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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Karl Amadeus Hartmann - One Good German

By Norman Lebrecht / January 27, 2005


One spring evening 60 years ago, a German composer looked out of the window of his father-in-law’s villa overlooking the Starnberg Lake and saw a column of 20,000 Dachau prisoners being force-marched by the SS, away from the approaching Allied armies. Next morning the line was still being whipped along the road.

‘Unending was the stream, unending the misery, unending the sorrow,’ wrote Karl Amadeus Hartmann at the head of a fresh sheet of paper on which, over the following tense days, he composed a piano sonata titled ’27 April 1945’, its opening rhythm dictated by the shuffling feet of the final victims of Nazi tyranny.

Hartmann is a figure unique in German music - the only composer to stay put and defy Hitler for the duration of the Third Reich. ‘My brothers and I managed to keep our distance from the army, the militia, labour battalions and other such pleasures,’ he wrily reported. ‘We are known as one of the few truly antifascist families in Munich.’

Their dissidence originated in the First World War when, as cultured Francophiles, the Hartmanns refused to submit to xenophobic hysteria. By 1932, one brother was distributing anti-Hitler pamphlets while the youngest, Karl, was playing jazz. When Hitler came to power, Karl wrote asymphonic work, Miserae, and dedicated it to ‘my friends … who sleep for all eternity; we do not forget you (Dachau, 1933-34)’.

Its premiere in Prague provoked a diplomatic protest and Hartmann was mildly harassed by Nazi bureaucrats. He resolved never to let a note of his music be played under Nazi rule. His wife, with whom I briefly corresponded, insisted that he was a passive resistant who would never have taken risks with her life or their son’s, but others told me that he actively helped fugitives flee the country across unguarded Alpine passes.

His centenary is being marked this year by 150 performances in central Europe and very few in English-speaking countries - which says more about our linguistic arrogance and isolationism than about the quality of Hartmann’s music, which is variable but by no means negligible. It is, in fact, a vital link in the symphonic chain from pre-Hitler modernism to post-War abstraction, a bridge from Paul Hindemith to Hans-Werner Henze. ‘Without Karl Amadeus Hartmann,’ Henze once said to me, ‘there could have been no Henze.’

The most performed of Hartmann’s works (and that’s not saying much) is a concerto for violin and string orchestra written in 1939 to protest Hitler’s occupation of Prague. Quoting Czech chorales in much the same way that Alban Berg quotes Bach, Hartmann was striving at a form of political commentary that Shostakovich, under similar pressures, was perfecting in Stalin’s Russia. His Concerto Funebre was smuggled out to Switzerland for its premiere; an anti-War opera, Simplus Simplicissimus, was sent to Brussels but the Wehrmacht got there first.

Having half-poisoned himself to avoid military conscription, Hartmann went to study with the outlawed serialist Anton von Webern, who introduced mathematical rigour to his technique. Married to the daughter of a ball bearings manufacturer who grew wealthier in war, Hartmann never went hungry. He wrote symphonic movements and shoved them in a drawer. Unlike the rest of Munich which pretended that Dachau did not exist at the end of a suburban train line, he held the concentration camp in mind first and last in his wartime works.

When the Allies conquered Munich, Hartman organised a musica viva series of contemporary concerts, reintroducing audiences to Schoenberg and Stravinskyand generally trying to wrest the art away from Nazi servitude. He emptied his drawer into six symphonies, which suffered inevitably in comparison with the masterpieces he was programming for musica viva. When he ran out of war material, he wrote a freshly-conceived seventh symphony, which was premiered by Eugene Ormandy, and an eighth which Rafael Kubelik conducted. His music was finding influential support when he fell sick with stomach cancer and died, aged 58, in December 1963.

Powerful conductors with a Nazi past – Karajan, Bo*hm – eliminated his work from concert circulation. The avantgardists Boulez and Stockhausen rejected Hartmann’s symphonic traditionalism and accelerated his obliteration.

Yet the work is serious and often substantial. Last week in Munich, Mariss Jansons conducted an impressive account of Hartmann’s valedictory Hymn Scene for baritone and orchestra, originally sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The bustling Hamburg conductor Ingo Metzmacher has recorded the complete symphonies for EMI and will perform the third with the London Philharmonic in March (apparently the only UK recognition of the Hartmann centenary unless the Proms controller Nick Kenyon and the Edinburgh McMaestro have something special up their sleeves).

Judge for yourselves if Hartmann has been given shorter shrift than less worthy centenarians. What intrigues me is why Hartmann, alone of all German composers, resisted the Nazis, even when his close friends were being dragged off to Dachau, a terrible shock that inspired his contemplative fourth symphony.

Roman Catholic by confession, Hartmann was not motivated by religious faith, especially in a time and place where his faith served the state. Nor was he driven by political creed or moral code. Art, he wrote, ‘does not take orders.’ It was in defence of artistic autonomy that he became a hero.

But why was he the only one? Why did no other composer, from the internationally renowned Richard Strauss to the phenomenally successful Carl Orff, lift so much as a baton to help save a few lives and make the word aware of the murder of innocents on their nice clean Bavarian doorsteps, just a few stops up the line at Dachau? Strauss had his excuses – he was anxious to protect a Jewish daughter-in-law and half-Jewish grandson. Orff went into a panic-stricken frenzy of letter burning when a musical acquaintance, the philosophy professor Kurt Huber, was executed in 1943 as a leader of the White Rose underground which published six anti-Hitler leaflets.

The best that can be said of these celebrated composers is that they turned a blind eye to Dachau. The worst is that German music as an art was a willing instrument of the Holocaust and would bear the consequences of its complicity for all eternity were it not for the noble exception of one fine man, just one – Karl Amadeus Hartmann.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001