A Brief Autobiography
By Kurt Hessenberg
This "Kleine Selbstbiographie" first appeared as the opening article in the monograph Kurt Hessenberg: Beiträge zu Leben und Werk (Peter Cahn, ed.), published in 1990 by his principal publisher B. Schott’s Söhne (Mainz, Germany) in celebration of a lifelong collaboration. The original German text appears on this web site with the kind permission of that publisher. This English translation is by Leland Sun and Barbara Schultz-Verdon, © 2001 Cassandra Records.
In the “Frankfurter Concert Chronicle 1721-1780” by Karl Israel (newly published by Peter Cahn in 1986) I find under the heading “Registry of the Frankfurter chapel in the year 1755” one “Trumpeter Göring” as well as a “Trumpeter Albrecht”. Both were ancestors of mine: Valentin Göring was my great-great-great-great-grandfather; his father-in-law, Johann Lorenz Albrecht, was thus one more “great” back. These two appear to be the only ones of my forefathers who ever took up music as a profession, unless the organist Johann Matthias Albrecht, likewise mentioned in the Chronicle (in the year 1739) was also one of my ancestors, which I cannot ascertain. Whether my musical inclinations can be traced back to those town trumpeters seems doubtful to me, to be sure, especially since I know nothing about the musicality of the trumpeters’ descendants, for example my great-great-great- and great-great-grandparents.
I was born on August 17, 1908 in Frankfurt on the Main as the fourth and youngest child of the lawyer Eduard Hessenberg. My parents were both very fond of music, my mother predominantly receptively, however my father played the violin well enough that he could attempt the sonata literature of the 18th and 19th Centuries, naturally only within the confines of his own four walls. In the string quartet which he maintained regularly with friends – under the direction of the learned violin pedagogue Ludwig Keiper –, he played the viola. I inherited my musicality probably above all from him, as well as from his mother, who is said to have played the piano well.
Two great-grandfathers deserve special mention: the Senator and Mayor Dr. Georg Wilhelm Hessenberg, as well as the physician Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, almost the same age as Hessenberg, who became known in Frankfurt as the founder of a “mental institution” that was very progressive for its day (1864), but also and above all as the author of the “Struwwelpeter”. His wife, my great-grandmother Therese Hoffmann-Donner, was a great supporter and lover of the arts. In her younger years she was a close friend of the religion philosopher Georg Friedrich Daumer, well known through many Brahms Lieder lyrics, and in our family the tale was told that the lyrics of the song “Wie bist du, meine Königin…” [“As you are, my queen…”] and others had been meant for her.
My father participated in the First World War from beginning to end. After the war, his professional career had been somewhat derailed – probably the occupation of a judge would have better corresponded to his nature anyway than that of a lawyer. In any case money was always a worry in our family, and we had to live extremely thriftily. My mother contributed considerably to the household, in that she opened a private kindergarten – we lived at that time in the house of my grandparents, who had a beautiful garden. Occasionally she also took in German or foreign boarders. In spite of everything, my parents made it possible, not only for me, but also for two of my siblings, to be given music lessons.
I myself had my first piano lessons at age nine at the private music teacher’s seminar of Dr. Hoch’s Conservatory, and as soon as I had mastered musical notation – I cannot remember having “learned” it – I began to write down what I heard in my head. The first composition I wrote was for piano four hands and was called “German Horseman’s March”. It consisted only of Tonic and Dominant and began with the alternating-note motif of the “Radetzky March”, but then (unfortunately) continued in an altogether different fashion. I still remember well the blissful moment of inspiration. I was staying on a farm in the country for the summer holidays and was spending the night in a heavy feather bed – that was where it came to me. The next morning, I went to the only general store in the village and bought a notepad (naturally there was no music paper) on which I wrote down the irreplaceable idea (in C Major) and led the composition with numerous repetitions to a happy end.
After returning home from the vacation, I was still intoxicated with inspiration and wrote a few little two-handed piano pieces for my parents for Christmas. These represented a little progress compared to the “Horseman’s March” in as much as they were harmonically somewhat more varied, and included also keys such as A Major and even E Minor. They had titles such as “The Hunter’s Song”, “Forest Prayer”, “Valse”, (“Waltz” apparently struck me too vulgar) and “Last Thought on Joseph Haydn” – I selected this designation as reminiscent of a piece which I discovered in an anthology, entitled “Weber’s Last Thought” (which as generally known is not by Weber). One or two years later I shamefully crossed out the word “Last” – with good reason, for it was indeed not my last thought on that composer whom I especially respect. Originally I had intended to make a kind of “Album for the Young” out of this collection, but it never grew beyond six small pieces, and all I can say in summary about this first “creative period” is that I was anything but a composing prodigy, especially since my composing activity was in any case displaced for about two years by other interests (piano playing, reading).
At the age of twelve, I changed piano teachers. I began to take private lessons from Mrs. Irma Gebler, who was a teacher at the “preparatory school” of Dr. Hoch’s Conservatory, and I remained with her during my entire further schooling.
Our financial situation dictated that I attended concerts and theater performances seldom in those days, and when I did it was usually by means of tickets given to me, or in the cheap standing room gallery of the opera.
One thing my parents did continue to allow themselves for a comparatively long time was two subscription tickets for the chamber music evenings of the Frankfurt Museum Society. Sometimes my mother or my father would give up their seat for me, and I had the opportunity to hear the Rosé Quartet, the Busch Quartet and the Klingler Quartet. Also the “Czech Quartet” – at that time known as the “Bohemian String Quartet” – with the composer Josef Suk, Dvorák’s son-in-law, as second violinist. These were always great musical experiences for me.
In the Twenties, there were also concerts at private homes, known as Volkskunstabende [“evenings of art for the people”], which I attended often, because the admission charge was only 30 pfennig. Here I could hear the Lenzewski Quartet, the Amar Quartet, or Paul Hindemith as a violist with Emma Lübbecke-Job at the piano, and many other chamber ensembles, whereby indeed increasingly it was the works that held my interest more than their interpretation.
When I was almost 13 years old, a creative urge to compose overpowered me once again, and for my brother, who was a dilettante on the cello, I wrote a “Little Fantasy” for cello and piano, then a sonatina for four-handed piano [duet], a two-handed Larghetto (a kind of “Song without words”) as well as variations on the folksong “Freut euch des Lebens” for piano. These were followed soon after by a violin sonata of some 50 pages, a cello sonata and a piano trio of comparable lengths, “Fantasy Pieces” for piano, and others.
During my school years I initially received no formal instruction in the art of composing, as my parents did not have the money to pay for this in addition to piano lessons. When I was scarcely 15 years old, an older Dutch lady, a friend of the family, visited us one day, heard of my composing ambitions and pressed a banknote into my hands. This was enough, as far as I can remember, for about five private lessons with the organist Karl Breidenstein, who taught me very conscientiously the fundamentals of harmony. I also showed him my own compositions, in which, though he praised my efforts, he criticized the absence of stylistic individuality. I must confess that I did not take this criticism very much to heart at the time. During the scarce leisure time that remained after school and piano practice, I continued to compose, in a more or less eclectic style and without particular regard for the technical rules of composition, various pieces for piano, for violoncello and piano, and then, exploiting the contents of my parents’ bookcase, songs with piano accompaniment based on poems of Walther von der Vogelweide, Herder, Uhland, Rükkert, Kellter and others. All these compositions were in a derivative post-Romantic style, influenced predominantly by Schumann and Brahms, and as yet void of any signs of stylistic independence.
