Contemporary Music from Germany – Current Trends

“A spirit helped raise up my weakness” – On the death of Hans Werner Henze

Goethe-Institut MadridA modernist steeped in tradition, a vast œuvre created with a marvelous freedom: the composer Hans Werner Henze has died in Dresden at the age of 86.

Hans Werner Henze, Foto: picture alliance / dpaHans Werner Henze, photo by picture alliance / dpa

Hans Werner Henze, along with Karlheinz Stockhausen, was the best known German composer of the last half century. His death marks the end of an epoch, of an entire generation of artists that, soon after the Second World War, again gained recognition for German music throughout the world. Of the composers of this generation, Henze was the most favored, in life and art the happiest. The catalogue of his works published by Schott in Mainz, an impressive bundle of more than four hundred pages, testifies to the broad range of Henze’s artistic development.

Riffling through these pages, one is amazed: this œuvre ranges from opera and ballet through large orchestra and chamber music to solo concerts, from vocal works, cantatas, lied cycles and solo pieces to numerous adaptations of works by other musicians – all marked by a great poetic richness. On the one hand, the composer’s intense productivity was based on – so much can be said quite banally – a steady daily rhythm. But on the other hand, behind all the positive orderliness of musical invention and desk work in Henze’s music, can be heard an impetuous force reaching into abysses of pain, an inexhaustible drive of the inner soul to communicate, to sing itself out poetically.

Postwar years

Noticeable early on was how strongly the modernist Henze felt at home with the old traditions of music, which is why he believed he had to distance himself from the serialist avant-garde of the purported zero hour after the war. This earned him wide acceptance, but the criticism of the musical pioneers. All the same, as a young composer Henze made his hajj to the Mecca of musical innovation, the Summer Courses for New Music at Darmstadt, but there caused only consternation with his first symphony, which crossed dodecaphony with neo-classicism. The radical zeitgeist of the music world then looked upon operas, symphonies, string quartets and sonatas as aesthetically obsolete. Henze in the meantime explored all the old formal models; he studied piano and drums as well as Schönberg’s twelve-tone theory, first as an autodidact and later with René Leibowitz in Paris. Then he went into theater – as conductor and director of the ballet at the State Theater of Wiesbaden.

I was saddened to hear of the death of Hans Werner Henze, a composer whose music is very much admired. One of the fondest memories of my encounter with his music was working with Maggie Hauschild, then the Director of the Atlanta Goethe Institut, in 1994 on the staging/performance of Henze’s El Cimarron. The production was fabulous and well attended. The music world will miss this great composer.

Alvin Singleton, Komponist (USA)

Adopted country: Italy

Born in Gütersloh in Westphalia on July 1, 1926, Henze was just old enough to be drafted into the German army and was captured by British armed forces; an early membership in the Nazi Party on the other side, first discovered on an index card in 2009, could not be identified with certainty. His first great operatic success, Boulevard Solitude, based on Prévost’s Manon Lescaut, opened new possibilities: emigration in 1953 to Italy.

The withdrawal to the Mediterranean world was to be a caesura in Henze’s life – liberation, the escape from Germany, where homoerotic inclinations were then still under a social ban. Italy taught the prim musician from the North not only the lightness of being and the enjoyment of life and of his own life; there, first in Naples and later in Marino near Rome, Henze also fought his way free to a fluent creativity. A friendship arose between him and Ingeborg Bachmann; Henze called her “my big sister ... six days older than I, but her knowledge – of the world, of people, of art – surpassed mine by two thousand years. I relied on her; her spirit raised up my weakness”. Together, they wrote the bewitching Nachtstücke und Arien (Nocturnes and Arias).

I was deeply saddened by the news of Hans Werner Henze’s death. I first met him in 1988 at the Tanglewood music festival. I still remember that he told me I resembled the young Yukio Mishima. I was in charge of the Japanese libretto for the opera “Das verratene Meer” (The Betrayed Sea) by Mishima, which Henze set to music. I shall never forget the thunderous applause after the premier at the Salzburg Festival. The sound of the Japanese language blended with Henze’s music in a dream-like manner and thus told Mishima’s story. A musical experience without parallel.

This extraordinary meeting was also my last with the composer. And although Mr. Henze was a renowned composer, his music for Mishima’s opera made me feel very close to him. As his student, I now again calmly gaze into the depths of music that he made it possible for me to experience, and express to all those close to him my heartfelt condolences.

Toshiro Saruya, composer (Tokyo)

Vital musical theater

More meetings and artistic collaborations: with Luigi Nono and Lucchino Visconti, with Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Volker Schloendorff. The connection to Germany was never severed, remained a stimulus and a thorn alike. The Anglo-Saxon world became increasingly important to Henze. His musical creativity and productivity was overwhelming; upon closer examination, it was almost incredible; the stream of creative invention over the decades was ceaseless: in addition to music, Henze wrote notes, essays, diaries, and an autobiography: Bohemina Fifths (Böhmischen Quinten).

Sometimes in rapid succession, Henze composed works for musical theater: first radio operas; then the great König Hirsch (King Stag) based on Carlo Gozzi and premiered in 1956 at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin; after that, the Prinz von Homburg (Prince of Homburg) and Der junge Lord (The Young Lord), both with libretti by Ingeborg Bachmann; finally, in 1965 for the Salzburg Festival, a highly dramatic opera set in antiquity, Die Bassariden (The Bassarides). Admiration for the haute bourgeois musician Henze as the unofficial successor to Strauss and criticism of his expressive opulence became the standard responses. Then suddenly came the turning point.

