Symphony No. 1 (1948), Symphony No. 6 (1953)

By Robert Maxham, Executive Director, Ames International Orchestra Festival

Written for the concert The Composer’s Voice, performed on Oct 6, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

As single-minded as Karl Amadeus Hartmann was as an opponent of Nazism, he was equally multiform as a composer. When, as a seasoned craftsman of 36, he studied with Anton Webern, he absorbed little more than the master’s quasi-mystical reverence for exquisite, isolated musical moments. He had, after all, come to Webern having already gathered the raw materials for his personal fusion of early modern styles and pre-modern forms: rhythms as demonically driving–and woodwind sonorities as pungent–as Stravinsky’s, ultrasonic string passages as expressionistic as Berg’s, Sprechstimme as haunting as Schoenberg’s, combinations of strings and percussion as eerie as Bartók’s, fugues as austerely boisterous as Hindemith’s, meters as fluid as Blacher’s, and percussion batteries as daunting as Orff’s. Writing in his highly chromatic, stylistically polyglot idiolect, he could make clusters of dissonances sound uncannily consonant, and simple triads, suprisingly dissonant. And he bound everything together with a dramatic logic so compelling that even the wildest improvisatory passages appeared to drive inevitably to their characteristic, overwhelming climaxes. As Martin Luther said of Josquin four centuries earlier, Hartmann was master of the notes, making them do as he willed rather than following their lead.

This unstable symbiosis of fertility and discipline resulted in a Brucknerian inability to let works go forth into the world in a finished form–it was clearly no accident that Hartmann wrote an article on Bruckner’s compositional neuroses. Hartmann’s First and Sixth Symphonies (1948 and 1951-53) were, in fact, reincarnations of earlier works from the 1930s, when he was oppressed by a sense of civilization’s impending doom. The subject of the first symphony (Requiem) foreshadowed the somber meditations of the Concerto funebre for violin, written in 1939 and also revised later. The Symphony’s five symmetrical movements recall similar Bartókian structural patterns, and the instrumentally framed poetry (from Walt Whitman) assigned to alto in the four outer movements–Sprechstimme in the Fifth–prefigure, and overshadow in their power, counterparts in Gorecki’s popular Third Symphony. The Sixth Symphony, a searing introductory movement followed by a Toccata variata–a series of three interrelated fugues that crackle to a peroration of irresistible virtuosity and power–seems more than occasionally denser and less translucent than the first symphony. Yet it is based on a composition (L’oeuvre, 1938, after the novel by Emile Zola) only two years later than the fragments reworked into the First Symphony–fragments that, like so many others, Hartmann renounced or destroyed at the end of the Second World War.

The cogency and power of these two works, as of his entire output, leave no doubt that Hartmann was missing the symphonic link, spiritually if not stylistically, between Gustav Mahler and Hans Werner Henze. In little more than an hour, they convey the depth and integrity of a composer whose very life, no less than his explicit artistic credo, resonated plangently to the triadic harmony of truth, joy, and sorrow.