Symphonic Hymns (1942)

By Andrew D. McCredie, Professor Adjunctus, Monash University, Melbourne

Written for the concert From the Last Century, performed on Oct 10, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In the course of over three decades since the death of Karl Amadeus Hartmann in 1963, the canons of the musical history of the twentieth century would be radically revised and extended through knowledge that had been revealed on the cultural conditions that prevailed in the middle third of the century. This was the period that subsumed the emergence of the various totalitarian regimes in Central and Southern Europe, of the holocaust and Second World War, of the oppressive political fundamentalism that developed in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, the dissolution of traditional hegemonies and empires, and of the emergence of new divisions based upon unequal constellations of wealth and resources. For the music historian the resulting new fields of investigation included the state of musical life, creation and performance in totalitarian societies, the musics in emigration, exile and internment as well as the work of those musicians, who, unable to emigrate, were compelled to subsist within communities of a sociopolitical ethos totally alien to their own, and to which they were spiritually opposed.

The German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963), also famed as the visionary pioneering instigator of the Munich “Musica Viva” Concerts (1945-1963), was exemplary of the last of these categories. In his posthumously published series of essays Kleine Schriften (Mainz, 1965), Hartmann could already identify himself as a creator of a Bekenntnismusik, a music of an ideological, political, social and spiritual commitment. At that time, the self-recognition of Hartmann as a Bekenntniskunstler was identified with that central body of his oeuvre, the already published and posthumously recovered works dating from the years 1933-1945, including the postwar revisions of these. Since 1980, however, with the publication of his very earliest works predating 1933, and studies of the text and literary sources of Gesannsszene nach Giraudoux’s Sodom und Gomorrha, a more fully global profile has emerged (as was also in the case of Shostakovich or Allan Pettersson) of a broader humanitarian commitment and social criticism that applied to conditions both before and after the years of the Holocaust. The early works included Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks), a series of five Musikalische Kammerspiele (1929-1932), the Cantata after texts by Johannes Becher (1891-1958) and Karl Marx (1928), which identifies a commitment to the left-wing Marxist socialism of the day with its critical attacks on capitalism, mass productive industrialism, commercialism, worker exploitation, and cultural materialism, often using devices such as jazz and the instrumentalisms associated with the modes of American popular music of the twenties. In the Gesangszene nach Giraudoux, Hartmann’s concerns are with the terminal fragility of empires and hegemonies, the unequal distribution of world resources and wealth, the abuses of science and technology, and the pollution of both the physical and spiritual environments—thereby taking up universalist themes, many of them first envisaged in plans for a never-to-be-completed oratorio on human rights’ declarations, as outlined in correspondence with Valentin Gitermann (April 30, May 3 and 14, June 3, 1950) on the French Revolutionary Les Droits du Citoyen (1791) in connection with the United Nations proclamation of human rights.

Moreover, Hartmann could enunciate the basis of an aesthetics of a music commitment, when in an introductory essay to his seventh symphony (1957/1959) he stated:

“I seek no cold-blooded cerebral artifice but rather a totally experienced work of art with a message. Such a work needs not to be understood in terms of its structural and technical details, but rather for its spiritual message, one that is not always automatically communicated in words. The work expresses a message of such universality, that verbal for conceptual meanings scaffoldings seem inadequate appearing, by contrast, to be both blind and deaf to its meaning.”

This view represented Hartmann’s position during the mid-1950s— at a stage when he sought to propagate his commitment less overtly than under the provocations of over a decade earlier. It was during the postwar era that he either revised or withdrew many of the scores that had been composed between 1933 and 1945, favoring his new stylistic focuses in the concertos, the seventh and eighth symphonies. In these earlier works, including the Symphonic Hymns, his abhorrence and repudiation of developments after 1933 found its fullest expression. In the Kleine Schriften he wrote:

“Then came the year 1933. In that year I realized it would be necessary to write down a confession, not out of trepidation or anxiety before that power, but rather as a confrontation. I felt assured that freedom would triumph, even if it involved our total destruction—that is what I believed then.”

To facilitate his expression of such abhorrence and spiritual defiance to the Third Reich, Hartmann chose a number of verbal and musical devices and techniques. To the verbal means were the choices of titles or subtitles (Concerto FunebreMusik der Trauer, Sinfonia Tragica; Miserae; Klagegesang), texts (Walt Whitman, Andreas Gryphius, Grimmelschausen) or dedications (Miserae to the early victims of Dachau), or of the overture China kämpf to Chinese students rebel Den Shi-Chua and his Soviet biographer Sergei Tretiakov), the use of historical analogy in texts (the opera Simplicius Simplicissimus), and of provocative textual citation.

His choice of the methods of musical execution, moreover, reinforced this verbal stand. Thus, the musical choices selected by him for direct, indirect or veiled citation included those of Jewish incantation and folksong, revolutionary songs, work songs, chorales and propaganda songs (such as the, “International” in the recently recovered finale for the suite Vita Nova of 1943) or musical quotations or models from the works of other composers (Stravinsky, Bart6k, Prokofiev, Webern) or techniques condemned by Nazi aesthetics as entartete (degenerate).

The Symphonic Hymns (1942/43) is the second in a trilogy of orchestral works entitled Sinfoniae Dramticae that bridge the years between the creation of the Sinfonia Tragica (1940/41) and Klagegesang (1944/45). This trilogy comprised the sequence of works Symphonische Ouverture “China” (as originally titled), Symphonische Hymnen, and the Symphonic Suite with Narration Vita Nova. Of this trilogy, China kämpf was withdrawn after its first performance in 1947 at Darmstadt, rededicated under the title Symphonische Ouverture to Antonio Mingotti in 1962, under which title it was posthumously revived in 1975 and published.

Similarly, the composer withdrew the suite Vita Nova; he soon revised and published the work’s Adagio movement as his single-movement Second Symphony. Its movement with narrator appears to be no longer extant, while the Finale was posthumously published in 1986.

Composition of the Symphoniche Hymnen clearly dates—according to the composer’s dates marked at the ends of each movement—from 1942 and 1943; the thirteen months between March 8, 1942 and April 18, 1943 also suggesting a period of final gestation and revisions before the later of the two datings. Rather than adopting the three-movement slow-fast-slow pattern favored by Hartmann in other works of this period, the three movements yield a sequence Fantasia (an Introduction with theme and variations), Adagio, and Toccata (Allegro risoluto). The first movement appears to foreshadow a compositional process in the later Klagegesang in which a series of contrasting movements or movement segments alternate with a short thematically-recurrent Ritornello—these new movement segments in the first movement of the Symphonic Hymns being variations of an originally specifically stated theme. This movement concludes with a Coda for five solo strings, which an interesting and most original conclusion to this movement. The Adagio highlights two contrasting solos for oboe and English horn, the latter suggesting folklorist and populist origins, before yielding to a more animated and luxuriantly scored middle section that culminates in a typically Hartmannian “high point,” before relaxing into a compressed varied reprise of its opening. It is, however, the Toccata finale that illuminates the work’s title Symphonic Hymn. Its opening theme (bars 2, 3 and 4) offers the rhythmic shape, but in diminution, and disguised by a variant intervallic progression of first three measures of the Habsburg “Kaiserhymn” used in the slow movement of Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 76, No. 3. This movement employs the lively duple meter also for the recently recovered finale of Vita Nova. Its ambiance, extended orchestra dimensions (nowhere else exceeded by this composer), sectional and thematic clarity and lucidity, coupled with luxuriant instrumentation, all make the Symphonic Hymns one of Hartmann’s most engaging early scores.