Next to musical activity, school of course made its legitimate demands. After three years of elementary school I attended the humanistische Gymnasium [a pre-university secondary school focussing on the humanities]. I was, as far as I remember, a good student in the early years; later my scholastic achievements waned, above all in subjects such as physics and chemistry. (Yet the chemistry lesson were often particularly entertaining – in view of the often-failed experiments and the many broken test tubes.) Our professor and Latin teacher for many years until graduation was the classical philologist Dr. Karl Hahn, an older stepbrother of Otto Hahn. He was witty and had a sense of humor, but he was quite choleric and feared by some. He professed to be entirely unmusical. That was almost certainly exaggerated, for in any case he had a subscription to the Sunday morning concerts of the Frankfurter Museum Society, which attests to a musical interest; occasionally, when he was prevented from attending, he would give me his ticket, thereby giving me a chance to attend a free concert.
The music instruction in the public schools was still rather poor at the time, at least at the secondary school that I attended. Before the Kestenberg reforms took effect, anyone who could produce anything better than a croaking sound, if he did not already play in the orchestra, sang in the choir – usually folksongs in primitive arrangements. Upon an old teacher’s retirement they would sing “Nun zu guter Letzt” by Mendelssohn, and before Christmas it was invariably the variations on Beethoven’s “Appassionata” to the words “Heilge Nacht, o gieße du Himmelsfrieden in dies Herz”. The choirs and orchestra members were exempt from the general music instruction, which was introduced in the 1920’s, and I had the good fortune of soon to be allowed to participate in the “orchestra”. In our school orchestra there were neither violas nor contrabasses, let alone any wind instruments. There was, however, usually a keyboard instrument, which was a role that I frequently took on. For example we played Mozart’s “Kleine Nachtmusik”, arranged for violins, celli, and four-handed piano, also Schumann’s “Abendlied” from the Piano Duets op. 85, transposed from D-flat to D major and transcribed for string orchestra (without violas and basses) and harmonium. (None of this is meant in any way as criticism of the music teacher and conductor of the choir and orchestra, Mr. Walter Heuser, who made the best of what he was given. Aside from being a very musical man, he had a nice baritone voice and sometimes also took part as vocal soloist in school concerts.) In the same secondary school, but two years younger than I, was also the later pianist and composer Wolfgang Rebner, son of the violinist Adolf Rebner. In contrast to me, whose interests lay mainly in the field of composition, he attracted attention early on for his great pianistic talent and also took part frequently in the school concerts.
After I had endured the nine years of secondary school, often anxious before Easter to find out whether I would be promoted to the next higher class, I passed the final examination in the spring of 1927, though by no means with flying colors. But the director of the school, Professor Ewald Bruhn, and the faculty board were evidently charitably inclined towards me, and so the subject of music was included in my examination – the first time this had ever been permitted at this school to my knowledge. The test was relatively simple – I was to play a piece of my own choosing on the piano and follow that with an analysis of the musical form. I selected the Rhapsody in G Minor by Brahms and did as stated. Fortunately the faculty board was on the whole musically inexperienced, and it did not take very much to make an impression. An older teacher confessed to me afterwards that it was the first time in his life that he had understood something about music.
After the final examination, my professional future caused my parents some worry. The only occupation for which I believed to be not entirely without talent was that of a musician.
I think it is very much to the credit of my parents and my sister Else – she was an employee at Moritz Diesterweg publishing house and helped me out financially – that they fulfilled my wish in spite of all their reservations and enabled me to study music (what some would call preparing for an “ungainful occupation”). Realizing that it would be especially important for my development to get away from home for a while, we decided on Leipzig, and so in the spring of 1927 I passed the entrance exam to study piano at the venerable Landeskonservatorium, or Leipzig Conservatory, founded by Mendelssohn.
The Leipzig Conservatory in those days was under the direction of the pianist Max Pauer, who at that time still performed in many concerts and therefore was not always present in Leipzig. His deputy was the violinist, pedagogue and conductor Walther Davisson, who also led the orchestra and in 1932 took over the overall direction of the Conservatory.
I was accepted into the class of the famous, at that time already 64-year-old piano teacher Robert Teichmüller, who although very kindly inclined toward me, cannot have taken all that much pleasure in teaching me. For he probably soon recognized that, although I learned much from him, he could not make a pianist out of me and that my real love was composition. My teacher for this subject – which initially took the form of traditional harmony and counterpoint theory, was Günter Raphael, who was appointed to teach at the Conservatory in 1926 at the age of twenty-three.
Besides him, working there at that time as composition teachers were Sigfrid Karg-Elert and Hermann Grabner, also Fritz Reuter (not to be confused with the “Stromtid” poet nor with the various other composers Reuters or Reutters) and the young Kurt Thomas. Other students of Grabner during my time included Wolfgang Fortner, Hugo Distler, Karl Thieme and Miklós Rózsa. Among Karg-Elert’s outstanding composition students were the organist Helmut Walcha (with whom I had not yet, however, become personally acquainted at that time) as well as Sigfrid Walther Müller, who became a lecturer at the Conservatory in 1929. I enjoyed (to jump ahead slightly) his very stimulating instruction in full-score realization and in conducting. I last spoke to him in 1940 when I attended a performance of my “Little Suite” (under Hermann Abendroth) at the Gewandhaus. He died in 1946 in a Russian prisoner of war camp – a great compositional talent that does not deserve to be forgotten.
I did not become very well acquainted with Hugo Distler at the time and in later years encountered him unfortunately only once, very briefly. – I also did not become personally acquainted with Wolfgang Fortner until the Thirties. He conducted the premiere performance of the orchestral version of my “Wunderhorn Songs” op. 15. in Heidelberg in 1940. – With Miklós Rózsa I have shared a beautiful friendship since our student days, one that was interrupted by the war and has since continued mostly in epistolary form, for he left Germany in 1932 and has been living in Hollywood for decades.
Celebrities amongst the teachers other than those already named were the brothers Paul and Julius Klengel, the flautist Maximilian Schwedler, the violinist and later conductor Charles Münch (at that time concert master in the Gewandhaus Orchestra along with Edgar Wollgandt), the pianist and piano pedagogue Carl Adolf Martienssen, the choirmaster of the St. Thomas Choir, Karl Straube, as head of the Church Music Institute and the organists Günther Ramin, Karl Hoyer and Friedrich Högner.
