Karl Amadeus Hartmann's rarely-heard Gesangsszene is a powerful vision of a proud society that seemed to have everything: prosperity,progress, even a cure for the common cold. Then, suddenly it's destroyed by "the sickness of great empires". (For my more recent piece on this work, please see HERE) It's horrifyingly prophetic because there are references to banking and economic collapse, even to "God's mortgages". Hartmann was writing in 1961, when the Americans were pitted against the Russians, and the Berlin Wall was built. He knew all about the flaws of even the greatest empires; he'd resisted the Nazis, not by emigrating like so many others, but by "internal exile", refusing to make music while the regime lasted. Then came Hiroshima (Hartmann specifically refers to the empire "finding atoms in cells") unparalleled material wealth, the "German miracle"and the Cold War. As a lifelong socialist who'd seen the Great Depression and war, Hartmann notes that Empires crumble, "especially the ones with apparently the most secure guarantees of stability".
Gesangsszene starts with long, haunting solo flute melody which gradually becomes tonally ambiguous as blasts from trumpets and trombones interrupt. Crescendi build up in the orchestra, richly, the flute's warning barely heard above the tumult. Then, suddenly, baritone Matthias Goerne materializes from within the orchestra: "Das ist derschönste Spielbeginn". It is beautiful and all the more terrifying for that. The text has a difficult, wordy syntax, so Hartmann sets it like speech, making the most of the solemn pace. At times, it feels like quasi-sermon for there is moral indignation behind the simple, matter-of-fact setting. When Goerne sings the third verse "Wir alle haben Reiche sturzen sehen", it's like a chorus.
At first voice and orchestra alternate, then gradually combine. Angular ostinatos underline the voice "Das Übel der Großen Reiche ! Das