Hartmann: Symphony No. 2 (Adagio) | Symphony Study No. 10 of 118

by Glenn on August 29, 2015

Symphony No. 2 (Adagio)
Karl Amadeus Hartmann
fp: 1946


Earlier this year, I listened to a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony by Christoph Von Dohnányi and The Cleveland Orchestra. I remembered that the Adagio from the M9 and Hartmann’s Adagio were paired together on the same CD, although I tabled the Hartmann for future listening. I had a vague thought that someday perhaps I should listen to this work but it was Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony that motivated me to take a hearing.

I feel like this is the kind of music that I should want to listen to. I’m definitely not drawn to it. It’s the kind of thing you end up saying, “Well, that was interesting,” but you don’t say, “I loved that. Let me hear that again,” although the truth is I may listen to it again.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann was not of the twelve-tone school of writing, but his music feels overly intellectual to me. I didn’t have a visceral reaction to it.

For Steinberg, though, Hartmann’s music is “the expression of white-hot emotion.” His music was written, mostly, in the aftermath of World War 2. If I don’t like his music (so far), I at least have to respect the man. Hartmann took himself and his music into hiding during the Nazi years. He didn’t want to leave his country, so he emigrated inwardly. At war’s end, he was viewed as a German whose music was not morally tainted. Steinberg includes two of Hartmann’s symphonies in his book.

This Symphony No. 2, titled Adagio, was written in 1946 and consists of one movement. The title is misleading because this fifteen-minute-long single movement work is not all slow.

Steinberg cautions against generalizations, but offers a couple by way of contrast:

He suggests that “classical symphonies are essentially allegro experiences with more or less ample slow chapters for emotional and physical contrast” and that “Hartmann’s music … is essentially adagio with quick chapters, often quite ample ones for emotional and physical contrast.”

The pairing with Mahler was an interesting choice. Mahler’s adagio is slow and builds up in volume and tension before a quiet dying at the end. Hartmann’s begins slow but builds in speed and color before its own quiet ending.

There is a melody early on that is played (marvelously on this recording) by a baritone saxophone. Steinberg comments,

“The melody sound Middle-Eastern, perhaps Jewish: that quality, as well as the choice of the saxophone, suggest to me celebration of the freedom once again to be able to use shapes and colors that had been condemned in the Third Reich as entartet, degenerate. This saxophone solo, like the dazzling bell-tree eruptions in the introduction, is defiantly and wonderfully un-German.”

I’m glad I heard this, although it’s getting harder and harder in my mind to try and define what a symphony is in a way that encompasses everything from Haydn to Hartmann.