The Composer’s Voice: Influence and Originality in Hartmann and Mahler

By Leon Botstein

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

Karl Amadeus Hartmann was, as Andrew D. McCredie, the leading Hartmann scholar, has pointed out, an artist of conscience. The central question for his generation–the crucible of its creative work–was the rise of fascism and the Second World War. Hartmann was a Bavarian and born a Catholic. He was the descendant of generations of artisans, artists, and teachers. In contrast to most of his contemporaries, he was unable to come to terms with the horrors of Nazism. Emigration was unreasonable and collaboration impossible. As a result, in his formative years, he found himself driven to silence.

It should therefore come as no surprise that a large portion of the music that appeared publicly after 1950 which made his reputation drew from music written during the 1930s and 1940s. Before 1945, Hartmann could find practically no acceptable venue for expression. Writing music in opposition to the world around oneself with no opportunity for performance and the ever-present possibility that one could put oneself in jeopardy present a psychologically terrifying reality. Hartmann was one of the very few German artists and intellectuals who maintained a truly honorable “inner emigration.” He stayed in obscurity, out of the public eye. At the same time, he composed arguably some of this century’s greatest, most intense music. What characterizes his symphonic work is not only an extraordinary command of the craft of composition, but a thorough commitment to the complex and subtle elaboration of musical ideas. Hartmann’s music, from the first note to the last, reveals an emotional power and a moral honesty. Human decency and talent are transfigured into a distinctive musical voice. Most of his works from the 1930s and 1940s function simultaneously on a formal and programmatic plane. In the formalist matrix, the pain of recognition around the composer is audible throughout. Hartmann’s heroism and achievement are all the more remarkable because his music affects us decades after the political events have passed into history.

The core of Hartmann’s accomplishment is his eight symphonies. In this sense, his work can be compared to that of Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich was another leading composer caught in the web of dictatorship and terror, but he remained a public figure and sought to come to some accommodation with the world around him, despite its evident evil. The cost to Shostakovich was profound and gave rise to elements of satire, banality, crudeness, irony, and bitterness. Hartmnann’s retreat from the world lent his music a pervasive integrity and the aspect of suffering. I believe that Hartmann is a symphonist equal in stature to Shostakovich, and one of the few great symphonic composers of this century.

The First Symphony is typical of Hartmann’s struggle to reconcile music with life. Much of it was written during the 1930’s. Hartmann took his text from the American poet Walt Whitman, who himself was profoundly influenced by the American Civil War. In Hartmann’s First Symphony, then, we have a German composer setting the words of the poet of democracy and the enemy of his own country. But Whitman’s significance for twentieth-century musical modernism was not solely political. By the 1920s, Whitman had become a favorite of the German avant-garde. In 1913, the leading journal of turn-of-the-century musical modernism, Der Merker, published aphorisms by Walt Whitman. Hartmann’s choice was therefore also a statement about the necessity to continue the modernist idiom in music which came into being during the first three decades of this century.

During the 1930s, the Nazi Party spearheaded an aesthetic turn away from modernism toward a nostalgic conservative neoromanticism. Music and text in the First Symphony set the stage for Hartmann to write a symphonic essay that integrated political resistance in the form of aesthetic experimentalism. Although, as Robert Maxham points out, Hartmann was deeply influenced by Bruckner, the First Symphony reminds one also of the Mahler of the Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Symphonies. Hartmann’s musical language is an eclectic but thoroughly original achievement. Arnold Schoenberg was reputed to have said to an aspiring composer that no one should write music unless it sounded as if it had to be. There is this aura of necessity in all of Hartmann’s scores. lie never lapses into sentimentality or self-indulgence. Hartmann was severely self-critical and as a result, the final versions of his music are tightly structured and unerringly well-paced, with magical and terrifying timbres.

The Sixth Symphony, like the First, was derived from another case of the symbiosis of the literary and the musical. This time Hartmann chose Emile Zola, who like Whitman had become a symbol of a humanistic social conscience. Zola, more particularly, was the most celebrated opponent of political anti-Semitism owing to his courageous role in the Dreyfus affair. Once again Hartmann’s anti-German feelings are evident in his use of a French writer. His legendary penchant for revision and his difficulty in letting works go may (as in the case of the Sixth Symphony) indeed constitute a final piece of evidence regarding the nobility of his spirit. finlike other composers in the post-World War II era, Hartmann never exploited the public recognition of the war’s atrocities. He never conveniently used the pain and suffering of the past in order to spur his own muse. A listener today will find access to the aesthetic and the emotional in Hartmann’s music without any awareness of the specific historical circumstances which occasioned the music’s composition. It is to be hoped that the music of Hartmann–which is entirely neglected in the American concert hall–will be given its due not only because it reminds us that it is possible to sustain human decency without martyrdom even in the worst of times, but because it is great music that is accessible upon first hearing, which does not lose its magic after repeated exposure.

Today’s listener will have already anticipated many of the links between Hartmann and Mahler. To refer once again to the insights of Schoenberg, Mahler’s integrity as an artist and friend was what made him the idol of a younger generation of musicians, composers, and writers. Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, three of the most influential twentieth-century composers, saw in Mahler their most significant predecessor. As the distinguished Mahler scholar, Edward R. Reilly, has written, Das klagende Lied held a special place in Mahler’s life. It was his first foray into large-scale composition, and its rejection led to a period of self-doubt. Like Hartmann, Mahler reworked and reutilized his own music. The material of his songs appear inure than once in his symphonies. In Hartmann’s case, the thematic material in the symphonies can be found in other works. It was with a sense of triumph and irony that Mahler chose the revised version of his early work with which to make his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1901, after he had been elected by that orchestra as its conductor. If Hartmann, who was no outsider in his own community in terms of nationality and religion, chose as literary inspiration the writings of foreigners, Mahler, a Jew from Bohemia, chose the quintessential nineteenth-century source of German cultural authenticity–the fairy tales of Grimm–with which to appear in triumph before the Viennese audience. In one clear sense, Mahler, in this work, provided a model for Hartmann. As in Hartmann’s First Symphony, text and the procedure of symphonic writing work together. Both composers believed deeply in the ethical and in oral power of art. If neither of them succeeded in writing music that encouraged more goodness and perhaps even tolerance in listeners in their own time, they nevertheless wrote music which to this day retains the potential to inspire its listener to reflect and to resist evil. The achievement of both of these composers bears witness to the resiliency of the aesthetic imagination in this century.