When I was a bachelor at a church-subsidized school in North Texas our resident ballet instructor, David Preston, got together with the university symphony orchestra and mounted the Symphony Mathis der Maler as a dance in three parts.  I was, to be honest about it, not so impressed with Preston's choreography for this work as I would later of his staging of the comic opera, The Golden Cockerel by Rimsky, but that is besides the point.  I had never heard a single work by Paul Hindemith prior this exposure, and it was by a twist of fate that I got to see it as Preston envisioned: as a ballet.  (He staged the Rimsky with all of the chorus and solosits in bleachers surrounding the main stage, the ballet troupe dancing and miming the libretto on the main stage itself.)

I do not recall much of the Mathis choreography.  But I do recall a nasty letter to the university from Paul Hindemith. He said, harumph!, that neither his opera or the symphony was written as a ballet and we should cease and desist from mounting it in that form.  Period. Frankly, as opera, I think it is a somewhat mediocre one.  The symphonic tone poem based on its structure as given in the Wiki article makes Mathis a more enjoyable shorter work sans vocal accompaniment.  As for complaining about turning the Symphony into a ballet?...Methinks Hindemith protested too much. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony:_Mathis_der_Maler

Who does not know that the opera only premiered in Switzerland some three years after the Nazis kept it off German boards. Now why would this be?  Were the National Socialists inclined to see it as decadent?  It is true that Hindemith worked in musical hall fare during the Weimar Republic; perhaps some of his contributions were thought politically incorrect. The theme of Mathis it seems to me is the struggle of the artist to hold himself aloof from war and keep doing what he or she was meant to do: paint.  When I saw the Isenheim altar pieces on the cover of one of my LP versions of the Symphony, I was stunned.  The crucified Christ was not some dimestore blond beauty-hunk but a grossly presented man of the people, so perfectly described by Joris Karl Huysmans at the finale of his novel, La-Bas.

The association of La-Bas, by the way, with the Symphony is interesting for another reason.  Reading La-Bas brings to mind both the Symphony and the earlier Fantastique of Berlioz, with its Dies Irae; in fact, when Hollywood gets tired of regurgitating The Exorcist, The Omen, and other films about Satanism and takes up this harrowing story by a Franco-Belgian disciple of Zola, audiences will be genuinely horrified. The surrealist Luis Bunuel wrote an adaptation with Jean Claude Carrier that was almost documentary in its literal approach.  This was Bunuel's method in another of their colloborations, The Milky Way, which actually depicts the reconstructed nocturnal masses of Albigensian gnostics as if being photographed before our very eyes (a technique Herzog is not above devising). Hindemith's Symphony has music entirely appropriate to the tale, and the climax of the stirring first movement might even accompany the final scene, where Durtal, the protagonist, seeks sanctuary from Satanists and occult practices by sitting in the pews of the Monastery of St. Anthony and gazing upon Grunewald's genius.

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