On the Path to «Mathis der Maler»
Hindemith had already hoped to win over Benn for an operatic project whilst working on Das Unaufhörliche. Benn appeared to be open to the idea, but while he favoured a contemporary subject, Hindemith was more interested in historical material from the Middle Ages or early modern times, for example the figures of Gutenberg or Grünewald, to whom Schott Publishers had called his attention in 1932. But after Benn declared himself to be in sympathy with National Socialism in the spring of 1933, which Hindemith commented on with disgust and incomprehension, he broke off all contact with Benn.
Meanwhile Hindemith decided to write his own libretto for the first time: «After all, I know what I want, and these authors could only make the words when I very precisely prescribed to them what they were supposed to do.» Neither the figure of Gutenberg inspired Hindemith, nor, at first, Grünewald: «Grünewald would be good if he weren't a painter.»
Since he didn't find any material, he began composing a series of songs with piano accompaniment, then a Second String Trio. «This is a dumb situation. I am all keyed-up and could get started on theatrical music any day.» In October 1932 he began a collaboration with Ernst Penzoldt on a opera based on the latter's novelette ‹Etienne and Luise.› This work was already at an advanced stage when Hindemith interrupted work on it in February 1933 for political reasons, because he saw no chance for such an opera in National Socialist Germany. Whilst searching for new material, Hindemith remembered Grünewald in June 1933 and wrote to his publisher: «...I want to inform you briefly that I am very intensely involved with Grünewald and am gradually hoping to create something...»