Hans Werner Henze the German Composer Dies

The Music World Loses Its
Classical Iconoclast

Nélida Nassar  10.29.2012

Hans Werner Henze passed away at age 86. One of the greatest, most prolific and influential contemporary German composers, he died Saturday in Dresden, where the Semper opera house recently kicked off a tribute to him with a performance of his antiwar drama We Come to the River, produced in collaboration with writer Edward Bond and first performed in London in 1976.

Born 1 July 1926 in Gütersloh, North Rhine-Westphalia, he was the eldest son in a family
of six children. Franz Gebhardt Henze, his father who was a schoolmaster became an enthusiastic convert to Nazism after the family moved to Dünne in 1934. Young Hans retained memories of Franz in Nazi uniform, “roaming drunkenly through the woods with his party cronies, bawling out repulsive songs.” He also had to join the Hitler Youth, which he hated.

Henze heard broadcasts of classical music (especially that of Mozart, whom he worshiped) and enrolled at the state music school of Braunshweig in 1942, where he studied piano, percussion, and theory. In 1943, his father was sent to the Eastern front, never to return. Henze had to break off his studies after being called up to the army in 1944. Trained as a radio officer, he was captured by the British and held in a prisoner-of-war camp for the remainder of the war. In 1945, he became an accompanist in the Bielefeld City Theatre
and was able, in 1946, to continue his studies under Wolfgang Fortner in Heidelberg. He left Germany for Italy in 1953 because of a perceived intolerance towards his political Marxist positions, his social engagements, and a climate of homophobia, living more recently in the village of Marino, in the central Italian region of Lazio.

He created an outstanding body of musical works encompassing a broad range of musical genres: ballet, opera, concertos, symphonies as well as many soundtracks. In 1947, at the age of twenty-one, he wrote a choreographic ballet poem, Ballett-Variationen completed
in 1949 and in 1950, he became the ballet conductor at the Hessisches Staatstheatre Wiesbaden. He also produced Maratona di Danza, with a libretto by Luchino Visconti,
which received a lukewarm reception in 1956.

He composed over 20 operas, from the 1950s’ Ein Landarzt, (A Country Doctor), based on a story by Franz Kafka, to L’Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe (The Hoopoe and the Triumph of Filial Love) in 2002, the only opera for which he wrote his own text.  He worked for several years in close collaboration with the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann,
who wrote the librettos for several of his operas: Der Prinz von Homburg (The Prince of Homburg, in 1958 – 1959), Der junge Lord (The Young Lord) for which he achieved international fame, and Choral Fantasy, both from 1964. Other works include the musical dramas Elegy for Young Lovers, and Die Bassariden (The Bassarids). Henze took note of serialism (twelve-tones technique), but used it freely as a “tool to go around the world, explore his own path,” and continue “the tradition.” This may explain the success of such operas as Boulevard Solitude a modern recasting of the classical Manon Lescaut story to the Mozartian inspired Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe, through Der Prinz
von Homburg.

The concert hall and the opera houses served as platforms for the exploration of his political ideas and involvement. “He wanted to take a stand on political issues through music,” wrote his publisher Schott, citing among the events that have marked the composer: The Nazis’ Crimes, Second World War, May 1968, and the revolution in Cuba that inspired the oratorio Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa) – dedicated to the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. His politics also greatly influenced his Sixth Symphony (1969), Second Violin Concerto (1971), Voices (1973), and his piece for spoken word and chamber orchestra, El Cimarrón, based on a book by Cuban author Miguel Barnet about escaped black slaves during Cuba’s colonial period.

In addition to his operas, Henze, is well known for his ten symphonies (1947 – 2000), among them Sinfonia N. 9, completed in 1997 – a choral symphony based on Anna Seghers’ The Seventh Cross a novel which reflected his anti-fascist convictions. Sir Simon Rattle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra premiered his final symphony completed in 2000. Henze also wrote several concertos, among them Requiem a cycle of nine sacred concertos for piano, trumpet and chamber orchestra in memory for his friend the visionary director of the London Sinfonietta Michael Vyner, who died young, as well as numerous pieces of chamber music. His film music includes scores for French director Alain Resnais and German director Volker Schlöndorff.

Henze became an international figure by the early 1960s. Benjamin Britten, Julian Bream, Christoph Eschenbach, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Irmgard Seefried and Elisabeth Søderstrøm were among those who admired and performed his works. He also had many enthusiastic devotees in the United States. His Fifth Symphony, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, premiered in 1963, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. More than 40 years later, the orchestra requested another piece, one of his last orchestral works,
the tone poem Sebastian Dreaming.

He maintained relationships with other American institutions as well, including the Boston Symphony, which commissioned his “Eighth Symphony” (1992 – 1993), and The Tanglewood Music Center originally The Berkshire Music Center in Massachusetts, where he was composer-in-residence in 1988.

He also held several academic posts, at the Royal Academy of Music in London, in Austria, Cuba, the U.S., and Germany. A tireless musician, in 1976, he founded the Cantiere Internationale d’Arte in Montepulciano for the promotion of new music, where his children’s opera Pollicino premiered in 1980. In 1981, he established the Mürztal Workshops in the Austrian region of Styria, the same region where he set up the Deutschlandsberg Youth Festival in 1984. In 1988, he created the Munich Biennale as an “international festival for new music theatre,” of which he was the artistic director. He also served as composer-in-residence at the Berlin Philharmonic.

His companion for more than 40 years, Fausto Moroni, whom he met in 1964, died from cancer in 2007. Elogium Musicum (2008) for large orchestra and chorus with a Latin text
of Henze’s own composition is a memorial to his longtime partner.

Henze’s music has incorporated neo-classicism, jazz, twelve-tone technique, serialism
and some rock or popular music. Prodigality of invention, willingness to take risks, and devotion and constancy to an ideal of beauty that can be detected and recognized at the heart of each of Henze’s works are qualities for which to be grateful. His Janus-like persona epitomizes the enigma of post-Nazi Germany and the music of the romantic modernism of the late 20th century. I am eager to listen to his more recent opera Das Verratene Meer, Venus und Adonis (The Sea Betrayed, Venus and Adonis) with its portrayal of Adonis, the legendary hero of my forebears’ ancestral land, Byblos, Lebanon.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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