(Mathis der Maler—Hindemith) by Peter Sellars
The 16th-century painter Matthias Grünewald [?1470–1528] is one of the most inspiring and mysterious figures in the history of art. His well-known masterpiece is the Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France, a multi-panelled, layered, visionary creation, evoking the agony of the Crucifixion with terrifying intensity, and the miracles of annunciation, birth, and resurrection with equal tenderness, wonder, and shock. The extreme distended forms of his human subjects in states of ecstasy or suffering, combined with a magical, iridescent use of colour which radiates spiritual force, made him a seminal figure for the German Expressionist painters in the teens and twenties of this century.
Paul Hindemith was one of the leaders of Germany's avant-garde in those wild years, collaborating with painters and poets who were bringing a new era of revolutionary struggle into being. This all changed in the thirties. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Hindemith was one of the few major creative artists who stayed. He somehow felt that his presence and message could help set his country right again, and so, between 1933 and 1935, labouring under virtual house arrest with a ban on public performances of his music and all mention of his name in the press, he wrote Mathis der Maler [Mathis the Painter]. Like Boris Pasternak writing Dr Zhivago for Stalin, Hindemith's new work was at one level a repudiation of his modernist past, and at another an heroic attempt to communicate with the one man who held the fate of a nation and perhaps the world in his hands. Intended as the next great German opera after Parsifal and consciously sourcing the history of German music back to its glory days in the Middle Ages, Hindemith employed a musical palette that would not offend Hitler. Like an alternative Meistersinger, the opera concerned the place of an artist in society. Of course it was autobiographical.
Next to nothing is known of the historical Mathis Gothardt Neithardt—even the name Grünewald is a 17th-century fiction. In contrast to his celebrated contemporary Albrecht Dürer [1471–1528], whose every prolific movement was chronicled and debated, very few of Mathis's works exist, and there are very few traces of a professional life. It is almost as if he wanted to vanish. We do know that he served for ten years as court painter to Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg in Mainz, and that he left this office in 1526, apparently in solidarity with the Peasant Revolt of 1525. He died two years later.
In what is possibly the richest and most satisfying libretto ever written by a composer, Hindemith plunges this tormented figure into the midst of riots in the streets (Tableau 2), public book burnings (Tableau 3), crying economic and social injustice, and mass extermination (Tableau 4). He rescues the child of a revolutionary leader from the holocaust, and learns to take responsibility for her. Her angelic presence leads him to hear the music of the spheres and to confront his most painful demons. He paints his Isenheim masterpiece and, as the child dies in his arms, he renounces painting. He will learn not to love the world, but a woman, Ursula, who has followed him across his life. And life is more important than art.