Hessenberg CD

Pantheon of Greatness or a Footnote?

By Leland Sun and Thomas von Benda

In his private notes, which were never meant for publication but have been posthumously released as Notebooks 1924-541, Furtwängler voiced his inner thoughts, musical and otherwise, on issues many of which are as current now as when they were penned. Not only from the perspective of a conductor, but also from that of a composer, he had strong opinions about his fellow composers in particular and on the progress of music in general. In an entry from 1940, he spoke of a “seriousness”, which, he explained, is not simply a mood, but a “consciousness of reality, the realization of reality” and the “true wholeness and the full vigor of life”, as found in Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, and Bruckner. He lamented the loss of this “seriousness” in contemporary music at large, but recognized that it continued to be sought after and gave one single example thereof – Hessenberg, who was then only about thirty-two years of age and whose Concerto for Orchestra Furtwängler had just performed on tour with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra the previous year. In the English translation edition of the Notebooks, the eminent Cambridge scholar Michael Tanner served as editor, offering the readers invaluable guides in his excellent preface and footnotes. However, in this instance he provided only this succinct note: “Kurt Hessenberg (1908- ), composer whose search for seriousness has left no enduring traces.” Perhaps Tanner was referring only to Hessenberg’s reputation, which even in Germany has certainly dwindled since Furtwängler’s time. On the other hand, his comment could well be taken as a dismissal of a rightful importance of Hessenberg as a composer. Could Tanner have had the opportunity to get acquainted with at least a representative sample of Hessenberg’s works to have made a fair assessment, even when hardly a scant few works in his vast oeuvre have ever been represented in discography, and when a work as highly praised as his Second Symphony has not been performed anywhere for perhaps the past fifty years?

The familiarity of composers whom we hold dearly in our hearts gives us the confidence that our collective interest in and esteem of their works will remain for all eternity. Yet, even in some prominent cases, they have not always been accorded the same status in the past. Schubert, for one, needed to be brought out of obscurity after his death, through the astute recognition of his greatness by Schumann and the influence he actively asserted. J.S. Bach, on the other hand, had certainly earned the highest reputation a musician could in his day, but musical tastes had shifted even well before his death. Although musicians such as Mozart and Beethoven continued to hold him in high regard, by the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Bach had been largely forgotten by the public at large, until Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and, again, Schumann took up his cause in their respective ways. Hessenberg’s reputation too suffered a wide fluctuation over the decades, and it remains yet to be seen how music history will eventually consider him.

Kurt Hessenberg acquired his early reputation cumulatively. After his studies in Leipzig, he returned to his hometown Frankfurt am Main to assume a position teaching music theory at Dr. Hoch’s Conservatory (renamed as the Frankfurt Musikhochschule in 1938), where he remained for his entire professional career. Also active in Frankfurt in the 1930’s were the conductors Hans Rosbaud and Franz Konwitschny, who caught notice of Hessenberg’s works and presented them in radio broadcasts and in concerts. In response to the excellent public and critical reception to these performances, the publishing house F.E.C. Leuckart became interested in the young composer and represented many of his early works, including the Concerto No. 1 for Orchestra (Concerto grosso) that was to appear in 1939. Perhaps in part due to the publisher’s promotional efforts, Wilhelm Furtwängler came to be acquainted with this work and in 1939 not only performed it in Berlin but also brought it on tour with the Berlin Philharmonic to Hamburg and Dresden.2 Thereafter other prominent conductors also took up the work; these included Oswald Kabasta, Karl Elmendorff, Hans Rosbaud, Hans Weisbach, and Franz Konwitschny. Perhaps it was due again to Furtwängler’s success with the Concerto for Orchestra that in 1940 Hessenberg was awarded the National Music Prize in Composition, an award that had previously been presented to Richard Strauss. This period of expansion of Hessenberg’s fame culminated in Furtwängler’s undertaking of the premiere of Hessenberg’s Second Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic in December 1944. By this time Furtwängler had become even more impressed with Hessenberg. In a letter to Hessenberg, Furtwängler wrote, “The great expectations I was entertaining for your further career on the strength of the Concerto for Orchestra have not merely been completely fulfilled but, in fact, far exceeded by your Symphony, which I have now got to know. I shall be writing to you about it again at greater length shortly. Now I just want to tell you it will give me particular pleasure to perform the work everywhere I have an opportunity of doing so – primarily, that is, in Berlin and Vienna.”3

To Hessenberg, Furtwängler was more than just a champion. Hessenberg attributed at least the largeness of conception of the Second Symphony to Furtwängler’s inspiration and influence. Aside from musical issues, Hessenberg also owed his release from conscription into the German military to Furtwängler’s intervention.4 With the imprimatur of such an influential maestro, a composer’s eminence would seem to be assured. However, the development of music history took a sharp turn, as the post-war era proved to be a greater disruption to German musical life than even the obviously difficult times towards the end of the war had been.