My teacher, the composer Günter Raphael, had at that time, above all of course in Leipzig, a much greater reputation than today. His 1st Symphony had been premiered in 1926, and hence before my time, by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Gewandhaus with great success. I myself attended, besides a number of orchestral works, chamber music and organ works, the first Leipzig performance of his Requiem at the Gewandhaus in 1929 under Karl Straube. This important early work made a deep impression on me. Unforgettable also were the premiere by the St. Thomas Choir of two works for a cappella choir: the 12-voice Psalm 104 and the 8-voice Motet “Vom jüngsten Gericht”, as well as of the Divertimento for orchestra by the Berlin Philharmonic under Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Gewandhaus at the beginning of 1933.
Curiously, at premieres of Raphael’s chamber music works, I twice experienced that famous conductors-to-be took part in the performances: Rudolf Kempe (then 1st Oboist in the Gewandhaus Orchestra) in the Sonata for Oboe, and Charles Münch playing the particularly demanding viola part in the 3rd String Quartet (premiered by the then Davisson Quartet).
As far as the extraordinary circumstances are concerned, the time at the Conservatory was not entirely easy for me. I saved money on my meals to pay for the relatively rare visits to concerts and operas, naturally in the cheapest seats. I regularly attended the “Motets at the St. Thomas Church” that were held on Fridays and Saturdays, where the admission was free. There I became familiar with the old and the newer a cappella choir literature through the Thomaner Choir led by Karl Straube or sometimes also a younger prefect. (For at that time of course the Bach Motets too were sung exclusively a cappella.) And with the music of the 16th and 17th century, above all that of Heinrich Schütz, a new chapter of music history was opened up for me, one that would later exert a great effect on me. I also experienced impressive premieres of newer choir works by Arnold Mendelssohn, Günter Raphael, Kurt Thomas and Hugo Distler. In addition I heard the most important larger organ works by Buxtehude, Sweelinck, and many by Reger and others. At the organ was the St. Thomas organist Günther Ramin, sometimes his student Helmut Walcha (whose improvisations already at that time made a huge impression on me), or Gerhard Bochmann, as well as later Hanns Heintze and Herbert Collum.
In the summer of 1927, I attended at the St. Thomas Church under the direction of Karl Straube the premiere performance of Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” in the arrangement and orchestration by Wolfgang Graeser. It was my first encounter with the work, although to be sure Günter Raphael had previously introduced its structure to me. In spite of the quite problematic arrangement, it made an overpowering impression on me.
Another little Bach premiere (I believe, in 1929) is vivid in my memory – the then newly discovered Sonata in G Major for Violin and Basso continuo (BWV 1021), played by Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin.
The music of Bach was for me the biggest and most persistent musical experience of my Leipzig years. Only then did I become aware of how little attention was paid to this music in Frankfurt at that time, other than the annual performances of the “St. Matthew Passion” by the “St. Cecilia Society”. (That changed fundamentally when Helmut Walcha – and later also Kurt Thomas –began working in Frankfurt.)
So it was in Leipzig that I first became properly acquainted with the Mass in B Minor, the Magnificat, The “St. John Passion”, as well as the “Christmas Oratorio” and many others, first hearing and reading them, later also singing in the choir myself.
I owe also much stimulation to the Gewandhaus Concerts, of which to be sure I generally could manage to attended only the morning pre-concert (the dress rehearsal, so to speak). Because during my secondary school years I had only rarely heard orchestral concerts, I had much to catch up. For about a year I was still able to experience Wilhelm Furtwängler as conductor of these concerts – unforgettable for example was Beethoven’s 9th Symphony under his direction. There followed an “interregnum” with different guest conductors such as Bruno Walter, Fritz Busch, Otto Klemperer, Hermann Scherchen and others, until the autumn of 1929 when Bruno Walter took over the permanent direction of the concerts (with some exceptions). The choir concerts as before were usually under the direction of Karl Straube. Of the Bruno Walter era I especially recall, aside from the magnificent Mozart performances, a performance of Mahler’s “Song of the Earth”, which made a deep impression on me; furthermore a concert in which the fifteen-year-old Yehudi Menuhin dazzlingly played the Violin Concerti of Mendelssohn and Beethoven.
Along with the Motets at the St. Thomas Church, these concerts too were of decisive importance for me, in that I became properly acquainted for the first time with a large part of the symphonic literature, which until then I had known predominantly through four-handed piano versions; above all, however, I frequently read along from the miniature scores, and it was probably through this more than anything else that I learned the craft of orchestration, for I never took lessons in that subject.
As part of the predominantly traditional programs of the Gewandhaus events, I experienced, besides the Requiem already mentioned and other works by Günter Raphael, many premieres of contemporary music that especially impressed themselves upon my memory: for example Honegger’s “King David” under Karl Straube and Kodaly’s “Hungarian Psalm” (under the direction of the composer), later under BrunoWalter the 1st Symphony of Dimitri Shostakovich, who was then yet unknown in Germany, the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra by Stravinsky with the composer at the piano (under Otto Klemperer), the Viola Concerto op. 36 by Paul Hindemith. Hindemith also performed the solo part in his Concerto (under the direction of Fritz Busch), with supreme skill and mastery of course, but, in keeping with the character of the work, “impersonally” and quite without emotion. A portion of the elegantly attired public at the evening concerts – I attended only the morning pre-concerts – is said to have taken offense, not only at the piece itself, but almost more at the fact that the composer appeared in a dark blue suit and not in a tailcoat.
Interesting also were the concerts by the Symphony Orchestra at the “Albert Hall”, a former circus building whose “foyer” still reeked of big cats. Apart from Alfred Szendrey and Heinrich Laber, Hermann Scherchen also sometimes conducted there. Remaining in my memory among other things is one outstanding, rhythmically distinctive performance of the music to the pantomime “The Miraculous Mandarin” by Bartók. A few minutes after the start of the performance, Sigfrid Karg-Elert left the hall, striding energetically down the center aisle, whereupon numerous listeners followed his example. Admittedly, this music was quite a hard nut to crack at that time (late 1920’s) and all the more so for the traditionally minded Leipzig.
In my first two college years – from 1927 to the spring of 1929 – I practiced the piano obediently and as prescribed, to be sure, but in addition I always also composed. I wrote a piano trio, songs after poems of Liliencron, a very lengthy variation work for piano, a piano sonata and others. Although in these works I already sought, though with moderate success, an individual imprint, I had to overcome certain inhibitions before showing my compositions to Günter Raphael. I submitted to him both of the larger piano works, which impressed him somehow in spite of their shortcomings. From then on I composed under his supervision to some extent. He was a very charming person of great sensitivity and with much warmth and humor, who in spite of his huge early successes never made any more show of his superiority than necessary. As a composition teacher he was merciless, true to the words “Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo” – I had to write a number of sonata movements three times over – and I benefited immensely from his critical judgment, which was stamped by a strong feeling for form, and (hopefully) also learned to be critical in regards to my own works.
During that time I wrote among other things two works that were performed in the Conservatory’s public recitals, as well as in radio broadcast: a sonata for violin and piano as well as a partita for violoncello and piano. During my college years, a number of two- and three-part inventions for piano also emerged. Eight of them later appeared in print (as “op. 1”), something I now regret, for some of the pieces would have better remained unpublished. Furthermore I wrote two motets, one for six and another for eight voices.
My final examination, which was known as Reifeprüfung or “test of maturity” and which probably corresponded more closely to an advanced “private music teacher examination” than today’s “test of artistic maturity”, had “piano” as its major subject, and as a “composer” I naturally found the written exam in harmony and counterpoint, with its moderate requirements, quite easy. So I had time to incorporate into my modulation exercises – obediently arranged for four-voices – for which I used well-known folk and popular songs with my own alterations on the lyrics, such as “I don’t know what it should mean, that I am so sad; I let myself to be allured to the test, and it has yet quite no sense” [after the well-known “Lorelei”] or a version of the Heinrich Mann song from the film “The Blue Angel” with Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings: “I am completely broke [instead of ”set for love“] from head to foot, swindled out of 50 marks – and nothing else.”
While I was still sitting in the exam room working on an assignment in musical form, Professor Davisson came in with deadly serious face to me and ordered me immediately to erase the lyrics (which fortunately were written only with pencil), but then confessed to me that he and many colleagues had found them very amusing. Not everyone, to be sure – some teachers apparently took offense especially at the word “swindled” and were inclined to reject my examination altogether. (Incidentally, the test fee of 50 marks was at that time quite a substantial sum.) It was thanks to the influence of the more sympathetic members of the examining board that my examination was passed, and I was henceforth permitted to call myself a “nationally certified piano teacher”, although I have never made use of this privilege.
After that I lived for about two more years in Leipzig, gave piano lessons, though the pay was not enough to cover my living expenses, and sang in the “Bach Society” (in effect the “Gewandhaus Choir”) under Karl Straube, which apart from the experience of taking part in the large choir repertoire, also enabled me to attend the pre-concerts at the Gewandhaus for free.
In March of 1933 Bruno Walter’s conducting at the Gewandhaus ended under oppressive circumstances. I will never forget the shock that came over me – as it did over many other concert goers. As I arrived as usual to attend the pre-concert, I encountered a crowd of visitors streaming toward me, as the concert had been cancelled by reason of an order from the Interior Ministry of Saxony. Bruno Walter describes the events of those days movingly and in detail in his book “Theme and Variations”.
After that I experienced two more Gewandhaus concerts in which I sang in the choir: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony under Eugen Jochum and Brahms’ “German Requiem” under Karl Straube.
During the last couple of years at the conservatory a cordial friendship had grown up between me and Günter Raphael, and I continued to submit my compositions to his helpful criticism: among others various larger organ works, a Sonata for flute and piano, and a Capriccio for solo piano.
The first concert performance of a work of mine (apart from the above-mentioned recitals of the conservatory) was of my Chamber Concerto for harpsichord and string orchestra in the spring of 1933 in Leipzig by Günther Ramin under direction of Sigfrid Walther Müller. It was – thanks to the excellent interpretation – a wonderful success. In this work, I strove to develop all three movements out of the same core idea – a principle (not of my invention, of course!) that I still occasionally used later, for example in the 1st Symphony and in the 2nd String Quartet. 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.
In the year 1932 Marlen Raphael, the sister of the composer, encouraged me to write some dances to characters from the “Struwwelpeter”. She was a dancer (a student of Palucca) with a special aptitude for the grotesque, and she knew of my descent from the “Struwwelpeter”author Heinrich Hoffmann. So I wrote five Burlesque Dances for piano, which she then performed on numerous occasions. A few years later – as a “half-Jew” – she was no longer allowed to perform in public.
An orchestral version of these dances, the “Struwwelpeter Suite”, was premiered in 1934 by Hans Rosbaud and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, though only in broadcast. In 1943 Rosbaud also conducted a ballet performance of the dances in Strasbourg (which I unfortunately did not attend).
These dances are my only ballet composition and, aside from the above-mentioned Harpsichord Concerto, which is scored only for string orchestra, my first orchestral work. Despite its rather trivial character it is not without importance for my further compositional development, as it contributed through its larger tonal differentiation possibilities to a certain loosening-up of my style.
In the mean time the financial situation in our family had deteriorated even more. My father fell into a deep depression and took his own life in May of 1933. Naturally this event hit my mother and us children very hard, and for me it also meant a big change: even more than previously I had to strive to stand on my own feet economically.
I owe it to the always-helpful friend Günter Raphael, that Karl Straube wrote a letter to the curator of Dr. Hoch’s Conservatory in Frankfurt, in which he recommended me as a music theory teacher. As result, I was appointed to this institute in the autumn of 1933, succeeding the theory teacher Karl Kern, who was retiring due to age. The director of the conservatory at that time was the then principal conductor of the Frankfurt Opera, Bertil Wetzelsberger, who displayed considerable backbone in that difficult time. For example, some “non-Arian” students were allowed to attend the conservatory even until 1936.
Appointed at the same time as myself were, among others, the organist Helmut Walcha, the composer Gerhard Frommel, and the violinists Gustav Lenzewski and Joseph Peischer.
I gave class instruction in harmony, counterpoint and ear training; as far as I remember, it was at first for only ten hours a week. My gross monthly salary amounted to 100 marks. But I was able to live in my mother’s house, and in the course of time some private lessons supplemented the conservatory teaching.
After the tragic death of my father, my mother had received support from various quarters, and we moved into a housing development, which along with some advantages had the disadvantage of being very poorly soundproofed, so that I was able to play music only to a very limited extent, and was also often disturbed by music from other floors.
In the year 1934, I was deeply saddened by the news, which to be sure was not entirely unexpected, that Günter Raphael was banned from practicing his profession. Until then, he still had been allowed to teach at the Leipzig Conservatory. He remained in Germany, went into “internal exile” and lived until the end of the war in 1945, interrupted by hospital stays, in Meiningen, where his wife the pianist Pauline Raphael – and he himself secretly also – were able to keep themselves more or less afloat by giving music lessons. I corresponded regularly with him and visited him often in Meinigen. After the war he lived first in Laubach (Oberhessen), later he taught at the Duisburger Conservatory and at the Cologne Music University as well as at the Peter Cornelius Conservatory in Mainz. Always in fragile health, he died in 1960 in Herford. Pauline Raphael, a friend since our joint student days, has dedicated herself to preserving and promoting the compositional output that formed his life’s work.
After my “Struwwelpeter Suite” I produced some works which also were in part publicly performed: the 1st String Quartet, the Piano Quartet, Piano Pieces, also two orchestral works, namely the 1st Symphony and the “Little Suite” (op. 14). A piece for choir, solos and orchestra was also created during this time: the chorale cantata “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ”. More than other works of that time it was influenced by the traditional “Leipzig school”. Today I am no longer particularly interested in this composition – I mention it only because it is, apart from my attempts dating from the years in Leipzig, my first religious choral work.
My first opus that was performed publicly in Frankfurt was the 1st String Quartet. Thanks to the excellent and committed rendition by the Lenzewski Quartet (1934) this premiere was a great success. Since that time Gustav Lenzewski always lent particular support to my music as long as he continued to perform, both with his quartet (which over the decades changed partners a number of times) and also in his solo work.
Important auditory experiences for me were also the premieres of the first orchestral works: first of all the “Struwwelpeter Suite”, some years later the 1st Symphony, both by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hans Rosbaud, who rehearsed meticulously and with a precise knowledge of the score, obtaining the composer’s consent for each detail, though not in such a way as to impair the spontaneity of his music-making. Both performances, to be sure, were radio broadcasts rather than public concerts. That didn’t make a difference to me, though, since all I wanted was to hear the works once in an authentic performance.
In the mean time, in 1936, a change had occurred in the direction of Dr. Hoch’s Conservatory: the previous director Bertil Wetzelsberger had been replaced by the composer Hermann Reutter. In view of the latter’s reputation as an important composer and outstanding song accompanist, this was certainly a good solution. For myself, to be sure, it brought with it drawbacks, especially at the beginning, although on a personal level I was always on good terms with Reutter. For in the course of some new appointments, two new teachers of music theory joined the staff along with Reutter himself: the pedagogically experienced and no longer quite young Hugo Holle and the at that time already very successful composer Karl Höller. The consequence was that as the youngest of the instructors, I was assigned the less popular elementary theory lessons for singers and orchestral students, as well as for the students of the preparatory school. Fortunately, at the end of one semester I was freed from teaching theory to ballet dancers.
Nevertheless I took great pleasure in some of my students and, in looking back on that time, would not have missed the experience for anything. For later on I was frequently struck by the fact that even with advanced instrumentalists, not to mention singers, “remedial” instruction in basic music theory is often required. And the experiences of that time often proved useful to me in later years.
In addition, even during the politically dark years, the friendly discourse with both students and colleagues at the conservatory provided me with new ideas and energy in numerous respects. I carried-on a lively exchange of views, for example, with my fellow composer Gerhard Frommel, who in 1935 established a “Working Group on New Music”, with Gustav Lenzewski as well as with Helmut Walcha, whose organ concerts I regularly attended and with whom I have maintained a close friendship above all since the end of the war.
Apart from a very few colleagues, with whom one had to be careful about any expressions of political opinion, a good atmosphere prevailed at the conservatory.
In the same year as the 1st Symphony (1937), my “Little Suite” op. 14 (a predominantly cheerful opus scored for small orchestra) also received its premiere, this time at a concert that was part of a subscription series of the Frankfurt Museum Society with the municipal orchestra under Franz Konwitschny. The performance was excellent and the response was very good, even from the press, as far as I can remember.
Presumably as the result of a review in the newspaper, the F. E. C. Leuckart publishing house (based at that time in Leipzig) approached me with the request to submit the score. So for the first time, one of my compositions came to be printed.
Very personal, emotional reasons compelled me at this time to turn once again to song composition. Thus there emerged altogether 13 “Wunderhorn Songs” for soprano and piano (originally there were more), twelve of which I arranged soon after for small orchestra as well.
My second string quartet created after this has a special “history”: Its premiere by the Lenzewski Quartet was on the program of a concert of the “Reich Music Chamber” in Berlin. However, because I was still very much unknown, the piece was performed before a board from the aforementioned institution in my absence for approval and provoked the displeasure of that body.
So the piece, which in spite of its adherence to tonality reveals the influence of Hindemith, perhaps also of Bartók, was dropped from the program. This decision was criticized at that time in a music journal, as a result of which more attention was directed toward me than probably would been the case if a public performance had taken place. The Quartet was premiered soon after in Frankfurt by the Lenzewski Quartet excellently and with success, and not much later in an independent concert of this ensemble in Berlin as well.
The “Concerto grosso” for orchestra, composed in 1938, which I now would prefer to call “Concert No. 1 for Orchestra”, for it is not a concerto grosso in the strict sense of the word, attracted considerable attention. It was premiered most impressively in 1939 at the International Music Festival in Baden-Baden, by the municipal orchestra there under the direction of Gotthold E. Lessing. It is probably due to the promotional work of the Leuckart Publishing House, which published this piece as well, that Wilhelm Furtwängler became acquainted with it and performed it in Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. I also attended the general rehearsal in Hamburg, where Furtwängler inquired very specifically whether I had anything else in mind or had special wishes concerning the interpretation. He was extremely friendly and without any affectations of a celebrity, an impression which was confirmed time after time in subsequent encounters. The performances were magnificent and left no wishes unfulfilled.
Probably among other factors the Furtwängler performances helped to make this Concerto my most performed symphonic work domestically and abroad. Oswald Kabasta conducted it on a number of occasions, as did Karl Elmendorff, Hans Rosbaud, Hans Weisbach, Franz Konwitschny and, in the Fifties, also Georg Solti.
In 1938 “Dr. Hoch’s Conservatory” had become a “National University for Music and Theater”. In the same year, I was commissioned by the Frankfurt municipal theater to write an incidental music to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. I gladly undertook this task which was novel to me, and so, within a relatively brief time, due to the short deadline, the music was written. It featured only a few instruments, since at that time in the “New Theater”, where the performances took place, there was not enough room (perhaps also not enough money) for a proper orchestra.
The director Richard Salzmann was not very enthusiastic about my work – he found the music too “thematic” and too distracting from the play. As an example of what he had in mind he cited the accompanying music to an art film, which I thereupon obediently watched. I could not, however, bring myself to change the music to conform to this stylistic model, and the play continued to be accompanied by my music, which induced Dr. Karl Holl (then of the “Frankfurter Zeitung”) to encourage me to compose a comic opera, in the event that I should find a suitable libretto. Nevertheless I have come to understand that not only the director, but perhaps also many actors as well, would have preferred a purely tonal background music. Soon thereafter I extracted the most significant pieces from this theater music and put them together in an orchestral suite, which was premiered in 1942 in Berlin by the Berlin Philharmonic under Otto Winkler.
In December 1939 I married Gisela Volhard, who had passed the private music teacher examination for piano in the summer of the same year, and had also been a theory student of mine for a while. She was the tenth and youngest child of the internist Franz Volhard. This important physician, a strong and very original personality, would certainly rather have desired a “doctor” for a son-in-law, especially since I drew a very small salary at that time. As an amateur violinist, however, he was a great lover of music, if not specifically of mine. (As he once said, referring to his future son-in-law: “If only he had at least written the ‘Rosenkavalier’!” I too would have liked that, especially as far as the royalties are concerned.) Nevertheless I was received into the family circle on the friendliest terms by him and all the Volhards.
It was probably due to the success of the “Concerto grosso” that in 1939 I received a commission to write an orchestral work for the “Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde” in Baden-Baden. At that time I was working on my Piano Concerto (op. 21), the conception of which had occupied me for a rather long time, and so I was able to submit this. It was premiered in 1940 by the pianist Georg Kuhlmann, who already had some of my works in his repertoire, under the direction of Gotthold E. Lessing in Baden-Baden. In the Fifties, the pianist Friedrich Wührer took it up, and Karl Weiß also played it many times in concerts and broadcasts.
