Symphony No. 7 (1958)

By Bernard Jacobson

Written for the concert The Composter’s Advocate: Serge Koussevitzky, performed on March 17, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Call a boy “Amadeus,” and you lay on him the burden of rather high expectations. From the vantage-point of the late 1990s, it is hard to remember how well the German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) seemed, around forty years ago when this symphony was written, to have lived up to the luster of his middle name. The generally held view in this writer’s native England, and probably elsewhere around the musical world, was that the two great hopes of post-World-War-II German music were Hartmann and his younger compatriot Giselher Klebe. To the average music-lover of 1999, however, Klebe is little more than a name, if that; Hartmann, who died a few years later at the age of 58, is accorded few performances, at least outside his native country; and Hans Werner Henze, who was born in 1926 and had only just hit his creative stride at the time we are looking back on, has–even while living most of his life in Italy–assumed the mantle of German musical leadership, along with Karlheinz Stockhausen (two years his junior), who enjoys the favor of the more avant-gardistically inclined.

Yet it is a mistake to underrate Hartmann’s gifts or to ignore his achievement. In the generation between Hindemith and Henze, no other German composer rivaled him in terms of artistic seriousness, communicative intensity, and technical mastery. As Josef Häusler justly observes in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, his is “a personally expressive music, growing from natural passion, capable of both meditative depth and vital exuberance,” and “it is in his revitalization of the Austro-German symphonic tradition that Hartmann’s significance rests.” To achieve this was a challenge that cost Hartmann years of experimentation. Among the first six of his eight symphonies, all but one–Symphony No. 2 (Adagio for orchestra) of 1946–went through several forms before attaining their definitive versions. No. 1, the Essay for a Requiem (including settings for alto voice of Whitman texts), and Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6 reached this final stage between 1947 and 1953, but all of them incorporated recompositions of music from earlier works, in some cases dating back as far as 1932.

By the time he was commissioned by the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress to write a symphony in memory of the Russian-born conductor and his wife Natalie, Hartmann seems to have entered on a more confident phase in his handling of the symphonic medium. He was still not a facile worker. But the Seventh Symphony, which resulted from this commission, was composed between November 1956 and the end of 1958, and does not drawn in any obvious way from his previous works, and the same is true of No. 8, which followed between 1960 and 1962. Like Nos. 3, 6, and 8, Symphony No. 7 is laid out broadly in two main sections. Part I is headed Introduction and Ricercare, and Part II comprises an expansive Adagio mesto slow movement and a Finale: Scherzoso virtuoso.

To a large degree the Seventh Symphony may be regarded as a summation and synthesis of the various strands in Hartmann’s musical language and style. The “meditative depth and vital exuberance” instanced by Häusler are both found here in a highly developed form. In technical terms, moreover, the work brings to a new level of equilibrium the composer’s fruitful blend of classical developmental techniques with baroque thematic and textural elements and with a profundity and intensity of expression that have their roots in the complementary if widely contrasted emotional worlds of Bruckner and Mahler.

For American listeners, the symphonies of William Schuman may well suggest themselves as a parallel that is at once akin to Hartmann’s work and instructively different. Superficially, at least, a symphony like Schuman’s Third, with its organization into “Part I: Passacaglia and Fugue” and “Part II: Chorale and Toccata” presents an obvious affinity with Hartmann’s predilections and methods. On the other hand, the individual movements in a Schuman symphony are laid out internally in a way that contrasts illuminatingly with Hartmann’s forms.

Generalization is such matters is dangerous. But whereas the typical European symphonist’s inward-trained emotional vision seems to be manifested in the European tendency to segregate contrasting tempos within their own separate movements, the American approach is more aggressive and more outward-looking. Americans–as their politicians are always learning to their cost–are reluctant to acknowledge a firm distinction between the private and the public man; and American composers, analogously, are apt in the midst of the most intense self-communings to break out in boisterous episodes of physical activity. Schuman rarely wrote a slow movement that did not incorporate expanses of decidedly quicker music. Hartmann, for all the breadth of contrast that lends expressive perspective to the three main movement of the Seventh Symphony, was content to confine each movement within a shifting but essentially unified range of tempos and pulses.

While it is possible, then, to extract from the score of Part I a long list of the sections that make up the Ricercare, proceeding from Fugato (I) by way of Concerto (I), Finale per tutti (I), Coda (I), Fugato (II), Concerto (II), and Finale per tutti (II) to Coda (II), all of these sections are essentially fast. Similarly, though the Adagio mesto accelerates at various points in the course of its spacious lyrical explorations, the faster sections are heard as changing facets of a fundamental pulse, not as radical dislocations of that pulse. Throughout the symphony, this relatively clear delineation of boundaries between slow and fast enhances the sheer cumulative effect of the music. Thus the richly impassioned romantic rhetoric of the Adagio mesto succeeds in subjecting the expressive vein of the Fourth Symphony’s outer slow movements to a new refinement and discipline of structure; on each side of this emotional core, the exhilarating, skittering counterpoint of the Ricercare, and the even more vertiginous élan of the Scherzoso virtuoso conclusion, correspondingly extend the reach of ideas from the more extrovert moments of Hartmann’s earlier symphonies; and the resultant whole constitutes perhaps the most impressive and coherent cross-fertilization he ever achieved between the meditative and the exuberant sides of his artistic personality, between depth and vitality.