Kurt HESSENBERG (1908-1994)
Concerto No. 1 for Orchestra (Concerto Grosso) (1938)
Symphony No. 2 (1943)
Slovak Radio SO/Leland Sun
rec March 2000, Concert Hall, Slovak Radio, Bratislava
CASSANDRA CR 201
I am sure that it is quite possible to create great, enjoyable and/or
entertaining music under any régime. The creator may or may not be
in sympathy with the régime. What matters, surely, is the music. If
it is drab and uninspired that will show without any collateral knowledge
about the composer's sympathies or the régime under which that composer
Decca/London rewarding Entartete series of recordings (which seems to have
petered out) was produced bringing to light works by those declared by the
Nazis to be degenerate. I wonder how many composers who were Nazi submissives,
Nazi sympathisers or out-and-out Nazis produced music which, if we heard
it now without awareness of the dead composer's politics, would be hailed
as joyous, inspired or unjustly neglected.
The British composer Alan Bush was a frank communist. His communism brought
him into conflict with the BBC and his works undoubtedly suffered because
of his politics. The BBC virtually ignored him for years although amends
were made in the 1970s and 1980s. His music is worth exploring as is that
of similarly minded composers such as Frankel, Bernard Stevens and Christian
Darnton (though they were by no means a personally harmonious group). Bush's
hour long Busonian Piano Concerto (a natural you would have thought for CPO
to record) has a choral finale (you've guessed it - for men's voices) setting
'class struggle' words of Randall Swingler. Those words caused great controversy
at its premiere on the BBC during the 1930s - remember this was at the time
of the Spanish Civil War and of Britten's Ballad for Heroes. Then
work itself however has been revealed by last year's BBC Radio 3 broadcast
as a masterly piece - easily accessible and challenging at many levels. Bush's
music and that of his communist brethren is well worth resurrecting.
I wonder how long it will be before it will be thought
proper to re-examine, broadcast and record the works of composers who
were the presences, 'bright hopes' or elder-statesmen of Hitler's Germany.
People such as Pfitzner, Schoeck and Schmidt already have considerable
attention. What about the other composers active at that time? Can anyone
shed light on their work and assess it as music rather than as music
by people whose politics are utterly repugnant or who were supine to
a despicable régime built on and mobilising hatred?
I might make the same point about Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union. Somehow
the politics of dedicated communist composers are not seen as quite as
objectionable as those who pandered to, and outright supported, the Nazis.
How many Japanese composers are there who throve during the years of Japanese
imperialism but whose names are now forgotten or suppressed because of their
Perhaps this territory has already been well and truly explored but I would
still like to hear people's comments and to be reminded of any composers
eclipsed as a result of their Nazi sympathies rather than because of their
music. Surely it must always be tempting to say that a Nazi composer's music
is drivel, boring, without a shred of inspiration rather than to do the difficult
thing and listen past the man's politics and deeds (we do this for Wagner
and others) and through to the music itself. Is the music really irrevocably
infected by the politics, weakness, misconduct and worse of the composer?
Interesting to note Aaron Copland's stirring pastiche-Russian music for the
early 1940s film 'North Star' glorified the People's Struggle against the
Nazi invasion of the USSR (a politically attractive message in the USA during
the mid-1940s). Within a few years, so I understand, Ronald Reagan was condemning
Copland's music because of the composer's communist sympathies and indicating
that he would never work in Hollywood again!
Apologies for this ramble but I find this subject of discomfiting interest
and hope one day to read an exhaustive and even-handed study of the music
of neglected composers (and I do not mean just the big names) active in 1940s
Axis countries. Kurt Hessenberg was one of these. He was born (and died)
in Frankfurt. After studies in Leipzig (1927-31) he in 1933 became a teacher
at the Musikhochschule in Frankfurt. He stayed there and became a Professor
There may well have been extra-musical reasons why his music has not secured
more exposure although the mechanisms by which neglect and exposure are balanced
are surely far more subtle than a single indicator would suggest.
Virgil Thomson saw the score of the Second Symphony in Germany in 1945 and
wrote a laudatory appraisal of it in 1946. The Symphony is in four movements.
