Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Gesangsszene

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert Truth or Truffles, performed on Feb 10, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann is a shining example of the composer as a principled dissident. As Michael H. Kater has observed, “we must continue to accept the hitherto reported version that Hartmann was opposed to the Hitler regime and, together with his family, made it through the Third Reich without having to sell his soul.” Indeed, Hartmann evidenced considerable courage during the years of his “inner resistance” to National Socialism. In 1935, for example, Hartmann attended the festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Prague, at which the Socialist conductor Hermann Scherchen, whom Nazi cultural bureaucrats held in grave suspicion, conducted his overtly political symphonic poem Miserae. Even more daring was the dedication of this score, which reads “To My Friends . . . Dachau 1933/34.” Had the officials of the Reichsmusikkammer discovered this inscription, it would have spelled a virtual death warrant for the composer. As it was, Hartmann’s wife has testified that the German authorities disapproved of his attendance at the festival, which was unauthorized. During the war, Hartmann and his wife, Elisabeth, listened to the BBC, nervous lest their little boy, Richard, might innocently divulge his parent’s resistance to the Reich.

During the Nazi regime, Hartmann paid a steep professional price, as he refused to participate in musical activities in Germany and Austria, so that his music was neither published nor performed. (Indeed, the performance of Miserae was possible only because it was performed in Prague.) Collaborationist colleagues such as Carl Orff and Werner Egk shunned him. In the autumn of 1942, Hartmann studied for a few weeks in Vienna with Anton Webern, but these lessons ended on a sour note due to Webern’s ardent admiration for Hitler. In November, Hartmann sent a telegraph to his wife: “Alien to me. No contact with Webern.” Of this traumatic episode, Elisabeth Hartmann later observed, “Hartmann could not understand the world any more.”

After the war, Hartmann was one of the very few German musicians of stature to have remained uncontaminated by collusion with the Nazis, and was therefore tapped by American authorities as the logical person to reconstruct German musical culture in Bavaria. In the process of organizing concerts in the shattered city of Munich, Hartmann made a point of challenging any lingering revenants of Nazi musical ideology by programming the music of Jewish composers such as Milhaud, Toch, and Copland, whose music had been banned by the Nazis. To this end, he founded Musica Viva, an organization devoted to programming an eclectic and enlightened selection of contemporary music. Not for Hartmann the aloof stance of the postwar serial composers of Darmstadt. In a recent article in The Musical Quarterly, Alexander Rothe has noted, “Hartmann was keenly aware of the dangers involved in an avant-garde movement that was increasingly divorced from other art forms and that denied its cultural inheritance and context within a larger political and social environment.” In other words, Hartmann came down on the side of continuing engagement with a soiled world; having defied a real dictatorship, he was not about to be cowed by aesthetic tyranny.

A moving example of Hartmann’s determination to use music to comment broadly on politics and culture is his final score, the Gesangsszene (“Song Scene”) for baritone and orchestra. Begun in 1961, at the height of the Cold War when nuclear annihilation was a real and present danger, this score was left unfinished at the composer’s death two years later; it was premiered on September 12, 1964 by the great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for whom the work was written. For his text, Hartmann chose a German translation of a literally apocalyptic passage from Sodome et Gomorrha, the last play by the French author Jean Giraudoux (1882–1944). Produced during the German occupation of France in 1943, Giraudoux’s Sodome et Gomorrha takes as its subject the impossibility of love in the midst of an endemic societal corruption that leads inexorably to destruction. From the achingly vulnerable opening flute solo, Hartmann traces the agony of a text that speaks of “lice on the head of bald millionaires” and the fiery destruction of the proud and technologically advanced Cities of the Plain: “Es ist ein Ende der Welt!” As the score nears its conclusion, the music suddenly ceases at the moment when death snatched the pen from Hartmann’s hand, so that the last two lines of the text are spoken unaccompanied: the most devastating and true ending possible for this harrowing score.

©2012 Byron Adams
Dr. Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside, and his music has been performed across Europe and the U.S.