Rethinking the Repertoire #3: Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Symphony no. 6

It is one of the enduring ironies of classical music that so much of today’s repertoire was written by such a small number of people. This post is the third in a multi-part Arts Fuse series dedicated to reevaluating neglected and overlooked orchestral music. Comments and suggestions are welcome at the bottom of the page or to

Karl Amadeus Hartmann

Karl Amadeus Hartmann—possibly the greatest German symphonist of whom you’ve never heard.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Today I believe the threat against civilization will never belong to the past as long as freedom is threatened somewhere…we need to be on our guard, we need to remind ourselves to remember past atrocities…we need to speak out when we recognize totalitarian governments [anywhere].

So wrote Karl Amadeus Hartmann, possibly the greatest German symphonist of whom you’ve never heard, following the end of World War II. Born in Munich in 1905, Hartmann studied with Joseph Haas at the Munich Academy in the 1920s and by the early ‘30s began to receive wide recognition as an important new musical voice. But for Hartmann, as for not a few others, the rise of the Third Reich complicated his situation.

A lifelong antifascist whose marriage to the daughter of a ball bearings manufacturer ensured he lacked for little, materially, Hartmann was fortunate to be able to engage in a self-imposed internal exile from German musical life during the Nazi years. Unlike Schoenberg, Hindemith, or Weill, he didn’t emigrate. He remained in Bavaria and, though a recluse, continued to compose fluently and prolifically. After managing to avoid conscription, Hartmann spent parts of 1941 and ‘42 studying composition with Anton Webern, a composer whose focus and mathematical precision would have a peculiar impact on his subsequent output.

Once the war ended, Hartmann was one of the only surviving antifascist musicians who Allied authorities could appoint to a leadership position. In 1945, he was named dramaturge of the Bavarian State Opera and, over the next few years, became a significant figure in the rebuilding of German musical culture. Central to Hartmann’s work was the Musica Viva concert series he organized and ran in Munich from the end of 1945 until his death in 1963. Focusing on new music banned in Germany since 1933, the Musica Viva series introduced (or reintroduced) to German musical life the works of a host of now seminal 20th-century composers, including Messiaen, Berio, Xenakis, Luigi Nono, and Hartmann’s pupils Hans Werner Henze and Bernd Alois Zimmermann.

In addition to his administrative duties, Hartmann continued to compose, often reworking music originally written during the years of the Reich. As a composer, Hartmann was something of a sponge. His earliest scores reflect a wide range of then-avant-garde influences: Futurism; Dada; German Expressionism; jazz; and the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern among them. There are also echoes of neo-classicism and the folk music studies of Bartók and Kodály, as well as a strong fascination with counterpoint, particularly the polyphonic techniques of Bach. Though such a mélange might suggest a composer lacking stylistic direction or conviction, Hartmann’s output is strikingly consistent and substantial. It was hailed as such from the start: major successes in Prague, Geneva, and Vienna (among others) marked his pre-war career, though, as the Nazi net spread, he eventually withdrew all his music from public performance.

Hartmann’s music is remarkable, too, for its relationship to current events. For instance, the Concerto funebre, for violin and string orchestra, composed in the autumn of 1939 deals with Nazi aggression, particularly the annexation of Prague in March of that year. It takes as its finale a popular song called (in German) “Unsterblich Opfer” (or “Immortal Victims”), a tune that also appears in Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony and in various Czech scores that deal with resistance to oppression. In a letter to the conductor Hermann Scherchen, Hartmann described the concerto as depicting “[t]he intellectual and spiritual hopelessness of the period.”

Similarly, Hartmann’s Symphony no. 1, which began in 1935 as a memorial to artists and intellectuals persecuted by the Nazi regime, was revised after the war as a lament for the victims of the Holocaust. Titled Versuch eines Requiems (or “Attempt at a Requiem”), the symphony draws on a handful of poems by Walt Whitman, including parts of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” (Interestingly, Hindemith set that same poem in his 1946 requiem, “For those We Love.”)

Perhaps most haunting is his Piano Sonata no. 2. Subtitled “27. April 1945,” it draws on Hartmann’s eyewitness observation of prisoners being force-marched by the SS from Dachau to avoid capture by the American army. The tread of feet—the procession marched down the street past Hartmann’s father-in-law’s Bavarian home—define the Sonata’s opening rhythms.

