Mathis der Maler (opera)

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Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter) is an opera by Paul Hindemith. The opera's genesis lay in Hindemith's interest in the Protestant Reformation. The work's protagonist, Matthias Grünewald, was an actual historical figure who flourished in that era, and whose art, in particular the Isenheim Altarpiece,[1][2] inspired many creative figures in the early 20th century, including Joris-Karl Huysmans's novel Là-bas.

Study of John the Evangelist by Matthias Grünewald, regarded in Hindemith's time as a self-portrait
The temptation of St. Anthony from the Isenheim Altarpiece

Hindemith considered commissioning author Gottfried Benn to write the libretto, but wound up doing it himself. Hindemith completed the opera in 1935. By that time, however, the rise of Nazism prevented Hindemith from securing a performance in Germany, despite three years' efforts.[3][full citation needed] The story, set during the German Peasants' War (1524-25), concerns Matthias's struggle for artistic freedom of expression in the repressive climate of his day, which mirrored Hindemith's own struggle as the Nazis attained power and repressed dissent.[4] The opera's obvious political message did not escape the government's notice.

Performance history[edit]

It was first performed on 28 May 1938 in Zurich, conducted by Robert Denzler.[5][6]The British premiere was in Edinburgh on 29 August 1952, and it was first given in the United States on 17 February 1956, at Boston University, conducted by Sarah Caldwell.

In contrast to the popular Symphony: Mathis der Maler, the large-scale opera itself is only occasionally staged. A notable US production was that of the New York City Opera in 1995.[7] Hamburg State Opera staged the work in 2005. It was being performed at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona when the building was destroyed by a fire in January 1994.

Main roles[edit]

Role Voice type Premiere Cast, 28 May 1938
(Conductor: Robert Denzler)
Albrecht von Brandenburg, Cardinal Archbishop of Mainz tenor Peter Baxevanos
Countess Helfenstein contralto
Hans Schwalb, leader of the peasants tenor
Regina, Schwalb's child daughter soprano Emmy Leni Funk
Lorenz von Pommersfelden, Catholic Dean of Mainz Cathedral bass Fritz Honisch
Riedinger, a rich protestant citizen bass Albert Emmerich
Ursula, Riedinger's daughter soprano Judith Hellwig
Mathis, a painter, in love with Ursula baritone Asger Stieg
Sylvester von Schaumberg, an army officer tenor
Truchsess von Waldburg, army general bass Marko Rothmüller
Wolfgang Capito, Albrecht's counsellor tenor Fridolin Mossbacher


Scene 1[edit]

In a cloister courtyard Mathis' musings and doubts about his vocation are interrupted by the peasant leader Schwalb and his child Regina. Moved by the peasants' plight, he offers his horse and stays to face the pursuing Sylvester who dares not arrest the cardinal's favorite painter.

Scene 2[edit]

A riot between Catholics, Lutherans and students in front of Albrecht's residence in Mainz is averted only by the arrival of the Cardinal himself with relics of St. Martin. He promises the merchant Riedinger to countermand an order to burn books, but latter gives in to Pomerfeld who points out that he cannot defy Rome. Mathis, reunited with Reidinger's daughter Ursula, is recognized by Sylvester and makes a passionate plea to Albrecht not to join in the suppression of the peasant's revolt. Realizing he cannot change his friend's mind, Albrecht grants him safe passage to join their cause.

Scene 3[edit]

The Lutherans are at first outraged when Capito leads soldiers to the stash of hidden books in Reidinger's house, but appeased when he reveals a letter from Luther to Albrecht suggesting that he demonstrate his advanced views by marrying. Albrecht is in such dire financial straits that it is likely he would agree, and Reidinger asks Ursula to give thought to the matter. Mathis arrives to bid farewell and insists she cannot follow him to the war. When her father returns she gives her consent to the plan.

Scene 4[edit]

The peasant army has captured the Helfensteins, marching the Count to execution and humiliating the Countess. Mathis remonstrates and is beaten down. The federal army arrives and the disheartened peasants prepare for battle but are quickly overrun; Schwalb is killed and Mathis barely saved by the Countess. He flees with the orphaned Regina.

Scene 5[edit]

Albrecht discusses his debts and Luther's challenge with Capito and agrees to interview a rich bride. He is astonished when Ursula enters and, dubious of her avowals, reproaches her for lending herself to the scheme. She admits that she is motivated not by love but by her faith to attempt his conversion, and in turn reproaches him for his vacillations and his lack of vision. He appears to be profoundly moved by her plea, but when the others are called in he announces that he will reform his ways by striving to return to his vows and to lead a simple life.

Viola da Gamba Isenheimer Altar.jpg

Scene 6[edit]

In the Odenwald forest Mathis lulls the haunted Regina to sleep with a description of a concert of angels, she joining in the folksong "Es sungen drei Engel" (this is the music, already heard in the overture, of the symphony's first movement). No sooner is she asleep but Mathis, now in the garb of Grünewald's Saint Anthony, is beset by tempters: a figure resembling the Countess Helfenstein offers a life of luxury; Pommersfelden praises power over money; Ursula appears in the guises of a beggar, then a seductress and, led to the scaffold, as a martyr; Capito, now a scholar, tells 'Anthony' the world can be mastered by science and reproaches him for unobjectivity; Schwalb upbraids for his unwarlike compassion. The chorus unite in an enactment of the temptation scene of the Isenheim Altarpiece before the scene suddenly changes to that of Anthony's visit to Saint Paul. Paul/Albrecht consoles Anthony/Mathis and calls him to his duty: "go forth and paint".

Scene 7[edit]

Ursula cares for the dying Regina, who confuses Mathis' painting of the dying Christ with her father. Only the sight of Mathis calms her before she dies. In the morning (following the interlude from the Symphony) he is visited by Albrecht who offers his home, but Mathis prefers to spend his last days in solitude. Packing his trunk, he bids farewell to good intentions -a scroll, ambition -compass and ruler, creation -paints and brush, acclaim -a gold chain, questioning -books, and last, kissing a ribbon from Ursula - to love.



  1. ^ Claire Taylor-Jay, Review of The Temptation of Paul Hindemith: 'Mathis der Maler' as a Spiritual Testimony. Music & Letters, 81(3), 469-472 (2000).
  2. ^ John Williamson, Review of The Temptation of Paul Hindemith: 'Mathis der Maler' as a Spiritual Testimony. Notes (2nd Ser.), 56(4), 951-954 (2000).
  3. ^ Claire Taylor-Jay, The Artist Operas of Pfitzner, Krenek and Hindemith: Politics and the Ideology of the Artist.
  4. ^ Shirley Althorp, Review of Mathis der Maler (Hamburg State Opera). Financial Times, 5 October 2005.
  5. ^ Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., 1954, Eric Blom, ed.
  6. ^ Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten
  7. ^ Bernard Holland, "City Opera Gamely Flirts With Danger". New York Times, 9 September 1995.
  • Amadeus Almanac, accessed 25 November 2009
  • Bruhn, Siglind, The Temptation of Paul Hindemith, Pendragon, 1998
  • Hindemith, Paul, Libretto of Mathis der Maler, Schott/AMP (with English synopsis, credited "courtesy of University of Southern California Opera Theatre")
  • Taylor-Jay, Claire, The Artist-Operas of Pfitzner, Krenek, and Hindemith: Politics and the Ideology of the Artist, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004

External links[edit]