Creation of «Mathis der Maler»
In August 1933 Hindemith read an early version of his libretto of the opera Mathis der Maler at Schott Publishers; Ludwig Strecker reported: «He is so caught up in the material, by the familiar atmosphere and the magnitude of the accusation, the parallels of that period with ours and especially by the lonely artist's fate, that he will create with an unprecedented enthusiasm and personal involvement.»
The working-out of the libretto was exceptionally arduous for Hindemith because, with the historical material, he also had to cope with contemporary, even autobiographical elements. As a «historical opera,» Mathis der Maler is at the same time a «topical opera» as well. On the one hand, Hindemith undertook intensive historical studies and trained his diction based on Hölderlin; on the other hand, he posed himself the problems of handling and abusing power, as well as the autonomy of art and the artist.
In Hindemith's depiction, Mathis is an artist who gives up painting out of social responsibility, taking sides with the downtrodden but then ending up bitterly disappointed by them. He recognises that he has betrayed what is best in him: his art. It is restored to him as a «commission» to paint, but he cannot forget his experiences of misery and powerless complicity. They grow with his art as moral strength and energy. Mathis realises that the artist who betrays his abilities remains socially useless and without responsibility, however much he may ease his conscience through activism. Hindemith himself apparently adopted this stand; it enabled him to withstand the mounting political pressure.
Whilst Hindemith was working on the libretto, Furtwängler requested a new orchestral work from him in mid-1933 with which he wished to demonstratively take a stand for Hindemith. The result was the Mathis der Maler Symphony, which anticipated the music for the opera yet to be composed. The premiere of the Symphony on 12 March 1934 was an overwhelming success which, however, provoked political opponents. Thus the premiere of the opera, completed in 1935, did not take place in Germany, but in Zurich.