Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Symphony No. 1, Essay for a Requiem

Notes by TŌN percussionist Felix Ko

The Composer
Karl Amadeus Hartmann was born in Munich on August 2, 1905, and died there on December 5, 1963. He started his musical life on trombone and composition with Joseph Hass from 1924 to 1929. He later worked with conductor Hermann Scherchen in 1933, who pulled him into the twentieth century by introducing him to Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. He was fascinated and deeply influenced by the intensity of expression from their works, and how they used musical language to construct that intensity. It was also in 1933 that Hartmann came to know the most intense anguish of his life. Hartmann was acutely aware of what was happening in German politics, and was horrified by the rise of the Nazis. What they stood for and what they did horrified him. His commitment to humanity kept him away from political and public life. He prohibited all his works from being performed in Germany during this period. He was self-exiled from German musical life, a situation he called “inner emigration.” He still composed frequently and even went to Vienna to take lessons with Anton Webern. When the war ended, he revised many works from this period and premiered them. Symphony No. 1 was one of those pieces.

The Work
Symphony No. 1 for contralto and orchestra, subtitled “Versuch eines Requiem” (“Essay for a Requiem”), was first composed in 1935, premiered in 1948, and revised in 1955. With the texts taken from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, it presents an impression of life under the Nazi regime and the composer’s anti-war stance. Unlike most standard four-movement symphonies, it is in a five-movement form constructed with a purely instrumental middle movement. The first movement depicts the misery caused by tyranny, injustice, and oppression. The vocal part of the movement is slow and recitative-like. The second movement begins at a fast tempo. It gradually relaxes for the vocal part. The third movement quotes a theme from Hartmann’s own anti-war opera Simplicius Simplicissimus in the form of theme and variations. The fourth movement is in a three-part form, with the outer section in a slow, funeral march tempo. The vocal part reaches an intense climax at the end of the movement. The final movement starts with sprechstimme (a vocal technique between speaking and singing) accompanied by percussion. This leads to a melodic section and then reverts into the recitative-like style of the first movement.