Its rapidly rocking preludial pianissimo has overtones of anguish and regret
mixed with Brucknerian resolve. A cousin to that rocking pattern reappears
at the beginning of the finale - also poco lento. A more determined
passage predominantly for the brass clears the air. This is not a work of
expansive late romanticism nor is there any hint of impressionism. There
is instead a simple strength to the writing like a clarified version of Franz
Schmidt's writings. The work exudes a dignified nobility associated with
its Bachian forebears. Leland Sun who proves himself an often inspired friend
to Hessenberg's curtained star makes much of the symphony. Hessenberg can
lumber and there is evidence of this in the symphony's finale. However what
stays with you about that movement is a Lutheran celebration rising up and
piercing trumpets crowning an hour of transient jubilation under louring
The symphony was premiered by Furtwängler and Berlin Philharmonic in
December 1944. German Radio made a recording. That recording has never been
found. We can hope that this CD will prompt radio stations and archives to
renew their search.
The Konzert No. 1 is even more assertively Bachian with its skirls and fugal
character. I am not at all sure that it could be fairly labelled academic.
The music has some of the fibre and sinew of one of Stokowski's Bach syntheses
but shorn of the extremes of the chromatic palette. Both in the symphony
and the Konzert I thought often of Rubbra. Hessenberg's creativity has a
similarly unglamorous character. It intrigues me that the Konzert and the
symphony are broadly contemporaneous with Rubbra's Third and Fourth Symphonies.
The discords of the music are soft, with scolding greys and sullen browns
rising along dignified Bachian contours to a stern elation snatched away
by emotional ambivalence. The chuckling woodwind of the Konzert is a heavier
treaded version of Dumbarton Oaks. Hessenberg scorns grand romantic
afflatus and instead picks up the reins of neo-classicism and sometimes embraces
a swarthy Brahmsianism. In the finale of the Konzert Hessenberg seems to
reach across to the symphonic Rubbra - peak to peak - his Concerto to Rubbra's
Apart from Hessenberg's Lieder eines Lumpen, op. 51, sung by tenor Christian
Elsner (Charles Spencer, piano) on the Ars Musici label (also in association
with BMG/RCA) there are, to the best of my knowledge, no other Hessenberg
CDs. However a number of recordings circulate on the tape and CDR underground
including the Two Piano Concerto, the Cello Concerto, the Sinfonietta da
Camera and the Piano Concerto.
A most intriguing disc, thoroughly well documented. A real credit to Cassandra's
sense of adventure. Long may such ventures continue. We must have high hopes
that the company will engage with its audience and strike out in further
This review of Kurt Hessenberg's music involves a lot more than just listening
to the CD. Let me explain. I must first of all confess that I am no 'Hessenberg'
expert; in fact before the CD arrived in the post I had never heard of him.
Although the name sounded a touch familiar, I am sure I was getting confused
with Heinrich Herzogenburg, the Austrian composer and conductor from the
early nineteenth century. (Incidentally his music is being rediscovered as
well) A glance at my copy of Eric Blom revealed nothing; no entry. Even the
new Grove has very little to say on this prolific composer. Fortunately all
was not lost. 'Cassandra,' the CD producer has done an excellent job in helping
the neophyte out. The sleeve notes are a model production; if only all CD
companies provided such comprehensive details, the listener would be so much
There is, besides the usual notes on the two programmed works (a bit more
detail of the actual works themselves, perhaps?), the players and the conductor,
an essay, and I mean an essay, entitled 'Pantheon of Greatness or a Footnote.'
There is also an introduction by the composer's son, and the copy of a letter
from Furtwängler to Hessenberg. But that is not all. A quick surf on
the Internet revealed two relevant sites; both produced by the record publisher.
The first is a list of works and the other is an interesting autobiography
of the man himself. However, the whole review really revolves around the
title of the essay quoted above; was Hessenberg a footnote, or did he have
Let's dispose of the aesthetic bits. The CD is beautifully produced. I cannot
fault the playing, the quality of the sound, the sleeve design or the programme
notes. The conductor, Leland Sun, has contributed to the Hessenberg scholarship,
as well as giving us a first class performance. The programme is excellent
too, giving, in just over the hour, two of the composer's 'best known' works.
To my mind it is a fine example of what a CD should be. Anything I may say
about the music or the composer does not detract from the quality of this
production. It is really a must for all enthusiasts of 20th century
Who was Kurt Hessenberg? Well, the answer for a review has to be fairly succinct.
Besides the autobiography is easily available on line:-
The composer was born in Frankfurt on 17th August 1908. He studied
music at Leipzig from 1927 until 1933. He had a relatively straightforward
life insomuch as he was appointed to teach music at the Musikhochschule in
his home city, in 1933. He remained there till he retired. Hessenberg died
It is not until we study the catalogue of his works that we get some sense
of this composer's achievement - at least on scale. Most of the musical genres
are represented somewhere in the 135 'opus' numbers. There is a massive amount
of chamber music to explore. Eight string quartets, two string trios, a piano
quartet and lots of instrumental sonatas. The list is almost endless. He
wrote one 'comic' opera called 'The Striped Guest.' There is a substantial
collection of choral music for both accompanied and unaccompanied voices.
