About this Recording
8.573423 - HINDEMITH, P.: Marienleben (Das) (revised version, 1948) (Harnisch, J.P. Schulze)
English  German 

Paul Hindemith (1895–1963)
Das Marienleben (The Life of Mary) (revised version, 1948)


Composer, violist, violinist, conductor and teacher, Paul Hindemith was one of the twentieth century’s most versatile, all-round musicians. Born in Hanau, near Frankfurt, on 16 November 1895, he received violin lessons from an early age. In 1909, he won a free place at the Hoch’sche Konservatorium, Frankfurt, where he studied composition.

A series of radical, Expressionist works—the controversial one-act operas Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen, Das Nusch-Nuschi and Sancta Susanna (1921), String Quartet No. 2 (1921) and the ballet Der Dämon (1922)—established him as the leading German composer of his generation. There followed a phase of stylistic experimentation, from the jazz-influenced Suite ‘1922’ for piano to the variously scored, neo-Baroque Kammermusik series (1921–27). Another major piece from this period is the opera Cardillac (1926).

In 1927 he was appointed professor of composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. A lasting interest in teaching resulted in pieces for amateur players and a musical theory textbook, Unterweisung im Tonsatz (The Craft of Musical Composition). He was also active as a performer at this time in diverse roles—member of the Amar-Hindemith Quartet, leader of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra, and a celebrated soloist, notably in the 1929 premiere of Walton’s Viola Concerto.

From 1932 to 1935 he concentrated on the opera Mathis der Maler and its related symphony. A dramatic allegory about the artist’s dilemma in a turbulent society, the opera brought him into open conflict with the National Socialist government and in September 1938 he left Germany for Switzerland. In February 1940 he moved to the USA, later becoming an American citizen.

After accepting a position at the University of Zurich in 1951, he settled permanently in Switzerland. His last major work was the opera, Die Harmonie der Welt (1957). He died of pancreatitis in Frankfurt on 15 November 1963. His substantial legacy demonstrates his craftsmanship, command of many instruments and mastery of various styles and forms.

The song cycle for voice and piano Das Marienleben is based on the poetic cycle by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926). Hindemith began work on it in June 1922 and completed the first version in July 1923. Initial performances were highly successful and, at first, the composer was delighted, describing the songs to his publisher as ‘the best things I have yet written’. However, he soon became dissatisfied and decided to recast them so that the vocal line related more closely to the text and the piano part. He also wanted the songs to be more unified stylistically. Over the next two and a half decades he made painstaking changes, revising individual songs up to 20 times. Hindemith completed all his amendments in 1948 when he was living in exile in the United States. In this later edition the songs are presented in four clearly separated groups ([1][4]; [5][9]; [10][12]; [13][15]).

The Birth of Mary [1] has the air of a gentle berceuse. The piano’s flowing lines introduce the cycle’s main material. The image of angels soaring over the house where Mary is being born is captured in music which is hushed and stealthy, hovering harmonically. There is a palpable sense of anticipation in this tender opening song.

The Presentation of Mary in the Temple [2] takes the form of a simple but intense passacaglia consisting of 27 variations on a seven-bar subject. This makes a satisfying musical response to Rilke’s extensive architectural imagery (columns; stairways; arches; vault, ledges, etc.). There is an agitated climax as Mary grasps the significance of the occasion but the ending is calm and measured as she proceeds ‘full of self-assurance’.

Hindemith provided a completely new version of The Annunciation to Mary [3] for the 1948 edition. As Rilke likens the angel’s entry to the play of sunbeams in a room, the piano in its upper register utters tiny brass-like fanfares. A more agitated central episode conveys Mary’s trepidation but the song concludes with the return of the lilting opening flourishes as the angel sings his melody.

In the hushed but emotional The Visitation of Mary [4], she craves communion with another woman. The piano gently reiterates a handful of phrases and ascends into its upper reaches in the closing paragraph, as ‘the Baptist in her older kin’s womb even now was moved to leap for joy’.

Joseph’s Suspicion [5] is the opening song of the second group and it signals a change of mood from the mainly relaxed first group. The piano’s gruff unison playing indicates the anger of Mary’s betrothed.

In common with the previous setting, Annunciation to the Shepherds [6] is forthright in character with a number of unison piano passages. The final section is majestic and celebratory, anticipating the events of the next song.

Hindemith wrote an entirely new setting of The Birth of Christ [7] for the 1948 score. The artlessness of the poem is matched by the music, which is a variant of the opening song’s lullaby. At the last line—‘he brings joy’—the composer reminds us that this is the first Christmas by providing an idea which, in its harmonic language, suggests a carol.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt [8] is divided into two parts. The first has a dramatic sweep as Joseph and Mary wander across the desert with their child, fleeing Herod’s massacre of the children of Bethlehem. This section is underscored by a spirited theme with a syncopated rhythm. In the more introspective second portion, a tree bends to give the holy family shade as they rest. This passage is underpinned by an ostinato in the bass which is heard 20 times, reminding the listener of the second song’s passacaglia and thus linking the child Jesus with the young Mary’s initiation into the Temple.

At The Wedding at Cana [9], it is Mary’s maternal delight in Jesus’s powers that makes her exhort him to perform the miracle. Based on variants of two themes, one fugato and the other vocal, this song is the most wide-ranging and variegated of the collection. It forms the final song and climax of the second group. A substantial 48-bar prelude for piano conjures up the hubbub of noises at the wedding feast. The contrasting stillness in the second half points forward to the restraint of the next group of songs.

Before the Passion [10] brings an air of foreboding as Mary contemplates her son in his untroubled infancy. Rilke presents Mary as woman and mother and Hindemith’s direct and unaffected musical response is rounded off by a brooding 12-bar postlude for piano.

In Pieta [11], Mary cradles the body of her crucified son. This was the first song to be written and it retains some of its Expressionist power, even in the 1948 revision, being built upon a dissonant, emotionally intense six-note chord.

The Calming of Mary with the Resurrected One [12] is the only song that Hindemith left completely unaltered. Its depiction of an intimate reunion between Mary and Jesus is presented in the form of a modest rondo with a recurring chant-like theme.

The final group is abstract in nature. It consists of three songs entitled Of the Death of Mary [13][15] rendered as purely as possible melodically and harmonically. The second is presented as a spare theme with five variations and a coda. According to the composer in his preface to the later edition of the score, this concluding trilogy forms ‘an epilogue in which persons and actions no longer play any part’.

Das Marienleben occupies a key position in Hindemith’s output, marking a stylistic transition from Expressionism to neo-classicism. In the 1948 incarnation of the score the vocal and instrumental elements are of equal importance and the use of recurring motifs and gestures gives the set a powerful structural integrity. As Harold Truscott put it, writing in The Musical Times in 1969, ‘ …the purging castigating the 53-year-old Hindemith bestowed on these youthful songs has turned them into an organic masterpiece ranking with the great song-cycles’.

Paul Conway

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