Paul Hindemith's song cycle Das Marienleben (The Life of Mary; poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke) is a complicated subject, primarily because there are two distinct versions of the work. Although it is not uncommon for works to undergo revision -- indeed, many of the most famous pieces in the classical repertory have existed in more than one version -- Das Marienleben is a special case, because each of the two versions has been vehemently championed as "authentic."
Hindemith began revising Das Marienleben almost immediately following its premiere, the success of which caught the composer quite off guard despite his own awareness of the work's importance ("That was not easy to do," he commented soon after completing it). He quickly set about correcting what he perceived to be technical weaknesses in the score.
In 1936 Hindemith reopened the score and began stylistic revisions, partly in preparation for the orchestration of four of the songs. These revisions also were intended to serve as a practical preamble to the first volume of his treatise The Craft of Musical Composition, Theoretical Part (1937). Hindemith continued his extensive reworking of the score through his American years and in 1948 published the new version, along with an introductory essay explaining the reasons for his unusual artistic act.
In both versions, Das Marienleben is divided into four parts, the first part dealing with the experience of Mary prior to the birth of Christ, the second leading from "Joseph's Suspicion" through Christ's birth and the flight into Egypt, the third depicting Christ's passion (and Mary's own experience of it), and the last part meditating on the death of Mary.
In the original version, Hindemith's musical language is fresh and impulsive, often expressionistic and sometimes atonal. The writing for soprano voice, while demanding and occasionally ungrateful, is melodically inventive; the accompaniment is sensitive and idiomatic to the piano, without the technical facileness that sometimes intruded into Hindemith's later work. The revised version smoothes out many of the rhythmic asymmetries of the earlier version, and imposes a harmonic system in which keys stand for characters and ideas (B for Mary, E for Christ, E flat for purity, etc.), an idea more in keeping with Hindemith's latter-day musical philosophies, but quite unlikely to be perceived by the average listener. The most aggressive changes to the score involved entirely new settings of certain portions, such as "The Annunciation." Throughout both versions of the Marienleben cycle, Hindemith employs Baroque formal designs, including a chorale fantasy, a theme and variations, and a ground bass.
Both versions have their felicities and weaknesses. The biggest problem with the revision is the great difference in the composer's style between the years of original composition and the final revision; these differences in aesthetic and craft are apparent and unresolved in the score. Among those who championed the earlier version were Arnold Schoenberg, who expressed his preference when the revision was first published, and Glenn Gould, who made a well-reasoned plea for the 1923 edition in his persuasive essay, "A Tale of Two Marienlebens."