Karl Amadeus Hartmann

Karl Amadeus Hartmann was a socialist German composer active during both world wars. He studied under a number of leading musicians, including Joseph Haas (who was a pupil of Max Reger), Anton Webern, with whom he spent time during WWII, and Hermann Scherchen, a conductor who worked closely with the Second Viennese School. Hartmann was influenced by Bach, Mahler, Stravinsky and Hindemith, and his works incorporate expressionist ideas, jazz motifs and Hungarian idioms drawn from his love of Bartók and Kodály. Known for his anti-fascist stance during both world wars, Hartmann and his family refused to subscribe to xenophobic attitudes throughout the 1920s and 30s. When war broke out, Hartmann withdrew entirely from German musical life, refusing to let his music by played and half-poisoning himself so that he was unfit for military conscription. Hartmann’s refusal to comply with the Nazis resulted in his music being denigrated as ‘atonal’ and ‘degenerate.’

A number of Hartmann’s compositions show the profound effect of the political climate. His Miserae (1933-34) was dedicated to his ‘friends…who sleep for all eternity; we do not forget you (Dachau, 1933-34),’ and condemned by the Nazis. His piano sonata entitled ‘27 April 1945’ depicted the shuffling feet of 20,000 camp prisoners from Dachau whom Hartmann watched being marched away from the approaching Allies, and his two-movement Sinfonia tragica (1941) lamented the war, which he described as “the greatest of all the crimes of tyranny.” Hartmann suppressed some of his compositions, only allowing them to be published or reworked into symphonies after 1945: his anti-war opera Des Simplicius Simplicissimus Jugend, described by the composer as “a reflection of society’s fate […] a judge of today, witness to war and murder,” was written during the 1930s and smuggled to Brussels for a premiere – it was intercepted by the Wehrmacht on route, and did not receive its public premiere until 1948.

He wrote a total of eight symphonies, many of which were politically charged: his first symphony, originally entitled Our Life: Symphonic Fragment (1938), was renamed after the war to Symphonic fragment: Attempt at a Requiem in honour of those killed. His Symphony No. 4 derives from an earlier Symphonic Concerto (1938) and reworks his 1933 String Quartet No. 1. It received its premiere from the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Hans Rosbaud in Munich and went on to inspire the work by John McCabe Variations on a Theme of Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1964), and was cited by Hans Werner Henze as an influence on his own writing.

Another of Hartmann’s politically charged compositions was Concerto Funebre, Concerto for violin and string orchestra (1939, revised in 1959), which was originally entitled Musik der Trauer – music of mourning, and protested Hitler’s occupation of Prague. Czech chorales permeate the movements, and a quotation from the German song Unsterbliche Opfer (Immortal Victims) appears in the final movement which was transcribed by Hartmann’s mentor, Scherchen, whilst he was interned in Russia during WWI. This song is also quoted in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, ‘The Year 1905,’ in reference to the Russian revolution. Concerto Funebre was smuggled to Switzerland for its premiere in St Gallen on 29 February 1940.

After the Second World War Hartmann was one of the few composers untainted by any collaboration with the Nazis, so was appointed by the Allies as Dramaturg (director) of the Bavarian State Opera. He became a key figure in helping to rebuild the musical life of West Germany, led by his flagship Musica Viva concert series which launched in November 1945 with the aim of reintroducing the German public to twentieth century repertoire previously banned by the Nazis. This series also helped to bring emerging composers such as Carl Orff, Iannis Xenakis, Olivier Messiaen and Luciano Berio to public attention. Unfortunately Hartmann’s own music has been somewhat forgotten.

By Daisy Fancourt


McCredie, A. D. (1982) Thematic Catalogue of his Works (New York: Edition Heinrichshofen)

Rickards, G. (1995) Hindemith, Hartmann and Henze (London: Phaidon Press)