Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

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 [64.20]

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 lives.

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 politics?

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 in 1953.

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 skies.

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 Fourth Symphony.

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 esoteric directions.

Rob Barnett

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 more enlightened.

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 genius?

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 music.

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 in 1994.

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 unknown composer.

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 peer.

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 and Bruckner.

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 he deserves.

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 catalogue.

John France


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 'neo-classicism.'


NOTE - information courtesy of our very good friend Eric Schissel

There are other HESSENBERG recordings:-

CALIG 50908

has among other things Hessenberg's Fantasia Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, op. 115
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)




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:

Cassandra Records
5701 Windcroft Drive
Huntington Beach
California 92649

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 offers several

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board.  Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.This is the only part of MusicWeb for which you will have to register.

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: