»An Exceptional Violinist« –
Paul Hindemith and the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra

by Dr. Susanne Schaal-Gotthardt, Director of the Frankfurt Hindemith Institute

In the summer of 1915, when the directorship of the Oper Frankfurt began to search for a suitable candidate to fill the newly available Concertmaster position, they hit pay dirt: Paul Hindemith, 19 years old, a student of violin and composition at Dr. Hoch’s Konservatorium. He had started his studies in 1908 and had already begun to draw attention to himself as a shining talent with his performances of the Beethoven Violin Concerto in studio recitals. The orchestra was likewise impressed and hired him immediately as a tutti first violinist with a potential promotion to Concertmaster. For this young man, humbly born, the position signified a social advancement and enabled him to financially support his mother and several younger siblings, as his father had died in the war that same year.

Hindemith accepted the job of concertmaster in early 1916, six months ahead of the proposed date. Self-assured and confident, he recounts – “They made the audition process very difficult. First I was requested to appear before the directorship, with no indication of what I was supposed to do. The audition committee was made up of the Artistic Director and two Musical Directors; entirely without advance preparation, I played the first movements of the Brahms and Beethoven violin concertos, the entire Mendelssohn violin concerto, and Bach’s Chaconne, which was naturally a great surprise for the men. The next Thursday, they asked me to play again for them, as well as for several members of the orchestra and Amsterdam’s Wilhelm Mengelberg, conductor of the local Museum Society concerts. I performed Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Bach. It went well, but Mengelberg, who I always found to be a disagreeable, red-haired person, was absolutely against giving me the job. He said it was because I was “too young,” but I heard from other sources that he had another man in mind for the job. However, I was given some exceedingly difficult passages from Salome to sightread, and I managed them so well that he was unable to demur.” The Conservatory Exam, which Hindemith took in June of 1916, was then merely a formality.

The Frankfurt Opera House had already become one of Germany’s leading venues. In addition to the range of standard repertoire from Gluck to Wagner, novelties and world premieres were also performed. During Hindemith’s time in the orchestra, they presented the world premieres of Schreker’s Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure Hunter) and Rudi Stephans Die ersten Menschen; notable guest conductors included Hans Pfitzner with his opera Der arme Heinrich in 1916,and Richard Strauss with Der Rosenkavalier. Out of the pit, the orchestra performed regular Museumskonzerte, which had made up a large part of the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra´s workload since the 19th century. Hindemith learned the “ins and outs” of the daily life of a professional musician and drew upon the extremely diverse repertoire for inspiration and refinement of his musical taste. His experiences as an orchestral musician later shaped his sensibilities as a conductor: He saw himself on the podium as primus inter pares (first among equals) and viewed what he termed the “insatiable vanity” of celebrity conductors with great skepticism.

Hindemith spent the last year of the war serving in the military in France, and had to put his work in the orchestra on hold. Upon his return to civilian life, unharmed and conscious of his great fortune, he began to seek out new avenues of artistic expression. He resumed his work in the opera orchestra, but composing became the central aspect of his musical life. At the same time, in 1919, he made another change, which he shared with a friend: “Did you know that I hardly play the violin anymore? I’ve switched almost entirely over to viola, and only play violin in case of emergency.” This realization along with his growing love of composition prefaced his gradual departure from the orchestra. In 1923, when he signed a general contract with Schott Publishing House in Mainz, he parted ways with the orchestra on the best of terms.

Decades later, he wrote to a colleague on the first desk: “I played such a miniscule part in your musical life – and that as a violinist who for some suspicious reason changed to viola, then decided to pursue an even more obscure musical occupation – but the years in the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra, where we worked, played, cheered, groaned, and cursed, have stayed with me, never to be forgotten.”