Orchestral music is represented by four symphonies, the earliest from 1936
and the latest being published in 1980. There are concerti for piano, bassoon,
'cello and violin. Many suites and concertante music and variations make
up this fascinating catalogue.
What were Hessenberg's influences and background? His study at Leipzig in
the late twenties and early thirties was done against a background of stunning
musical activity. The composer heard Karl Straube and the St Thomas Choir;
he listened to the Gewandhaus Orchestra with their conductor Bruno Walter.
He heard the latest works by men such as Paul Hindemith, Zoltan Kodaly and
Igor Stravinsky. The political troubles of the era had a deep impression
on the composer.
The two works, which we have to consider, are the Concerto for Orchestra
No. 1 of 1938 and the Symphony No. 2 of 1943. This is really all
the data we have to make up our minds about this prolific yet relatively
The Concerto started life as a Concerto Grosso. But the composer
felt that the scale of the work was considerably larger than most of the
works which go by this name. It was renamed in time for the first performance
at the International Music Festival in Baden-Baden in 1939. According to
the programme notes this work became the most performed of Hessenberg's 'opera'.
It attracted critical acclaim. It was taken up by many conductors including
Furtwängler and Solti. The first thing we notice is that it does not
seem to be influenced by serialism or other avant garde techniques which
were gradually becoming available to composers just before the Second World
War. That is not to deny that he was very free with his tonalities. What
strikes one immediately is the neo-baroque feel to this music. That of course
is hardly surprising, for Handel wrote 12 concerti grossi. But this is not
Handel updated for the 1930s; it is not a parody of baroque contrapuntal
practices. It is an extremely competent exercise in writing for a large
orchestra. Hessenberg has taken his great love of the Baroque era and has
fused this with an understanding of the contemporary musical colour of his
own era. It is not for nothing that the names of Hindemith and Bartók
are quoted as being influential. The composer makes this connection in his
autobiography. It is a work that is full of high spirits; quite a pleasure
to listen to. It is quite a cerebral work; there are not big tunes of 'romantic'
harmonies, but as an exercise in neo-classical composition it is almost without
The Symphony No. 2 was completed in 1943. After the performance
of the Concerto for Orchestra, Furtwängler was so impressed with
Kurt Hessenberg that he became a kind of mentor to the composer. The conductor
was seriously impressed by the new score and expressed a desire to give the
work its first performance and to present it whenever possible. Of course,
at this time, the war caused many problems for musicians, but the symphony
was premiered in Berlin at the 'Admiralsplast.' The Philharmonie had been
destroyed. The new symphony was massive - lasting some 42 minutes; it is
in four movements. The composer himself is justifiably proud of this work
and states that it is very much in the Austro-Germanic tradition of Brahms
It is unfair to try to pick bits of this great work out and claim that it
sounds like this or that other composer. Hessenberg was perfectly capable
of absorbing music that was around him and producing a sound that was distinctly
his. Although everything about this work says 'neo-classical' it does have
a certain romantic quality to it. Every so often a 'tune' sets out on a journey
which has all the makings of a quite a 'pop' feel to it. However the composer
uses it and then just quietly folds it away. He has again avoided falling
prey to contemporary fashion or gimmicks. There are great climaxes, which
apart for the extended tonality could have come from the pen of a Beethoven
or a Brahms. He is a master of orchestration and especially in his writing
for brass. He makes use of a variety of percussion instruments, but does
not use them simply because they are there! Subtlety would be the best
description of his instrumentation.
Just looking at the symphony in a little more detail I will briefly consider
the 2nd & 3rd movements.
The slow movement is a fine example of the composer's skill - opening with
an intense unison; it soon sinks into a quiet almost Copland-like reverie.
Use is made of soft dissonances and some polytonality lends a definite
bittersweet feel to much of the scoring. There is a big build up toward the
end of the movement, which then collapses a number of times before a somewhat
unusual ending for a slow movement.
The scherzo is superb. It is full of energy. From the first note we feel
that here is a strong and vital movement. Loud and quite brash it nevertheless
manages to have its moments of repose. There is a marching theme here, with
an insistent side drum. Then there is a much more relaxed 'trio' section.