Even as the war drove Germany to its knees, music continued, perhaps above all to help the German people maintain a small vestige of civilization, even if it meant having to hold performances in makeshift concert halls. Such was the atmosphere under which Hessenberg’s Second Symphony was premiered mere months before the utter destruction of Germany. The performance took place on December 10, 1944 in the temporary venue of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Admiralspalast, as the Philharmonie had been destroyed earlier in the year. In spite of the shortage of resources and manpower in Germany by this time, this performance was actually recorded for radio broadcast.5 The new work received overwhelming acclaim in the press, and from the number of reviews available on this concert, it appears music criticism too was still active at that late a date in the war.6 Considering what Furtwängler’s success with the Concerto for Orchestra had done for the earlier work, we can only conjecture what the fate of the Second Symphony might have been, had this work been introduced in more normal times.

In the immediate post-war era, music in Germany continued as well, but under a new dark cloud. Germany in 1945 was in absolute chaos, and any form of civilized activity was difficult to come by. All major German cities lay in ruins, and these ruins included almost all concert halls and opera houses. In the American zone, the U.S. Army installed “cultural commissars” to deal with the arts. Initially, all German musicians, actors, authors, painters, and the like were forbidden to practice their professions until they were “tried” before “de-Nazification” courts to determine their degree of “guilt” for remaining in Germany during the Nazi regime. All Germans, in fact, regardless of profession, were issued the notorious and humiliating “Fragebogen” [questionnaire] consisting of 131 questions. Its authors hoped that it would be a means of “dividing the German sheep from the German goats”, in the words of Ernst von Salomon, the distinguished novelist.7 The Fragebogen was relied upon, especially in the American Zone, to punish many well-known conductors, pianists, actors, and authors, whose only “crime” had been loyalty to their own country during a time of war. Such was the atmosphere of persecution that drove the great conductor Oswald Kabasta to suicide. Although Furtwängler survived his “de-Nazification” ordeals, which dragged on for two years8, he had to endure further hostility for the few remaining years of his life.

After Furtwängler was finally allowed to resume his career in 1947, his involvement with contemporary music drastically diminished from before, and he never again conducted another work of Hessenberg’s. Furtwängler’s private notes give us a little clue in this regard. “When I play on a tour – a concert in every town – the programs must above all be concentrated and monumental. And if on this, my first tour through Germany after the terrible war, I include the recently deceased Pfitzner and the eighty-five-year-old Strauss alongside the old works, it is not a rejection of the young composers. Or is – as sometimes appears to be the case – a contemporary conductor to be reproached for even performing a Beethoven Symphony in the first place?”9 In addition, another aspect of Furtwängler’s de-emphasis on performing contemporary music had to do with his awareness that more than ever it was his personal responsibility to uphold a tradition of interpreting the classics against what he perceived to be a growing trend for the so-called “literal” rendering. He vehemently contrasts these two approaches to performing: “The difference is that the one still has, or strives to have, the breath of life about it, while the other, according to which classical music means outmoded art that no longer affects us, has come to terms with mechanical and rational routine from the very start, with the tinned-food taste of everything ‘classical’, and indeed is not happy without this taste.”10 Thus we find in his concert programming from that period a substantial amount of repetition of the standard classics.

It is important not to draw the incorrect conclusion that if interest in Hessenberg’s music dwindled after the war, then his earlier fame had to have been sponsored by the government of the Third Reich. Evidence points quite to the contrary. For instance, when his Second String Quartet was to be premiered by the Lenzewski Quartet as part of a concert of the “Reich Music Chamber” in Berlin in 1939, a committee from that institution had found the work to be too modern and removed it from the program. As far as Furtwängler was concerned, his support of Hessenberg certainly did not constitute any yielding to Party pressure. Let us first of all not forget that Furtwängler was not a man to shirk from taking a stance against that of the Party, as he had demonstrated in the famous “Mathis der Maler” debacle.11 Moreover, within pages of having mentioned Hessenberg’s name favorably, Furtwängler in his Notebooks lashes out at Dr. Goebbels’ “undisguised xenophobic propaganda”. Clearly, Furtwängler did not lump Hessenberg with the group of officially promoted composers, although to be sure, Dr. Goebbels did eventually take notice of Hessenberg as an important young talent.

