane; he felt that composers should write music that amateurs could play and sing.

Hindemith’s musical style was so individual that he could not develop a school of composers. His idea of educational music was effectively continued by Carl Orff, whose Schulwerk was written for children to perform and featured drums and tuned percussion as the principal instruments. Orff’s methods were brought to North America early in the 1960’s and have since become a favored way of introducing children to music.

Hindemith resigned from Yale in 1953 to accept an appointment at the University of Zurich, from which he retired two years later. He had been actively teaching for more than twenty-five years and wanted to devote himself to conducting. His interests had also turned to vocal music; his last composition, finished two months before his death, was a setting of the Mass written for a virtuoso choir. An octet Hindemith wrote in 1958 is an excellent illustration of his post-American style, combining lyricism with humor, Baroque contrapuntal techniques with old-fashioned dances such as the waltz, polka, and galop. Igor Stravinsky’s and Hindemith’s octets can very well serve as the framing works for a neoclassical style in twentieth century music. Music;Gebrauchsmusik and Hausmusik Hausmusik Gebrauchsmusik

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Austin, William. Music in the Twentieth Century. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966. Discussion of twentieth century music includes a chapter on Hindemith that provides an excellent capsule introduction to his music and musical philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burns, Rob, ed. German Cultural Studies: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Collection of scholarly essays on German culture and society since 1871 includes a chapter on the “birth of modernism” in the Weimar Republic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Susan C. Opera for a New Republic. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988. Study of German opera during the 1920’s emphasizes works by Hindemith. Also includes chapters on New Objectivity and on the effect of jazz on European music.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hindemith, Paul. A Composer’s World: Horizons and Limitations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952. Collection of the lectures that Hindemith gave at Harvard during the 1949-1950 academic year. States his musical philosophy for the general reader and emphasizes his moral and ethical view of the art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hinton, Stephen. The Idea of Gebrauchsmusik. New York: Garland, 1989. Useful source of information on the origins and cultural background of the concept of Gebrauchsmusik. The musical information provided is directed toward specialists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kater, Michael H. Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Examines the careers of eight German composers who were working, whether in Germany or as exiles, during the time the Nazis were in power. Chapter 2 is devoted to Hindemith. Includes endnotes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laqueur, Walter. Weimar: 1918-1933. 1974. Reprint. London: Phoenix Press, 2002. One of the best studies available in English of the Weimar Republic and its variegated cultural life. Discusses both art and music.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Noss, Luther. Paul Hindemith in the United States. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. Describes the composer’s life and activities in the United States, mostly between 1937 and 1953, with brief discussion of his later years. Includes bibliography and indexes.

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