Hans Werner Henze has died, aged 86. It is with particular sadness that I write this, given that I am presently at work in completing a chapter on his work. When writing a book concerned with politics and post-Wagnerian music drama, it never occurred to me that Henze would not receive a chapter. Indeed, there has been a particular fascination in drawing implicit, sometimes explicit, comparisons with his near-contemporary, Luigi Nono. Both men were avowedly committed to ‘politically engaged’ music; both drew fire in almost equal measure from critics, generally of the armchair variety, for permitting ‘political’ considerations to supplant æsthetic concerns and for permitting the latter to gain the upper hand over the class struggle. Neither accusation had much merit; the work of both composers showed how, in at least the greater part of cases, the distinction was supremely irrelevant. Indeed, the dialectical relationship between compositional modernism, even in Henze’s more heterodox, eclectic sense, and Marxist politics proved extraordinarily fruitful in artistic terms for both. Henze would, despite serious illness, remain active until the last, two of his most recent three operas having been claimed to be his last; it was only Gisela, first performed in 2010, that would ultimately be accorded that honour.
|With Ingeborg Bachmann|
As someone especially interested in German history and culture, I was always likely to be drawn to Henze, as a composer with such a fraught relationship to his homeland. (How could one not, growing up during the Third Reich?) Even his move to Italy, provoked by disgust at the extent to which post-war West Germany was still ruled over by so many of the same institutions, attitudes, even people, stood in a classical German tradition of longing for warm Mediterranean climes. And yet, he could never really escape. Henze provocatively claimed that Der Prinz von Homburg, dedicated to Stravinsky – Nono’s Intolleranza 1960 was dedicated, by contrast, to Schoenberg – was modelled upon nineteenth-century Italian opera. (Boulez scathingly likened Henze’s opera to Don Carlos.) Yet the conflict between freedom and organisation, the attempt by Henze and his librettist, Ingeborg Bachmann, to render a classic nationalist text as something universal, could hardly have been more German. Nor could Henze’s description of the drama, which, he said, ‘very much cried out for this contrast between dodecaphony, and what – with a pinch of salt – might be termed traditional harmony: the dialectics of the law and its violation, of dreams and reality, of mendaciousness and truth.’
For Henze was as indelibly marked by Schoenberg, despite his constant Stravinskian protestations, as he was by the horrors of an adolescence in which his schoolmaster father became a Nazi enthusiast and excoriated his homosexual son. Henze wrote of growing up, in ‘the bourgeois world of Bielefeld, to which I had been admitted thanks to my being musical. Here the Nazis were considered unseemly; people tacitly rejected them, and found that Hitler fellow more and more of a nuisance, especially now that he was losing us the war and had landed us with air-raids.’ What he called ‘this “I was always against the Nazis” represents,’ he would write, ‘a banal and frivolous stance (created on the stage by Auden in the last scene of The Bassarids)’. And also, of course, by Henze, in what many of us consider to be his greatest opera. Even when proscribed composers, at first Hindemith, only later the Second Viennese School, were once again performed, there was to him – at least in retrospect – something suspect about the enterprise. When, in its first post-war concert, the Bielefeld orchestra played Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony, ‘it went down with a discreet cultural frisson of “We’re permitted to, we’re able to, we have the freedom to play Hindemith … even if we hadn’t actually missed this music.’” However, there was also, more ominously, ‘an undertone of “Now that Hindemith can be played again, our guilt is removed, everything is right with the world again, isn’t it?’” Fascism, it could be claimed, ‘had been no more than a bad dream’. Henze, like Nono, felt he had no choice but to bear witness; like Nono, he most certainly did bear that witness.
For anyone seeking a taste of Henze as man and composer, I heartily recommend the DVD to which I provide a link below. It contains fascinating interviews (with Henze in his Roman villa, as well as others) extracts, and a fine, complete performance of his instrumental, avowedly post-Holocaust Requiem; if it does not have you seeking to learn and to hear more, then nothing well. Here is one of his most delightful works, Nachtstücke und Arien, characteristic in its suffusion of the post-Bergian labyrinth with Mediterranean warmth. (Bachmann again wrote the texts).
Henze wrote in his memoirs (also linked to below) in typically entertaining – and angry – fashion of the premiere:
… at its first performance at Donaueschingen, on 20 October 1957, under Hans Rosbaud’s ouststanding direction, three representatives of the other wing – Boulez, my friend Gigi Nono and Stockhausen – leapt to their feet after only the first few bars and pointedly left the hall, eschewing the beauties of my latest endeavours. Throughout the evening, heads continued to be shaken at my cultural faux pas, and Ingeborg [Bachmann] and I suddenly found ourselves cold-shouldered by people who actually knew us, foremost among whom was Herr Dr Heinrich Strobel [chairman of the International Society for Contemporary Music and initiator of the Donaueschingen Festival]. There was a sense of indignation throughout the building, no doubt made worse by the fact that the audience had acclaimed our piece in the liveliest manner… The impression arose that the whole of the world of music had turned against me, a situation that was really quite comical, but also somewhat disturbing from an ethical point of view: for what had become of artistic freedom? Who had the right to confuse moral and æsthetic criteria? Teddy Adorno?
Yet again, we are returned to questions of freedom and authority. Doubtless part of Henze’s positioning there is designed to present the ‘other wing’ in less than a flattering light, but his concerns, understandable now, would have been doubly so in a post-war climate in which Henze stood deeply troubled by even the slightest hint of ‘totalitarianism’. We can stand grateful that we no more have to choose between Boulez and Henze than we do between Schoenberg and Stravinsky. However, we should also express our sadness at the loss of one of the greatest composers of an outstanding generation, and salute his memory.
Click here for an obituary from Schott.