However the uneasy brass is never far from the surface. Bass clarinets give
some eerie sounds toward the end of this movement. Eventually the 'relaxed'
tune tries to return - with somewhat of a swing to it. But burbling woodwind
and drums soon knock it out of the way. The movement ends with the same energy
as it began.
The last movement is long and complex - divided into four sections. There
are all kinds of music in this. Martial even. It is a superb finish to this
fine example of the symphonist's art.
There is no programme to this symphony. It is pure, absolute music and it
is none the worse for that. We can listen to it for the sheer pleasure of
the sounds and not bother ourselves whether the composer was trying to make
a political or personal statement.
So what are we to make of all this? I have only made pointers to this music
rather than attempting a detailed analysis. Such an analysis will require
much more background information and most certainly the availability of the
scores. However, I believe that this work will and must be done live.
I have no doubt that we are in the presence of a very fine composer. Hessenberg
is unjustly denied his true reputation. If we care to extrapolate his entire
'opera' from these two works, if we assume a degree of consistency, then
what we have here is a major achievement. Hessenberg can take his place in
the pantheon of European and world composers with pride. He is a big hitter.
We need more of his music. Often critics make this cry about an obscure composer,
and to a certain extent it is whistling in the dark. However, I truly believe
that Kurt Hessenberg's time will come. I have no doubt that he is better
known in his homeland - but I imagine that even there he is less appreciated
than he deserves.
To use the word genius is always dangerous. I would not wish to ascribe
the epithet to anyone, especially after hearing only a couple of pieces.
However the sleeve notes propose the question 'Pantheon of Greatness or a
Footnote.' Now the unfortunate truth is that he has become a 'footnote' by
default. It is time he was studied and listened to and raised to the stature
A truly great composer with two fine works. They should be on the shelves
of all who enjoy symphonies in the lineage of Brahms and Bruckner. I hope
that Cassandra Records will continue to produce more works from Hessenberg's
This is a fine CD. Two works by a forgotten composer who well deserves to
be rediscovered. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Kurt
Hessenberg was probably a genius. A must for all lovers of the best in
NOTE - information courtesy of our very good friend Eric Schissel
There are other HESSENBERG recordings:-
has among other things Hessenberg's Fantasia Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,
played by Edgar Krapp on the organ of the Frankfurter Paulskirche.
EBS 2-CD set Dresdner Kreuzchor, another set on DG called "Musica Divina"
with the same ensemble (which also has some Draeseke) on which the Hessenberg
item is O Herr mache mich zum Werkzeug deines Friedens, his op. 37 no. 1
One Hessenberg item on a piano recital on Fermate by Emmy Best-Reintges (Fermate
doesn't presently have a website)
Motette CD 60241 with works by Couperin, Bach, Litaize and Hessenberg (organ
taken by Andreas Boltz and Wolfgang Kleber; Kleber plays the Hessenberg work,
Choralpartita "Von Gott will ich nicht lassen", and some of the others)
Motette CD 11261 Kleber plays the trio sonata for organ op. 56, the prelude
and fugue op. 63 #1, the fantasies opp. 66 & 115, the toccata op. 128
and the passacaglia op. 127.
A search on Hessenberg also revealed what seems to be a music-cassette his
cantata Der Struwwelpeter Op 49.
Eric has seen the first 4 quartets in score, the sonatas for cello and (iirc)
viola, the 2nd symphony, and this and that else. (The cello sonata and 4th
quartet seemed especially promising)
NOTE AND ORDERING DETAILS
Cassandra Records is a brand new label, and this the initial entry in their
catalogue. The company is dedicated to bringing other neglected repertoire
into the public consciousness, but at a conservative rate of only one or
two releases per year.
Their postal address is as follows:
5701 Windcroft Drive
The Hessenberg disc can be ordered from the above address at the price of
$16 per copy. Postage and handling to within the United States is $2.00 by
first class mail or $4.00 by priority mail for the first copy. (Appropriate
sales tax would apply to California residents only.) To the U.K. that would
be $4.50 by economy (surface) mail for up to three copies, or $5.50 by air
mail for the first copy. Cassandra can accept payment only in U.S. currency,
by check that draws from an U.S. financial institution or by International
money order, made payable to "Cassandra Records". The disc is available also
through a few select independent retail, mail-order, and online merchants,
as listed on Cassandra Records's Web site.
The official entry point for their Web site is:
* Hessenberg's other recordings, if in print, are difficult to find. However,
the German CD retail site www.jpc.de offers