The manuscript score of this piece was lost in a bomb attack on Leipzig, in which the Leuckart publishing house was hit, and there was not another copy. My friend (and former student) Hellmut Collatz took it upon himself in the Fifties to produce a new score from a nearly illegible pencil-written version that was still in existence, and I took advantage of the opportunity to revise the piece once again, although indeed this new version contains only negligible changes. Naturally today I compose somewhat differently than I did nearly 50 years ago. Nevertheless I still have a thoroughly positive attitude toward the Concerto and am pleased with its “rescue”.
It was probably also due to Wilhelm Furtwängler’s performances of the “Concerto grosso” (op. 18), that in 1940, simultaneously with the composers Max Trapp and Karl Höller, I was awarded the “National Music Prize” for composition.
It was probably around this time that Hugo Holle, until then the acting director of the Frankfurt Musikhochschule, took over as director of the Stuttgart Hochschule. His successor in Frankfurt in 1941 was the composer Ernst Lothar von Knorr, who during the war in his capacity as music advisor in the high command of the army showed exceptional support for numerous musicians of my generation.
During this time, I wrote – apart from chamber music works and small piano pieces – two choral cantatas with orchestra: my first works in this genre, apart from the unpublished Chorale Cantata op. 9. These are the extensive secular cantata “Fiddle Songs” after a cycle of poems by Theodor Storm as well as some years later the “Christmas Cantata” after Matthias Claudius; in addition, for the first time since my student years, also compositions for a cappella choir: “5 Cheerful Chorales” op. 28 and “4 Choral Songs” op. 31.
In October 1943, the Frankfurt Musikhochschule was totally destroyed by a bomb attack. Teaching continued for a while, first in the Passavant-Gontard Palais (in the Bockenheimer Landstraße); then, after that too was destroyed, in private homes. Finally this too ceased, because in the spring of 1944 the greater part of the city, including our apartment, was bombed.
Because of the children, my family had already moved previously, together with other relatives, to Masserberg in Thüringen, where my father-in-law owned a vacation house. Here I too spent the last months of the war – in an emergency shelter after the house was destroyed by bombs.
The bulk of the work on my 2nd Symphony was done in 1943. It may be that the great interest that Wilhelm Furtwängler showed in my work inspired me in this and, influenced me unconsciously to turn it into a large-scale symphonic work that – in contrast to my later orchestral compositions – still stands to some extent in the Bruckner-Brahms tradition. Nevertheless I still identify with the piece today, even if I could no longer write in the same manner. The premiere of the Symphony by the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwängler took place in December 1944 in Berlin, in the “Admiralspalast” because the Philharmonie had been destroyed. Furtwängler had made the work utterly his own, as he of course did with every work he conducted, and the performance by this magnificent orchestra corresponded in every regard to my conception; I could not have wished for a finer and more committed performance.
Because after the end of the war in 1945 the teaching at the Musikhochschule had not yet resumed, I gave some private lessons for the time being. We lived, during those first post-war years, in the apartment of relatives. One of my most extensive works was created during this period: the “Triptych Psalms”. I assembled the text as follows: The first part consists of the five verses of Luther’s hymn “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” [“Out of deep distress I cry out to you”] (using the Phrygian chorale melody), interspersed with texts from the Psalms and Isaiah. The second part, which was actually written some years later, contains the eighth Psalm and the closing verse of the song “In you I have hoped, Lord”. The third part is a setting of the “Psalm” by Klopstock, a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer.
This work was premiered most impressively in 1952 in Mönchengladbach by Heinz Anraths, who had conducted the original performance of the “Fiddle Songs” in 1942. The participating choirs were the “Cecilia” chorus (Mönchengladbach) and the “Düsseldorfer Lehrergesangverein”. The work was performed once more in Essen, and then never again, to my knowledge, probably because of its traditional style and the elaborate instrumentation: two four-part choirs, two vocal soloists, large orchestra and organ.
In the mean time the Musikhochschule had established itself again in very makeshift quarters, in part even in private homes. The first department to commence operations was, on the initiative of Helmut Walcha, the department of church music, followed half a year later by the music education department and in 1949 by the private music teachers’ seminar. Not until after Walther Davisson was engaged as artistic director in 1950 could the performance classes and the orchestra school be opened. The “Davisson Era” was followed in 1954 by the triumvirate of Helmut Walcha, Gustav Lenzewski and Erich Flinsch, until, after some more-or-less tragicomic incidents, the composer Philipp Mohler was hired as director in 1958. Mohler, like Walther Davisson before him, did much to expand and improve the Musikhochschule.
I taught music theory mainly at the departments of church music and of music education, and occasionally also advanced classes in free composition. Not all too many composers in the strict sense of the word emerged from my classes. Of those whose compositions have been published I name Reinhold Finkbeiner, Wolfgang Wiemer, Gottfried Neubert, Frank Michael, Jürgen Blume, and Armin Schoof. Almost all of them have adopted approaches to composition that differ considerably from mine, which I can only welcome.
Since the creation of the “Triptych Psalms”, sacred choral music – which previously was represented, apart from motets of the student years, only by the aforementioned Chorale Cantata (op. 9) and the “Christmas Cantata” (op. 27) – plays a large role in my work, almost as large in quantitative terms as does instrumental music. I composed, for example, numerous a cappella motets both large and small, from three-part to eight-part, from the six-part motet “O Herr, mache mich zum Werkzeug deines Friedens” (1946) which has been sung quite frequently, to the (also six-part) chorale motet “Christus, der uns selig macht” (1983), as well as some cycles of sacred choral songs.
But throughout this period I also wrote much instrumental music, including some commissioned works, for example the 3rd Symphony for the Hessische Rundfunk [Hessian Radio] (1954) and the 2nd Concert for Orchestra on behalf of the Frankfurt Museum Society (1957).
Of the choral works with orchestral or instrumental accompaniment, the cantatas “Es lebet all’s durch Liebe” (after quotations from the “Cherubinischen Wandersmann” by Angelus Silesius) as well as “Vom Wesen und Vergehen” (after poems by Matthias Claudius) are worth mentioning. This last work was recognized by the Robert Schumann Prize of the City of Düsseldorf in 1951, which I shared with Hans Werner Henze.
For the National Church Music Day in Alsfeld in 1953 and for the “Hessische Kantorei” I wrote the “Cantata of the Thankful Samaritan” (at the suggestion of the choirmaster Philipp Reich who very much supported my music), accompanied only by brass and organ. I always think back especially fondly on the very moving premiere performance in 1953 of this cantata in Alsfeld, with the participation of all of the Hessian church choirs (in the choruses).
Many years later Helmuth Rilling, who had already provided the impetus for the two-choir motet “Mitten wir im Leben sind…”, suggested that I write a piece of Passion music. So I wrote the “Passion according to Luke the Evangelist” for small chorus (the words of Christ), large chorus, soloists and orchestra. It had its very impressive premiere in 1978 at the Frankfurt Dreikönigskirche with Rilling conducting the “Frankfurter Kantorei”. In this work, the Passion song “Oh, we poor sinners” – also with its original text “Oh, thou poor Judas” – plays an important role in the choral movements, solo numbers, and instrumental interludes. Aside from this song, I also made use of a poem by Maria Luise Thurmair-Mumelter (“Thanks to you, Lord, through eternity”) and, in the closing chorus, a text from the “Pomeranian Church Order of 1563”, which I had already once set to music years ago in the a-cappella piece “The seven words of Christ on the Cross”, though in this case only in much shorter form.
