The “Discovery” of the Hessenberg Symphony No. 2
A Personal Recollection by Executive Producer Thomas von Benda
This story really begins more than 50 years ago when I began a correspondence with Wilhelm Furtwängler, Willem Mengelberg and Richard Strauss. In the rashness of youth, I wrote to all three, seeking their commentaries on the future of German music, and news of their activities. Sadly, Strauss died shortly after sending me one letter; Mengelberg was to die two years later, but not before we established a friendship by letter. Furtwängler wrote concerning his recent ordeal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and speculated that his return to America seemed unlikely. In the summer of 1954, he wrote again, outlining plans for an American tour of the Berlin Philharmonic set for early 1955, which had been arranged by my friend the impresario André Mertens.
Following Furtwängler’s tragic death in November of 1954, another friend, Dr. Gerhardt von Westermann, then the Intendant of the Berlin Philharmonic, gave me a small memorial booklet which contained precise information concerning all of the concerts given by Furtwängler in Berlin between the years 1922-1954. It was in this booklet that I first came across a reference that Kurt Hessenberg’s Symphony No. 2 had been give its premiere performance under Furtwängler in December of 1944. At that time Hessenberg was known to me only as a contemporary German composer, whose reputation had seemed so promising prior to WWII. After 1945, little had been heard from or of him, although I knew that he had returned to teaching in Frankfurt. Dr. von Westermann remembered the premiere, and shared his impressions that the symphony was a huge critical success. Germany’s defeat in WWII seemed to write closure to Hessenberg’s chances of becoming well known outside of Germany. I did not take up the Hessenberg quest until some years later, when by chance I was introduced to the American composer, Virgil Thomson, who told me that he had seen the score of the symphony in Germany in 1945, and had written a very favorable analysis of the work in 1946, predicting that after the memories of war died down, the symphony had a good chance of entering the standard repertoire. When we met (this was around 1960 or so) he lamented that such had not been the case.
Over the next 30 years or so, I wrote to numerous record company executives with suggestions concerning a possible world premiere recording; while all showed interest, none came forward with a plan. Finally, in the early 1990’s, I was introduced to a young conductor, Leland Sun, with whom I established an immediate musical rapport. Leland showed a remarkable awareness of the art of Furtwängler and other great maestri of an earlier period, and I was impressed by his grasp of genuine musical values. At one of our discussions on music in late 1998, the subject of the Hessenberg lost treasure came up once again, and we both were struck with an idea. We soon obtained a copy of the full orchestral score of Hessenberg’s Second Symphony and, after numerous discussions and planning sessions, decided to produce a recording ourselves. The recording was made in March 2000, using the excellent Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra. We share the hope that this recording will finally establish Hessenberg belatedly to his rightful place in 20th Century music, and that other conductors will soon incorporate his works into their repertoire. In the words of Virgil Thomson, spoken so long ago, “… the music of Kurt Hessenberg belongs in the standard repertoire of all major symphony orchestras….”© 2001 Cassandra Records