For Furtwängler the post-war years were a matter of survival. Although he had not encountered similar problems with the resumption of his career in Europe, an organized and coordinated campaign prevented him from ever returning to the United States. Repeatedly, plans to bring him back to the U.S. were thwarted by negative publicity, numerous protests, and even threats of bodily harm.12 Furtwängler’s previous experiences in America of leading the New York Philharmonic in 1925, 1926, and 192713, had been quite the contrary – not only did he conquer the public and the press, the Philharmonic bestowed on him a unique honor in presenting him with a “loving cup” signed by every member of the orchestra. The vehement post-war hostility was something quite unfathomable to Furtwängler. As sensitive a man as he was, he was severely affected and greatly hurt by this. In this light, the younger generation of composers could certainly understand enough of Furtwängler’s own insurmountable troubles not to hope for his continued support in those post-war years. Moreover, the situation in America only heightened the feeling that he had often expressed, of the desperate need to rebuild his reputation, not only from the damage done by the two years of hiatus imposed on him, but also to reestablish a world-wide authority after a relative isolation during the war years, and for this he depended on the established classics.

Many other artists, German or otherwise, with international careers who worked or lived on the losing side during the Second World War encountered similar experiences, notably Gieseking, Böhm, Knappertsbusch, Flagstad, Lubin, Strauss, Dohnányi, and Pfitzner. Fortunately, Hessenberg escaped such vitriol – certainly there would not have been any reason for it (not that there were justified reasons for the treatments against the other artists either). He was thoroughly a non-political man: his membership in the Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Chamber of Music), for instance, was simply a requirement for professional musicians to appear in public. His numerous Jewish friends and professional associates, furthermore, were enthusiastic to supply their testimonials on his behalf after the war. Neither could the argument be made against Hessenberg, as often is charged against the international stars, that he could have lived and worked anywhere in the world but chose to live in Germany to serve Nazism. Nevertheless, the post-war political fallout was to cost Hessenberg at the least a powerful spokesman in Furtwängler. Furthermore, even in the absence of an organized effort to suppress Hessenberg’s music, a prejudice may still have worked against him after the war to cause discussions on German music in the Twentieth Century either to ignore him altogether (as does Of German Music14) or to discount heavily his achievements before 1945. The prejudice may have stemmed from the fact that not only was Hessenberg’s music not banned, but it was actually performed with some frequency during the Third Reich. Post-war Germans themselves, in their characteristic ultra-sensitivity to the entire era, are especially prone erroneously to explain away Hessenberg’s early success by a Party dictate. Perhaps Hessenberg’s post-war career would have been better off, if Furtwängler had never heard of him.

With or without a great following, considering his vast output, it didn’t seem to matter to Hessenberg – he simply continued composing, on through the end of the 1980’s. The 135 opus numbers in his catalog encompass all major genres: four symphonies, numerous other orchestral and concerto works, an abundant variety of chamber music, a wealth of choral and vocal works, a body of organ compositions, and an opera. The composer had the opportunity to hear nearly all of his works in at least a premiere performance. Although these performances after the war were not nearly as high profile as Furtwängler’s had been, many of them were broadcast on German radio, and he retained a high reputation amongst a select group of people who were privileged to be exposed to his works. Perhaps due to his long-time association with conductor Helmuth Rilling and with organist Helmut Walcha, he is better known for his choral and church music than his works at large. He taught composition and music theory to many generations of musicians at the Frankfurt Musikhochschule; yet, in his characteristic modest way, he had no interest in founding a “school”. He once mentioned that “Almost all of them [composers whom he had taught] have adopted approaches to composition that differ considerably from mine, which I can only welcome.”15 He was beloved and respected by students and colleagues alike. Professor Resch, the director of the Musikhochschule, said in his memorial address for Hessenberg: “He was a nucleus of this university; he was the resting pole in this institution; he was a colleague who was unfailingly pleasant and helpful, never uttering a critical word in public, for he worked not through his words, but rather was honored for his deeds, simply for what he was. His ideas and suggestions therefore had the effect of irrefutable laws. Kurt Hessenberg needed no authority, he was an authority.”

Whether there was any politically motivated prejudice against his music, it was not something which Hessenberg himself would have bothered to recognize. If he ever felt a sense of isolation in his work, it would have instead come from a realization of the dominance of European contemporary music scene by a movement from which he was to remain an outsider.16 He relates in a brief autobiography in 1990, “I follow the endeavors of the ‘avant-garde’ composers with interest, but my way is not one of experimentation with the material; moreover I have never, except for the purposes of musical exercise, availed myself of any form of serial technique.” In standing apart from the pack, he was well aware of the implications of this attitude in regards to the marketability of his works and was willing to accept the consequences of being true to himself: “… I take little interest in whether my music is considered ‘topical’ and hence in its current market value.” Only with such an indifference towards marketability would a composer fulfill requests, for example, for works whose very natures handicap their further performances – as Hessenberg did in composing music for the unusual combination of four or more violins, or for six or more celli, or for four double basses. It was not that he did not care to be understood, only that he had a strong conviction for the inherent value of his endeavors. In closing his retrospective, he declares, “I am occasionally overcome by doubts, to be sure, as to whether composing is still a meaningful activity today. But so far, the joy of creation has always proven stronger than all my misgivings. If the music that I write pleases me even after a certain time has passed, and if beyond that it has something to say to a few people whose judgment I value, then I am thoroughly satisfied.”17

