"From the outset my music has sought truth in perfection. It strives to recapture the unattainable ideals of beauty that existed in classical Greece." (65)
"My music draws what strength is has from its inherent contradictions. It is like a thorny thicket full of barbs and other unpleasant things... People may feel repelled by its often garish colours and the infernal din that it seems constrained to produce... My music has an emotional dimension that is unfashionable, an emotional untimeliness." (56)
Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) is one of my favorite late 20th century composers, and I consider him to be one of the finest of our time. He is certainly one of the leading German composers since the war. Henze's music incorporates major elements from both sides of the Stravinsky/Schoenberg divide, combined into a distinctive synthesis. Henze, however, disliked Schoenberg's messianic streak, finding Stravinsky's light and ironic neoclassicism much more appealing. But Henze very much sees his music in the classical tradition, often describing it as a combination of "North German polyphony and the arioso South." It has taken me awhile to reach my current level of appreciation of his music, partly because the central form he has worked in is opera. I am not a huge opera fan, and what is more, not all of his many operas are available on disc (see below). Henze's ten symphonies are some of the best in the postwar period, and I have also heard his string quartets and violin concertos. More recently I have heard enough of his vocal music, including extracts from operas, to feel as though I have something approximating an appreciation for his composition overall, and so I was quite happy to realize that he wrote this autobiography, first published in 1998.
The story basically follows his development from childhood to his position as an established composer in the first section, including his move to Italy in 1953, where he has lived ever since. The middle section provides invaluable insight into his politically radical period from 1968 into the 1970s. The most interesting thing in the last part of the book is Henze's central involvement in an annual community arts & music festival in a town in Tuscany called Montepulciano.
Born in 1926 in Gutersloh, Westphalia, Henze was the oldest of six, left-handed, son of a primary school teacher and viola player. His father joined the Nazi party in 1934, under severe social pressure, and Henze and his brother wore the black uniforms of the Hitler Youth to school every day during the war. Young Hans was musical from a young age, played piano, and loved Bach and Mozart. Based on his aptitude, he was accepted to the State School of Music in Braunschweig in 1942. There he conducted a chamber music group, heard and saw operas, and covertly read a banned book on the music of Mahler, Webern, Debussy and Stravinsky. He was inducted into military service in 1944 and was in training as a radio operator before being recruited for a film unit making propaganda films prior to the war's end. He was never in combat -- in fact he and some fellow soldiers formed an Antimilitarist Club in the German military!
After the war, it was meeting Walter and Regina Trenkler that proved key in Henze's trajectory toward becoming a professional composer. Regina was a pianist, and she arranged for him to be sent to Berlin to study with the composer Boris Blacher. As it turned out, he ended up studying instead with Wolfgang Fortner, another composer, at the Heidelberg Institute of Evangelical Church Music (!). There he studied harmony, counterpoint and score-reading, and received his diploma in March 1948, making him eligible to teach. But that was not to be, for in the meantime his "Chamber Concerto No. 1" was accepted for the first Darmstadt summer school in 1946, thanks to Fortner's sponsorship. He signed a contract with Schott, and that is how his professional composing career began. His first symphony was first performed in August 1948. It was fascinating to learn how Henze was able to gain experience in music theater as well, playing piano in military casinos, volunteering in the Bielefield Stadt Theater after its Fall 1945 reopening, and eventually working as resident composer at Heinz Hilpert's Deutsches Theater in Konstanz. As he began working on commissions, he also learned how music theater works from to bottom.
"The second summer school was attended by the conductor Hermann Scherchen and the composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann and proposed a completely different aesthetic from the one with which I had been familiar until now: in their world, music was regarded as a specifically human means of expression that posited moral and political commitment. This encounter was to have a profound influence on my own philosophy of music." (64)
Henze was swept up in the events of his times, becoming overtly political in 1968. He got to know "Red" Rudi Dutschke, Gaston Salvatore and other leading New Left student activists. He helped organize and participated in a huge Vietnam Conference in February 1968 in Berlin. Then his oratorio "The Raft of Medusa" was the focus of a huge scandal when its first performance, in Hamburg, could not take place due to protest from the musicians and the audience. (The subsequent release of a recording by DG is from the rehearsal which preceded that performance.) This stemmed from an article Henze had written decaring the need for "world revolution," an innocent and idealistic comment which was used against him in the context of anti-Soviet/anti-Communist Cold War fearmongering. Henze subsequently spent the 1969-1970 year teaching and writing in Cuba, where he composed his Symphony No. 6 and conducted the first performance by the National Symphony Orchestra. Many of his works for the next decade or so expressed his socialist humanism, resulting in a substantial reduction in his income as an independent composer. I would have liked to hear more about the East/West divide in Germany from Henze. Early on he became a good friend of Paul Dessau, a leading composer of the DDR (East Germany), and met Bertolt Brecht, who worked with Dessau, in 1949. He tells of an incident when Luigi Nono reduced the East German composer Friedrich Goldmann to tears, based on Nono's demanding more overt politics in his music. It is strange now to consider that from 1948 to the Wall's construction in 1961 people could move freely throughout Berlin.
It is clear from Henze's writing and persona that he was never cut out to be any sort of dogmatic follower. The decisive turn toward ending his period of exile, as it were, seems to have been the 100th anniversary of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1982. Henze was commissioned to write a symphony, which led to his powerful Symphony No. 7, subsequently recorded by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Since that time Henze has continued his amazingly prolific writing, producing three more symphonies and many more operas and vocal works. I would have liked to learn more about Henze's relations with other contemporary composers -- Boulez is notable by his absence, for instance -- but it is well-known that Henze broke with the Boulez/Stockhausen Darmstadt circle at the time of his move to Italy, and he forged his own path. There are a few glimpses, including Henze's surprising friendship with William and Susana Walton, whom he met in Italy, and also Harrison Birtwistle.
One of the most revealing things that comes across in the book is Henze's compulsion to write. Composition after composition, bouts of writing interrupted by travel to performances, teaching, and vacations. Another thing that is absolutely central is Henze's central focus on opera. He worked with many important librettists and writers for his vocal works, including Ingeborg Bachmann, the team of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, and the socialist intellectual Hans Magnus Enzensberger.
From Das Wundertheater (1949) and Boulevard Solitude, (1951) through to "Phaedra" (2007) and "Gisela" (scheduled for Fall 2010 premiere), he has been preoccupied with the theater and opera. (Other major operas include "Konig Hirsch (The Stag King)" (1956), Elegy for Young Lovers (1961), Der Junge Lord (1965), "Die Bassariden" (1966), "We Come to the River" (1976), "The English Cat" (1983), and L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe (2003).
Henze's long-time partner Fausto Moroni died of cancer in 2007. Hans Werner Henze died last year in 2012.
For much more in Henze's own voice, listen to an extended interview with the BBC conducted on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2006, accessible through the Henze entry of a popular online encylopedia.
By all means, hear Hans Werner Henze's music if you haven't already!