The Composer as Dissident

Karl Amadeus Hartmann and the act of bearing witness


In November 1942, the German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann traveled to Vienna from his home in Munich to spend an intense week of study with Anton Webern. The 37-year-old Hartmann was hardly a novice, but the opportunity to work with one of the masters of Viennese modernism (and a highly sought after pedagogue, at that) was too good to let pass. Hartmann could not have imagined, however, prior to his journey, just what kind of an outcast Webern had become. The Nazis had branded him a degenerate and proscribed his music, his finances were a shambles, and he was finding it increasingly difficult to compose. Indeed, with the exception of a single piece, the luminous Cantata No. 2, which he had already begun but would not complete for another year, Webern had by that point completed everything that he ever would. Upon arriving at Webern’s apartment in the suburb of Maria Enzersdorf, Hartmann discovered, much to his surprise, that he happened to be the composer’s only pupil.

The two men made for a study in contrasts—the orderly, fastidious teacher and the student with a “strong leaning towards anarchism,” as Hartmann described himself at the time. The differences extended into the realm of politics, as well. Webern was an enigma. A pacifist and a humanist, he had been a friend and aide to many Jewish musicians, although his unconditional reverence for authority and the state had led him to welcome the rise of the Third Reich, occasionally with great enthusiasm. Hartmann, meanwhile, belonged to a family of noted antifascists, and in 1933, he withdrew from public life, continuing to compose but refusing to allow his music to be played. Favorable financial circumstances allowed him to maintain this state of domestic exile, and he was consistently able to avoid conscription into the army. Hartmann may not have left Germany in protest (as the violinist Adolf Busch did), but he did become the only major composer to take up a stance of active dissidence while remaining in his homeland. It was through his music that he was best able to comment on the horrors of the age. His symphonic poem Miserae, for example, completed in 1934, was as bold an act of musical resistance as anything composed at the time; a direct response to the opening of Dachau, it bore the following dedication: “My friends, who had to die a thousand times over, who sleep for all eternity—we shall not forget you.”

Born in Munich in 1905, Hartmann attended that city’s music academy from 1924 to 1927. He later found a mentor in the conductor Hermann Scherchen, a new music evangelist who had championed the likes of Webern, Arnold Schoenberg, and Alban Berg. As a devotee of jazz and a dabbler in neoclassicism, Hartmann might have seemed temperamentally unsuited to the rigorous, systematic methods of 12-tone music. But “[w]hat overwhelmed him,” the critic Michael Steinberg has written, “was the intensity of expression in” the music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, “and the vocabulary of gestures with which those composers conveyed that intensity.”

The daily lessons with Webern were supposed to last an hour. They ended up consisting of three, even four hours of intense musical analysis, as the pair pored over both Hartmann’s and Webern’s compositions. One afternoon, after they meticulously analyzed Webern’s Piano Variations, op. 27, Hartmann was left in a state of rapture, and he wrote at once to his wife, Elisabeth. “These variations are a miracle of sound, supremely constructed,” he wrote. “If I could only learn, beyond the technique of these serial inter-weavings, how he accomplishes it, and whereupon it is based, that his music contains the divine breath!” Teacher and student plumbed the depths of other works, as well, by Beethoven, Schoenberg, Max Reger, and others. After studying Schoenberg’s one-act monodrama Erwartung, Hartmann wrote once again to his wife:

I had brought along the score and opened it, although I had fatigued Webern enough with my queries. Unexpectedly, a lengthy discussion resulted from this. In the course of it he became more and more unrestrained and excited and finally spoke so glowingly about this work that I felt like the one whom Virgil guided through heaven and hell. He began to unfold the work before me, at first pointing out a few tones which express a great undefinable feeling and reveal a marvelous architecture. He continued by showing how the work grows organically in all directions until it has gained its full stature, and I had some inkling of the creative intoxication that must have seized Schoenberg …

There are other such passages in the correspondence between Karl Amadeus and Elisabeth that confirm what kind of a deep impression Webern had made.

After a week, Hartmann returned to Munich, where he remained in voluntary exile. Not until the war was over did he reemerge as a public figure. It so happened that to the postwar Allied administrators of Germany, Hartmann was both attractive and necessary: an artist untainted by any Nazi association, a person ideally suited to help in the reconstruction of a nation’s cultural life. To this end, he inaugurated a highly regarded series of contemporary music programs, while serving in various administrative roles. He also composed—vocal music, chamber works, and eight symphonies, each one full of expressive, intense, haunting music. (When many postwar artists expressed disdain for the traditional forms, Hartmann was one of the few composers to champion the symphony without irony or reservation; Hans Werner Henze was another.) He produced most of his life’s work between 1945 and 1963, the year he died from stomach cancer, and though he destroyed many of his wartime and prewar scores, he salvaged much of that music, too, reworking and adapting it. For example, Hartmann’s Symphony No. 1 (1956), which he titled Attempt at a Requiem, originated as a cantata he’d written two decades before, with an alto soloist singing antiwar texts by Walt Whitman, in German translation. And though the final version of Hartmann’s most famous work, the Concerto funebre for violin and string orchestra, dates to the late ’50s, the work was initially conceived in 1939, its tumult and elegiac strains suggesting all the sadness and terror of that year.