Although “innovation” was not a primary concern for him, Hessenberg strove, as much as any composer of consequence, to develop a distinct musical identity. In this respect he was quite self-critical: In looking back in 1990 on some of his early works, he said of his Chamber Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra, op. 3, “The piece is contrapuntally ornate in places, also – from my present perspective – too long. In short: it does not please me any longer and stands too far away from me for a revision to be meaningful.” And he considered his choral cantata “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ”, op. 9 to be too much influenced by the “Leipzig” school, noting that he was “no longer particularly interested in this composition”. On the other hand, of the Second Symphony, op. 29, he fondly reflected, “I still identify with the piece today, even if I could no longer write in the same manner.”18

Across the various evolutions of styles that his works undertook (though not necessarily in any linear progression), Hessenberg, from the perspective of 1990, recognized three important common attributes: “the adherence to tonality (even if it is often freely handled), to melodic inspiration, and to the closed form (at least as a goal to strive toward)”19. Hessenberg built upon the rich musical tradition that he had inherited – not only in the narrow sense of carrying forward a Brahms-Bruckner tradition, but also of making direct connections to Beethoven, Bach, or even Schütz. His interest in music of the Baroque and the Renaissance is apparent from the contrapuntal approach to his writing – not only on the surface, in that he borrowed fugal and other imitative devices from the past, but more fundamentally too, in that he derived the core of his expressive powers from counterpoint. One can attribute the youthful exuberance of the Concerto for Orchestra, for example, to his melodic, contrapuntal approach. In the slow movement of the Second Symphony, one can also observe, at the same time that he pays homage to Bach, he achieves a transcendent expression of beauty with his fantastic voice-leading (part-writing).

As important as musical traditions are for Hessenberg, they merely serve as a starting point, a platform from which to make his own meaningful developments. This is particularly evident in the ways by which he adapts musical forms from the past to the individual requirements of each new composition. In the Second Symphony, for example, a possible reading is that Hessenberg invokes and modifies sonata principles, along with the four-movement symphonic structure, to give a personal account of war: An elemental conflict is introduced in the first movement, but instead of resolving the sonata duality within the recapitulation as expected, the movement simply dissipates into nothingness. Although the audience would not know for the time being that the resolution is deferred until the thematically related finale, they can at least sense that the journey has just begun. In the interim, the protagonist first retreats entirely into himself in the second movement, which is constructed as a sort of continuous variations, whereby a sorrowful solemnity gradually transforms into an inspired enlightenment. In the third movement the contrasting moods (which might be viewed as a juxtaposition of wartime turmoil with the tenderness of domestic bliss) carry respectively the spirit of the scherzo and of the trio, but can only vaguely be identified as such. Then in the finale, the conflict from the first movement is revisited, expanded, and intensified. One of the most poignant moments of the movement occurs at the end of the exposition, where a most profound sense of pathos and deeply felt anguish is expressed. At the moment of dénouement, when this music is expected to return in the recapitulation, we arrive instead at a fugato, where the music seems to break out into uncontrollable laughter, as if one is driven to denial, or even madness, by the pains of war. Out of this temporary lapse arises the ultimate salvation – the triumph of the human spirit over all adversity. This is a sincere and moving expression on a most personal and yet universal level, transcending all boundaries.

That Hessenberg freely adapts from his models to suit the expressive needs of the individual works corresponds closely to the philosophy which Furtwängler advocated for new music – the idea of creating a universal language anew in each work, so that the work is “both old and new, that it has never existed before and yet one has the feeling of having known it for ages.”20 Perhaps Furtwängler sensed the kindred spirit in Hessenberg from the moment he saw the score of the Concerto for Orchestra. He may have spoken enough of this feeling of connection to his wife Elisabeth that in 1966 she asked Hessenberg to revise Furtwängler’s Te Deum and to adapt it for a new performance.21 Furtwängler was the natural champion for Hessenberg, and he was indeed an effective one up to the end of the Second World War. In 1948, with his career newly reinstated, Furtwängler expressed in his notebooks that “if I am especially concerned with the nurturing of old music, it is because this seems necessary to me today. We will make modern music our own if it is appropriate. It is its business to convince us. It will do so to the best of its ability, for it has the support of living people with vested interests. Old music has no such advocates.”22 Unfortunately, there have not been enough people with vested interests in Hessenberg of late (there is not yet a Hessenberg Society, for instance), and no music can convince us of anything if it is not heard. With this recording, then, we present two of the works that made his early reputation, so that they can once again “convince” us. With these as an introduction, we shall look forward to “making our own” a body of works from a sublime artist and a man of sterling character.

© 2001 Cassandra Records