Short TV special on Hans Werner Henze by Euronews, source: Youtube / Euronews

Music and politics

Henze composed the choral cantata Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa), in memory of Ernesto Che Guevara; it caused the musical scandal of West Germany in the 1960s; Henze became for many the leftist composer of the student rebellion, for others a mere salon communist. He joined the Italian Communist Party; traveled to Cuba and to East Germany. His musical language gained in militancy, sharpness and clarity, as can be heard in El Cimarron, a piece for voice and small ensemble based on the autobiography of the escaped slave Estéban Montejo, made into a libretto by Enzensberger, or in the dramatic cantata Streik bei Mannesmann (Strike at Mannesmann) and in Versuch über Schweine (Essay on Pigs). The high-point: the rebellious and dramatic opera We Come to the River, revolutionary “actions for music” with a libretto by Edward Bonds, premiered at the London Royal Opera House in 1976 and recently revived at the Dresden Semper Opera.

Hans Werner Henze lived most of his life, that is, nearly sixty years, in Italy. He went through many phases here, the difficult post-war period, the economic upswing of the 1960s, the growing strength of the Left in the 70s, when he himself joined the Italian Communist Party, the stifling years of Berlusconi’s bedlam, up to the present efforts to find a way out of the prevailing deep economic and moral crisis. What was he looking for in Italy? That which has made Italy attractive to artists from the North for centuries: tolerance, harmony – in art as well as in nature – flexibility, and last but not least the pleasant climate. As often as Henze, smiling, would speak of “we Italians”, he remained a German composer, committed to the great tradition of German music, which he took up and worthily carried on. Italy, with all its contradictions, fostered his admirable creative power to the last.

Hans Werner Henze and Luca LombardiThis “giovanotto tedesco”, this German boy, as my composition teacher called him in the 60s, became the most successful and most performed German composer of his time, despite all the hostility he had to suffer from his colleagues. There is hardly any other contemporary composer whose works have been taken so often into the repertory of orchestras and opera houses, not least because his music is never self-referential. It is not music for insiders, but music that does justice to the “normal” listener and satisfies him. I feel myself fortunate to have been his friend and neighbor.

Luca Lombardi, composer (Rome)

Educator and guide

How the composer Henze could find the space-time for the educator and guide of the same name remains a mystery. The Cantiere internazionale in Montepulciano, the workshop festival he founded in Tuscany in 1976, has become a meeting place for young composers, interpreters and theater makers from half of Europe. And even after this, Henze never let up on his idea for a “working festival” for young talent in musical theater. He went to the Austrian provinces – and landed in 1988 in the cultural capital of Munich. The very first of the four-week long Munich Biennials for New Musical Theater proved to be an event, and the festival has remained such and continues to radiate its influence. In Henze’s own words at the time, he created a “venue for contemporary young theatrical creativity ... a theater with new music close to human beings and human concerns, with relevance, vitality and confidence”.

After his political phase, of course, Henze found his way back to the pattern of bourgeois literary opera – for example, with Das verratene Meer (The Betrayed Sea). Yet his late work surprises us with the magical freedom of its craftsmanship and conceptions, as in the opera Phaedra or the lyrical-sarcastic cantata (based on a work by Franz Werfel) Opfergang (The Sacrifice). He was never a mere technician of composing, never a constructivist, but rather a poet of human beings and of humanity.

Hans Werner Henze’s visit and the overwhelming success of his music was one of my unforgettable experiences as program director at the Goethe-Institut in Madrid. Thanks to the support of Xavier Güell, the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid offered continual concerts of Música de Hoy, which over the years formed a large fan base for contemporary music. In this context the help of the Goethe-Institut was requested to invite Henze to Madrid for his 80th birthday and to honor his work with a major retrospective. After a time when Henze was in ill health and could not undertake any long-term obligations, I was able to get him to come to Madrid in February 2005, a year before his 80th birthday

The Spanish hosts spared no effort or expense to lure him: they provided an opulent, very concentrated program in the Auditorio Nacional entitled „Carta Blanca a Hans Werner Henze“. The Spanish National Choir and National Orchestra took part, an exhibition on Henze and Bachmann with photos and their correspondence was shown in the foyer, and a handsome book and opulent program brochures were published. Even the huge façades of the concert hall and the surrounding squares were decorated with gigantic flags and banners emblazoned with portraits of the composer.

Henze was brought into the concert in a wheelchair and everything was overwhelming. Even the late concerts were almost sold out and the audience and the orchestra burst into cheers, which visibly delighted the master and gave him the strength to lift himself from his wheelchair so as to receive the ovation in standing. The music and its success exercised a salubrious effect. Henze admirably weathered the rigors of the long night and even his adoptive son Fausto Moroni, who accompanied him though he too was ill, recovered from his indisposition. It was marvelous to have contributed a little something to this happiness and to have shared in it.

Wolfger Pöhlmann, Goethe-Institut, Madrid

This article is based on an obituary by the author that was published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Wolfgang Schreiber
worked for more than two decades as a music editor for a German newspaper called Süddeutsche Zeitung. Now he lives in Munich and Berlin as a correspondent for several newspapers and medias.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
November 2012

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