Mathis der Maler (opera)

Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter) is an opera by Paul Hindemith. The work's protagonist, Matthias Grünewald, was a historical figure who flourished during the Reformation, and whose art, in particular the Isenheim Altarpiece,[1][2] inspired many creative figures in the early 20th century.

Mathis der Maler
Opera by Paul Hindemith
Grunewald Self Portrait.jpg
John the Evangelist by Matthias Grünewald, regarded in Hindemith's time as a self-portrait
TranslationMatthias the Painter
Based onMatthias Grünewald
28 May 1938 (1938-05-28)
The temptation of St. Anthony from the Isenheim Altarpiece

Hindemith completed the opera, writing his own libretto, in 1935. By that time, however, the rise of Nazism prevented Hindemith from securing a performance in Germany.[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 regime.

Performance historyEdit

The opera was first performed at the Opernhaus Zürich on 28 May 1938, conducted by Robert Denzler.[5][6] On 14 October 1956, a rebuilt Schauspiel Köln in Cologne opened with a gala performance of the opera.[7] On 9 and 11 March in 1939 the opera Mathis der Maler was performed in Amsterdam, conducted by Karl Schmid-Bloss, director of the Opera in Zürich. At the same time the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam made a documentary exhibition of the painting 'The Small Crucifixion' and two drawings by Mathias Grunewald owned by Franz Koenigs.[8] 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.[9] 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 rolesEdit

Roles, voice types, premiere cast
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 1Edit

In a cloister courtyard Mathis's 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 2Edit

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 later 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 3Edit

The Lutherans are at first outraged when Capito leads soldiers to the stash of hidden books in Reidinger's house ("Ein Verbrechen / Gegen Luther, gegen deutsche Glaubenskraft" [A crime / Against Luther, against the power of German faith]), but appeased when he reveals a letter from Luther to Albrecht suggesting that he demonstrate his advanced views by marrying:

Albrecht, "the strongest clerical prince in Germany" who "... holds / The fate of the Empire in his hands" is in such dire financial straits that it is likely he would agree, and Reidinger asks Ursula to give thought to the matter as it would be to the benefit of both the Lutheran faith and the Empire. 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.

At the end of scene 3, all men chant a paean to God, their religion and the fatherland:

Scene 4Edit

The peasant army has captured the Helfensteins, marching the Count to execution and humiliating the Countess. Asked for their demands, one of the peasants replies, amongst others, that they do not accept any ruler save the emperor ("Kein Herrscher gilt / Als der Kaiser"). 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 5Edit

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.

Scene 6Edit

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 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 St. Paul the Simple. Paul/Albrecht consoles Anthony/Mathis and calls him to his duty: "go forth and paint".

Scene 7Edit

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.

List of musical numbersEdit

Number Performed by Title (German) Title (English)
Overture orchestra Engelkonzert Angelic Concert
Scene 1
Mathis Sonniges Land. Mildes Drängen schon nahen Sommers...
Aria Schwalb Aufmachen! Helft uns! Open the door! Help us!
Aria Mathis Woher kommt ihr denn? Was für Leute seid ihr?
Aria Regina Es wollt ein Maidlein waschen gehen...
Aria Schwalb Was redest du da?
Aria Regina Staub am Himmel, Pferdetraben
Scene 2
Citizens Dem Volk stopft man die falschen Lehren ins Maul
Aria Albrecht Nach dem Lärm vieler Orte
Aria Albrecht Man fühlt den Segen, der auf eurem Land ruht
Aria Albrecht Gewinnst du auch mein Herz
Aria Pomerianians Rom verzieh oft, was ihr euch an Freiheit nahmt
Aria Albrecht Was gibt’s?
Scene 3
Scene 4
Scene 5
Scene 6
Scene 7




  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 series), 56(4), 951-954 (2000).
  3. ^ Taylor-Jay, Claire, The Artist-Operas of Pfitzner, Krenek, and Hindemith: Politics and the Ideology of the Artist, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004
  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. ^ Thorsten Leiendecker and Nadine Leiendecker Wuppertal: Die Schönsten Seiten – At Its Best, p. 54, at Google Books
  8. ^ Newspaper De Tijd 2 March 1939 and De Tijd 5 March 1939.
  9. ^ Bernard Holland: "City Opera Gamely Flirts With Danger". The New York Times, 9 September 1995.
  10. ^ German libretto


  • Casaglia, Gherardo (2005). "Mathis der Maler, 28 May 1938". L'Almanacco di Gherardo Casaglia (in Italian).
  • 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")

External linksEdit