Hindemith's first full-length opera Cardillac, Op. 39 was written in collaboration with the Alsatian poet Ferdinand Lion. In the summer of 1925, he offered the composer a libretto based on the novelette Das Fräulein von Scuderi by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Hindemith was intensively involved in the writing of the libretto and completed the music to the opera in the early summer of 1926. He made some final touches shortly before the premiere, which took place in November 1926 at the Semperoper in Dresden under the direction of Fritz Busch.
In seventeenth-century Paris, a robber and murderer is carrying out his nefarious deeds. All the victims wore jewellery by the famous goldsmith Cardillac, of which they were robbed. Incited by this thrill, a lady asks her suitor to present her with a piece of Cardillac's jewellery as proof of his love. When he wants to hand over a golden belt to her at night, he is murdered. In his workshop, Cardillac is visited by a gold trader who marvels over the strange man. The daughter is torn between her love for her father and her lover, the officer. When asked if she may go with him, Cardillac reacts indifferently. The officer senses what significance the pieces of jewellery have for Cardillac, and buys a necklace. In the evening, Cardillac wraps a broad cape around himself, pulls on a mask and leaves the workshop. The officer recognises Cardillac as the masked attacker on the street. The gold trader, who has observed the attack, accuses Cardillac, but the officer accuses the gold trader of the misdeed in order to protect Cardillac. The daughter now knows the truth. When Cardillac announces to the crowd that he knows the culprit, the crowd threatens to pillage the workshop if he refuses to tell them the name. Backed into a corner, he confesses his deeds without regret. He is knocked down by the crowd, grasps for the necklace whilst dying and kisses it.
For this genuine crime story, Hindemith composed virtuoso concertante music which, in many instances, is based on autonomous musical forms. These are linked with the text in subtle and multilayered ways. For example, the duet of the daughter with Cardillac (No. 10), in which the daughter's vain search for her father's attention finds expression, is constructed as a fugato; in the antiphony between Cardillac and the crowd (No. 17) the model of the passacaglia illustrates the crowd's insistent question relating to the name of the murderer. The almost continuous contrapuntal design of the composition, together with the soloistically conceived instrumentation, based on effects made by sharp contrasts and contours, leads to a "neo-baroque" sound world that was significant for Hindemith's production of these years. In its tendency towards stylisation and abstraction, the musical design coincides with the expressionistic diction of subject and text.
During the 1920s, Cardillac was one of the most frequently performed operas and became Hindemith's most successful stage work of all.