Essay: Two composers in voluntary self-isolation

Essay: Two composers in voluntary self-isolation


norman lebrecht

April 30, 2020

In the new issue of The Critic magazine I compare the very different forms of self-isolation adopted by two very different composers – Karl Amadeus Hartmann under the Nazi regime and Krzysztof Penderecki under communism.

… Hartmann was the only composer in Germany to stand up against Hitler and he did so by a form of inner exile that we have now come to know as self-isolation. I played some of his music the other day on hearing of the death of Krzysztof Penderecki, a kindred self-distanced soul. Penderecki grew up in Debica (Dembitz), a Polish shtetl with many Jews, 70 per cent of the town. As a boy, he learned Yiddish phrases and songs. Then he saw Jews herded into a ghetto and put on death trains. Penderecki suppressed his Yiddish tunes, along with much else.

Hartmann was the only composer in Germany to stand up against Hitler and he did so by a form of inner exile

His grandmother was Armenian, a fugitive from Turkish genocide who took him to Mass at an Armenian church, in contradistinction to dominant Roman Catholicism. One of his grandfathers was German, another inconvenient legacy…. 

Read on here.



  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Interesting stuff. Thanks for posting this, as I like both composers quite a bit. I feel that K.A. Hartmann was the one really good German symphonist after Mahler (not a real word, but meaning one who composes symphonies).

    I’ve not been convinced of the Henze symphonies, but I’m willing to concede that maybe both Henze and Wolfgang Rihm are better composers than I think. I just don’t find them terribly accessible, so I’d have to chip away at the veneer.

    • Edgar Self says:

      Interesting comments, Norman and Barry Guerrero, re Hartmann and Penderecki, whose music I don’t know well and will look into.

      A few German symphonists after Mahler who arouse interest are Wetz, who may be Austrian, and Siegmund von Hausegger, besides the very promising Hans Rott of Mahler’s own time and youth, whom Mahler thought very highly of.

      But Penderecki is of course Polish, and continuing east is Shostakovich, who seems now to be the most considerable and most performed symphonist after Mahler, along with the protest and Judaist emmpathy. Also the symphonies of Sibelius, especially the first three at least.

  • Steve says:

    The more I hear the music of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, the more I am convinced that he was truly one of the greatest and most genial composers of the 20th century. Despite his music being so much neglected and underated, I really feel that his work is on a par with the greatest of the German romantic/late-romantic composers. In his 8 symphonies, the ‘Sinfonia Tragica’ and the ‘Klagegesang’ one hears much music of incredible depth, originality and substance. I really hope is time will come.

    • MezzoLover says:

      I completely agree. To me his 6th-8th symphonies are amongst the 20th century’s best. One of the epiphany moments for me, musically speaking, was hearing his 8th symphony conducted by Rafael Kubelik on an imported Wergo LP. The agony and conflict he had experienced all his life as he tried to live, in Hans Werner Henze’s words, “as a man among men, a man of this world, and not out of this world”, were so powerfully and brilliantly conveyed I was emotionally drained at its close.

      The symphonies of Hartmann deserve the widest possible audience, and we need a conductor with Kubelik’s international stature to champion them. Let’s hope that someone like Kirill Petrenko will take up the Hartmann cause soon. (His opera Simplicius Simplicissimus was to be featured as part of the Berlin Philharmonic’s 2020 Easter Festival in Baden Baden, now unfortunately cancelled.)

  • John Borstlap says:

    I wonder how a composer who withdrew into private silence is exercising a form of standing-up against Hitler.

    Here is some German postwar joyfulness (1955):

    Strange that Klangkunst was soon to take over the scene, while Hartmann offered already quite sufficient suffering.

    For comparison with another piece inspired by misery:

    Hartmann’s Concerto Funebre is much better than his synmphonies, I think:

    Note that it is entirely and thoroughly traditional, a personal interpretation of ‘classical tropes’, or ‘klischees’ if one wants to call them, but injected with new life which gives them a new meaning, and an authentic one. A beautiful, moving work, brilliantly made.

    Penderecki’s avantgardism was entirely opportunistic, and his later drastic conversion to tonal traditionalism reveals his insecurity about handling the material, sinking in helpless chromaticism. Yet, it is real music, in contrast with his Klangkunst.

  • Joel Lazar says:

    We had a bit of Hartmann in Boston in the early 1960s, the BSO played the Sixth Symphony under associate conductor Richard Burgin and the Harvard orchestra played the Fifth under Henry Swoboda, improbably its music director at the time. Both impressed me to an extent that Henze’s work never did, somehow I haven’t sought out more Hartmann. Thank you for the reminder, Norman. My loss.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Henze told me he regarded Hartmann as his pathfinder. ‘Without him, I would not have been Henze.’