Making chronological sense of Hartmann’s output can be a bit tricky. To begin with, there’s a significant amount of music. He wrote operas, numerous concerti, vocal music, and a fairly large collection of chamber pieces. At the core of his output are his eight symphonies, the first dating from 1935 (though it wasn’t published until two decades later) and the last from 1962, the year before Hartmann’s untimely death from stomach cancer. Hartmann’s ambivalence toward his pre-war scores coupled with his practice of revision doesn’t help things: when he decided to publish the Versuch eines Requiems as his Symphony no. 1 in 1955, it replaced another symphony called Miserae. The latter (written as a memorial to those who died in the first Nazi internment camps) remains in his catalogue, though now as a symphonic poem; it’s easy to see how confusion might ensue among these many works in their various states of being.

Even if the development of numerous pieces proves difficult to trace, the music speaks with visceral power. This is very true of the Sixth Symphony.

Hartmann officially composed it between 1951 and ’53, though some of its materials actually date back to his L’Oeuvre, a withdrawn 1937 symphony based on the novel by Emile Zola. It’s a piece that demonstrates Hartmann’s highly personal musical language with terrific force and clarity. His writing throughout the symphony is largely diatonic but often violently dissonant, neither atonal nor serial, but something in between. Huge contrasts abound between textures, dynamics, and moods. There are thunderous climaxes but also marvelously inward, deeply expressive melodies and gestures. In a word, the Hartmann Sixth is a world unto itself. That it all unfolds in about 25 minutes makes it (and the tremendous impression it leaves) all the more remarkable.

The first of the Sixth’s two movements opens with a burbling bassoon solo that’s soon joined by percussion and English horn. Eventually, the whole orchestra becomes involved in this symphonic essay that is extraordinary for both its lyricism and emotional intensity. Though the music builds to a fearsome climax about two-thirds of the way through, the subdued, bucolic mood of the opening returns over the closing bars. True, there’s nothing terribly easy or simple about this movement—the melodic writing is disjunct, the harmonic language steeped in chromaticism, and Hartmann’s layering of rhythmic textures is, to say the least, complex—but it’s music of such urgency, such ear-catching color, and such implacable expressive force that it’s hard not to be compelled and carried away by it one way or another.

If the opening movement offered intensity via pacing and the layering of element upon smoldering element, the Sixth’s finale packs an expressive wallop married to fierce, charging energy. Hartmann called this second movement “Toccata variata,” and that’s precisely what it is: three variations (or, perhaps better, metamorphoses) of a tense fughetto theme. The first is introduced after a short brass/percussion introduction (that instrumental pairing plays an important role at the end of the movement, too). This initial theme is played by the strings and, perhaps if not for the menacing snare and bass drums plus cymbals accompanying it, might call to mind something Ernst Bloch would have written while he had a headache.

It’s contrasted by the second variata, a humorous woodwind figure that’s interrupted by stern, violent string gestures and the ever-ominous thuds of the bass drum. Far from leading to a sunlit upland, this section culminates in a violent climax for percussion, prominently led by the piano. The movement then seems to break down—figures we’ve heard before build and dissipate, ultimately, into an extended timpani solo.

After this section, the final variata commences. Here Hartmann combines the most severe elements previously heard in the movement into an apocalyptic cascade. The lighthearted wind figure is absorbed into the strings’ motive and brass and percussion snarl. The overriding affect is of the music seeming to be caught in the updraft of a relentless inferno. Eventually, underneath vertiginous string figures, the brass/percussion pairing that introduced the movement concludes it with a repeated gesture of ferocious violence. It’s a stunning close—savage, nihilistic, and terrifying. At the same time, it’s uncompromisingly honest: this is a symphony that could hardly end any other way.

So why has Hartmann’s music been languishing this half-century since his death? There are some possible, if too easy, explanations available. The fact that he died in 1963, just as the generation of Boulez, Stockhausen, and Berio were reaching their prime and, in so doing, violently rejecting anything connected to the past, certainly didn’t help. Neither did the fact that many of Germany’s leading postwar conductors (like Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm) had, to varying degrees, ties to the Nazis; Hartmann’s politically charged music was anathema to them. His champions have been, generally speaking, rather far and few between.

Happily, though, a handful of major conductors, such as Rafael Kubelík and Ferenc Fricsay and, more recently, the likes of Mariss Jansons, Ingo Metzmacher, and Leon Botstein, have taken up Hartmann’s works and committed all the major scores to disc. Yet the fact remains that the music of this most politically aware and morally astute of composers needs—and deserves—much wider currency. Yes, this is hard music drawn from the bitter experience of a life lived in troubled and unsettled times. But, so long as Hartmann’s opening quote remains relevant, his music retains its timeliness. Neither situation seems likely to change any time soon.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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