The “Mass” that I wrote only a few years after the “St. Luke Passion” also enjoyed a magnificent premiere performance by the “Frankfurter Kantorei” in 1984, this time however in the studio of the Hessische Rundfunk under the direction of Wolfgang Schäfer. Several chorale melodies are touched upon in this work, predominantly in the orchestral movement.
A preliminary stage of the Mass, so to speak, with regard also to chorale quotations, is the “Deutsche Ordinarium”, which predates it by roughly ten years. This I wrote at the request of the musical director of Limburg Cathedral, Hans Bernhard. Premiered in 1974 in Limburg on the Lahn by the Limburger Cathedral Choir, it is a relatively short piece accompanied only by organ, and it also incorporates a precentor and the voices of the congregation.
Not to be forgotten is the excellent “Figuralchor des Hessischen Rundfunks” [Hessian Radio Figural Choir] and its conductor Alois Ickstadt, on whose suggestion I wrote the motet “Comfort my people”, which he premiered in 1982. Years before, he and his choir had already created exemplary performances of my “Christmas Cantata” (op. 27) and some of the a cappella chorales.
My last – for the moment at least – choral work is a setting of Psalm 103 for chorus, solo voices and orchestra. It was written at the suggestion of Ulrich Stötzel, director of the Siegen church choir, who –after a very beautiful, faithful interpretation of my “St. Luke Passion” in 1985 – successfully premiered this new work about one and a half years later with his “Bach Choir”.
A few secular cantatas also emerged during the time between 1949 and 1959: First of all the “Struwwelpeter Cantata” for children’s chorus and small orchestra. It is dedicated to my (at that time) four children Monika, Rainer, Gabriele and Matthias – the youngest (Cornelia) was not yet included as she was born five year later.
Since we are on the subject of children: the two eldest were born during the last years of the war, the other three are postwar-children. All five are musical. The two youngest have composed some very pretty pieces for specific occasions, some when they were still children and others in their more mature years. None of them, though, has taken up music as a career. Nor has any musical prodigy yet emerged among the grandchildren as of yet.
In 1956/57 I wrote the “Three Choral Ballads” (after poems of August Kopisch, Ernst Moritz Arndt and Friedrich Rückert) for a setting similar to that of the “Struwwelpeter Cantata”, but somewhat more difficult, and then, about two years later, the cheerful cantata “Weinlein, nun gang ein!” for men’s chorus, tenor soloist and orchestra.
Besides this I occasionally wrote, on request, some “everyday music” for chorus: folksongs and choral movements as well as small motets, in which I strove for ease of performance.
In numerical terms, songs for solo voice and piano are not well represented in the catalogue of my works, and two of the cycles in this category – the “Wunderhorn Songs” (op. 15) and the “Liedern eines Lumpen” (op. 51) also exist in an orchestral version. For some of the other cycles, I chose from the outset – whether of my own volition or at the “client’s” request –a chamber music setting, for example in the Storm Songs op. 32, the Goes Songs op. 64, and the “Children Songs” op. 95 based on poems by Christian Morgenstern.
The texts that I set to music – the same applies also to the choral songs – are mostly poems with relatively simple diction and arranged in stanzas. Lyrical works with very musically saturated language or with deeply philosophical contents, as well as poems in antique meter, I would rather read than set to music.
From my present perspective, I consider the solo songs based on poems by Albrecht Goes (op. 64), Hermann Hesse (op. 80) and Christian Morgenstern (op. 95) to be the most successful, but perhaps only because they are closer to me now both in time and in style than the cycles created earlier.
Another musical genre to which I have contributed a considerable number of works since 1947 is organ music. Previously I had written, apart from some immature youthful works, only some chorale preludes for anthologies. Two chorale partitas were created in 1946/48; in 1951, at the suggestion of Helmut Walcha (who premiered four of my larger organ works), a trio sonata and two other, not cantus-firmus-based organ works followed. In the course of our collaboration on these compositions, I had an extraordinary opportunity to admire not only the creative strength but also the phenomenal memory of this great organist.
In the subsequent period I wrote another chorale fantasy, as well as numerous chorale preludes for anthologies. Some of these were simple to perform, while others were more demanding. Apart from these smaller pieces, composing for organ took a back seat to other tasks for a number of years. It was not until 1982, encouraged by the excellent organist Edgar Krapp, who also premiered the work, that I again wrote a larger work: the Fantasy on the chorale “I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ”, and more recently (1986) two more works on smaller scale: a passacaglia and a toccata, both using chorale melodies. The Passacaglia was a commissioned work for International Bell Day in Frankfurt on the Main (in May 1986) and was premiered there by Reinhardt Menger, while the Toccata was first performed in December of the same year by Hans-Joachim Bartsch in Mainz.
Though I wrote some small cycles of smaller pieces and a sonatina for piano alone in the Thirties and Forties, I had not created a larger solo work in this genre since my student days. It was no doubt the friendship with two such eminent pianists as Karl Weiß and August Leopolder that inspired me to compose two full-fledged piano sonatas in the Sixties. Both Weiß and Leopolder had advocated music of mine on numerous occasions. As a result of the premature death of Karl Weiß, he unfortunately did not perform the 1st Sonata at its premiere; instead, it was first performed in 1975 by Hans-Georg Homuth in Baden-Baden. The 2nd Sonata was premiered in 1967 by August Leopolder in Frankfurt; a 3rd Sonata premiered in 1982 by Friedrich Wilhelm Schnurr in Siegen. All three versions accorded perfectly with my vision of these works. Friedrich Schnurr has included these three sonatas and numerous smaller piano pieces in his repertoire, as well as the Piano Concerto and the Sonata for two pianos composed in 1980. He has recorded an LP consisting exclusively of my piano works.
An extensive body of works for piano was created in the period from 1967 to 1970: 64 Miniatures ranging in difficulty from “very easy” to “rather difficult”: most of these are still in manuscript form. My last piano compositions are a set of Variations (on an original theme) that I wrote in 1984 at the instigation of the pianist Sontraud Speidel (premiered by her in Bonn in 1986), and a 4th Sonata (composed in 1987).
Nevertheless, I have generally found composing for orchestra and for chamber music settings more appealing than composing for piano alone, probably due above all to my style which tends toward contrapuntal writing.
In the case of orchestral music, with increasing age I have by and large moved toward using smaller settings. Even in my 1st Symphony (1935/36), I removed the non-essential tuba in a later revision (1979). The last piece with relatively large setting is the 2nd Concerto for Orchestra written in 1957 (premiered in 1958 in Frankfurt under Georg Solti). The 3rd and 4th Symphonies are essentially written for a “classical” orchestra. The 3rd Symphony enjoyed a “second premiere”– with a new version of the finale – in 1983 by the orchestra of the Frankfurt Musikhochschule under Jiry Starek. The vitality and enthusiasm of the musicians at this performance gave me particular pleasure.