Listen to Hartmann’s music, and you will hear many forebears: Reger, Berg, Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky, and Paul Hindemith, among others. What you won’t hear, perhaps surprisingly, given that intense week in Vienna in November 1942, is anything resembling the crystalline, highly distilled brand of 12-tone music that was the métier of Webern. There is, I think, one prominent, if fleeting exception.

Hartmann composed his Symphony No. 2 in 1946, calling the one-movement work Adagio, although that title is somewhat deceptive, given that the tempo fluctuates wildly over the course of its 15 or so minutes, and given that very little of this music is actually slow. The work begins with a dark and pensive line in the lower strings that leads, after only a few bars, to the most remarkable chord, with the harp, celesta, vibraphone, chimes, and piano all adding sonorous luster. The effect is magical—a magnificent twinkling in the vast celestial night. It’s also an unmistakably Webern-esque gesture—the timbres, the brevity of the moment, the sense of a whole panorama suggested by a single chord of 10 notes. Once the vibrations of that chord cease, the cellos and double basses resume their initial melodic inquiry, but sure enough, the momentum of the line leads to yet another one of those Webern-like chords: a scintillating, tremulous, beautiful sound.

That one chord, which appears again toward the end of the piece, is the symphony’s only overt nod to Webern. The work inhabits less rarified, earthier, expressionist terrain. There’s a palpable sense of terror throughout—consider the harrowing passage in the strings in which the line plummets from the upper register to the bottom, from very loud to incredibly soft, a freakish, harrowing plunge. Out of the silence that ensues something wondrous emerges: a sustained melody played by, of all instruments, the baritone saxophone, a folk-like dirge that sounds almost primeval, a soulful, solitary voice lamenting its fate, calling out to us from a distant land, a distant time. It’s not a coincidence, I think, that the saxophone, one of the main instruments of jazz, an art form denigrated and deemed to be degenerate by the Nazis, is assigned this bardic role, entrusted with the symphony’s principal melody, from which everything else in the work—passages at once introspective and brash, keening and expansive, seductive and harsh—seems to emerge.

The melody, taken up by other instruments, undergoes all sorts of ingenious transformations as the symphony moves from episode to episode, gaining in power, intensity, and menace. And though Hartmann exploits a version of sonata form here, the structure is well disguised. The prevailing impression, rather, is one of improvisation. You might notice similarities with Schoenberg (in the expressionist musical vocabulary), or Sergei Prokofiev (in the relentless, angular string writing), or Benjamin Britten (in one passage reminiscent of that composer’s Violin Concerto), or Béla Bartók (in the blustery whirlwinds of sound and in the egalitarian distribution of virtuosic material to so many sections of the orchestra), or Mahler (in the striking moments of repose). Hartmann, in other words, may have luxuriated in the presence of Webern, but his own idiom, rooted as it was in tonal harmony and the gestures of the early 20th century, steers well clear of the avant-garde.

As I mentioned, that shimmering Webern-like chord does appear once more toward the symphony’s end. It follows a dizzying, densely contrapuntal musical surge, a steady acceleration culminating in a frightening climax. We also hear another plummeting passage in the strings—and once again, we are plunging into the dark unknown. The work’s introductory material returns in the closing bars, and thus does Hartmann create a kind of symmetry. But this symmetry does not communicate closure or relief. Many symphonies end, like this one does, with a dying away of the music line. The end of Mahler’s Ninth (or Mahler’s Third, or Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, for that matter) always fixes me in a state of still and tranquil bliss. Hartmann’s quiet ending does nothing of the sort. It leaves me unsettled, anxious, uneasy. Perhaps it’s because I cannot divorce this funereal, disconsolate work from the events that surely informed it. This was Hartmann’s duty and his burden: to convey in sound the conscience of a lonely soul. It is a sensibility that informs so much of the music that he wrote. How fitting that his final composition, the Gesang-Szene for baritone and orchestra, based on a poem by the French dramatist Jean Giraudoux, should contain the following lines in its concluding pages:

Es ist ein Ende der Welt! Das Traurigste von allen …
It is the end of the world! The saddest thing of all …

Listen to Rafael Kubelik lead the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Symphony No. 2 (Adagio):

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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