The combination of a solo instrument with orchestra also has great appeal for me. Here I never exceeded a medium-sized orchestral setting: Piano Concerto op. 21, Schumann Variations (for piano and orchestra) op. 88, Violin Concerto op. 100, Violoncello Concerto op. 96.
In the concertante works for 2 pianos (op. 50), for oboe (op. 92) and for bassoon (op. 106), only a small orchestra lends its support.
I have had since my youth a special connection to chamber music, especially for string instruments, although I unfortunately never played such an instrument. (I still perceive this as a deficiency, but it is too late now to learn to play a string instrument.)
Thus there are – besides some works for string orchestra – altogether eight string quartets, two string trios, a string quintet, and pieces for ensembles of violins, of cellos and of contrabasses, apart from the combinations with piano or other instruments.
More of a marginal activity, at least in a quantitative sense, was the composing of music for the theater. Apart from the aforementioned stage music for “The Tempest”, I spent some time in the early Forties working on opera material based on a play by Robert Browning; however, I pursued this plan no further, and the composition did not progress beyond sketches.
Around 1960 I began the composition of a comic opera entitled “The Striped Guest”. The libretto was by my friend K. H. Schuster, a painter and set designer from Plauen, who later lived in Frankfurt for many years. The material is based on a story by Werner Bergengruen: “The Remarkable Inn”, contained in a collection of short stories under the title “Der Tod von Reval”. The libretto, in my view, offers quite a few possibilities, but the subject matter is not especially topical today, and it has never yet been staged. My work on this opus spanned several years, because we undertook a very radical reworking of the libretto and of the music, and because of other work which demanded my attention in the interim.
Relatively few of my works were formally commissioned. Any that were are so identified in the catalogue, inasmuch as they are not pieces composed specifically for particular occasions, such as little motets, song movements, chorale preludes and the like. This category also includes the music to a Protestant morning service for the Süddeutschen Rundfunk as well as the music for a radio drama entitled “Der kleine Jakob” (for the Hessische Rundfunk).
There exist, however – besides the works already mentioned – compositions that do not owe their existence to a commission per se, but rather to the suggestions of musicians. So for example Gerhard Mantel, who gave such an outstanding premiere performance of my Cello Concerto, provided the impetus for the composition of a piece for solo violoncello. In earlier years the piano duo of Hans-Otto and Astrid Schmidt-Neuhaus had inspired the Concerto for two pianos and orchestra.
I also gladly fulfilled requests for compositions that came to me from choirmasters and choirs in the GDR or abroad: for example from Erich Schmidt (Meißner Kantorei), Hartwig Eschenburg (Rostocker Motettenchor) and Melvin Dickinson (Bach Society, Louisville, Kentucky). I wrote a sinfonietta for nine brass instruments at the bidding of the “Schweriner Blechbläser-Collegium” (directed by Hans Joachim Drechsler), which has been performed numerous times in the GDR since.
Many compositions owe also their creation to the ideas and suggestions of younger musicians, who were still in training at the time and subsequently performed the works. For the most part these were pieces for somewhat unusual combinations: for example, for solo voice with piano trio, for brass quartet, brass quintet or brass duet. It is unlikely that I would have written compositions for four flutes, for four (or more) violins, for six celli or for four contrabasses entirely of my own volition. On the other hand it was precisely the problems inherent in composing pieces of this sort that sometimes appealed to me.
Much the same can be said of the little pieces that I once wrote for a “viola method”, as well as of some trifles for solo bassoon and for two bassoons (amongst them also a “Fughetta for Bassoons”). In this case, though, luck was not on my side, for the method book planned by a bassoonist never came about.
Once in my life I undertook the adaptation of a work that I did not create: in 1966 Mrs. Elisabeth Furtwängler asked me to prepare an early work of her husband’s, namely his “Te Deum” (composed at the age of 19) for performance in Berlin (the Berlin Philharmonic choir under the direction of Hans Chemin-Petit). The original version of this work had already been performed for the first time in Breslau in 1910 under the direction of Georg Dohrn, and again few years later in Essen under Hermann Abendroth and in Leipzig under Karl Straube. Wilhelm Furtwängler himself had had intended to revise this youthful work, which was rather long and very heavily orchestrated in places, but had never found the time for it. The work is, like all of Furtwängler’s later compositions that we know of, grandly structured, but unlike these is more in the line of Bruckner, without being an imitation of the latter’s style.
My task was confined to the occasional tightening up of form and pruning of excessive orchestration. Naturally new transitions sometimes had to be created as a result of the abridgments, but I never inserted any musical content of my own. It was an interesting task, but one that cost me much time and effort, especially since it was something I was not accustomed to, and at each intervention, no matter how small, I was overcome with scruples as to whether the composer would have approved.
At the performances, which I attended, the work made a great impression on me with the breadth of its vision and the sincerity of its statements. It is of course not what one would call “music of our time”, but then that is scarcely to be expected of a work written at the beginning of our century. I am told that the Te Deum was performed again to great acclaim on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Furtwängler’s in January 1986 in Vienna under the direction of Yehudi Menuhin.
I probably ought to report also that I was twice presented with a Goethe Award: the Goethe Award of the City of Frankfurt in 1973 and the Goethe Award of the State of Hesse in 1979. These were certainly not conferred on me for setting any of Goethe’s texts to music, since this is something I ventured only once on a modest scale: “Songs and Epigrams” for men’s chorus, op. 47.
As for my compositional style, it has undergone certain changes in the course of time, which have by no means taken the form of a linear evolution. This was already true in my student years, when for example after the somewhat austere Inventions (op. 1), partially influenced by Hindemith’s Piano Music op. 37, I wrote pieces that drew more on older music and that one could probably describe at the time as being in the “typical Leipzig style”. Later too, after creating less readily accessible works, I sometimes had the desire to go back to a more traditional style. The rather severe 1st Symphony, for example, was followed by the relatively simple “Seven Little Piano Pieces”, the Violin Divertimento, the “Little Suite” for orchestra and the “Wunderhorn Songs”, while the 2nd String Quartet, not well received at the time (1937), was followed by more catchy works such as the Piano Sonatina, the “Concerto grosso”, the Piano Concerto, the “Fiddle Songs” and others.
At the same time – as in the Trio for Two Violins and Piano, in the 3rd String Quartet and in the four-handed Piano Pieces op. 34 – my style was influenced by the desire to employ a musical language appropriate for home playing, as well as perhaps my bias toward choral composition.
Common to all of the compositions, however, regardless of when they were created, is 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). 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 to any form of a serial technique. Naturally I strive to compose my own, independent music. For me, however, the word “innovative” is of secondary importance, and I take little interest in whether my music is considered “topical” and hence in its current market value.
I am occasionally overcome by doubts, to be sure, as to whether composing is still a meaningful activity today. 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 has something to say to a few people whose judgment I value, then I am thoroughly satisfied.