Obituary: Hans Werner Henze, composer
Born: 1 July, 1926, in Westphalia. Died: 27 October, 2012, in Dresden, Germany, aged 86.
HANS Werner Henze was never a composer who could easily be slotted into any conventional category. His musical style was influenced by Italian and German composers, through jazz to atonality. Henze held strident political opinions and, indeed, left Germany in 1953 in protest against the country’s intolerance of his left-wing politics and homosexuality. He spent a year teaching in Cuba and composed a controversial anthem praising Che Guevara. But it was his operas that made the greatest impact in Britain.
Henze once commented on how he covered such a wide musical spectrum saying: “Many things wander from the concert hall to the stage and vice versa.” Indeed, his music fits no easy pigeonhole. Henze delighted in being a musical contradiction.
Henze was particularly recognised in Scotland, where his music was much championed by Sir Alexander Gibson, then musical director of Scottish Opera and the Scottish National Orchestra. But the conductor also performed Henze’s music with other orchestras – notably giving the UK premier of Cinque Piccoli Concerti with the English Chamber Orchestra at the Proms in 1984.
Gibson’s strong support for the composer was demonstrated in 1970 when Scottish Opera, courageously, mounted a new production of Henze’s demanding Elegy for Young Lovers and also at that Edinburgh Festival gave the British premieres of other Henze works.
Another significant occasion was the world premiere, as the result of a Festival commission, in 1964. Ariosi was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, with the soprano Imgard Seefried as soloist.
Henze first came to the Festival in 1963, when he conducted the LSO in a varied programme that included his fifth symphony. Elegy for Young Lovers was conducted by Gibson in an all-embracing production by the composer. It was given a mixed reception – some thought it became over-politicised in its conception – but the sheer musical and dramatic invention was widely acclaimed. One critic wrote: “This brilliant production is one of Scottish Opera’s greatest achievements.”
The Henze theme that year was continued with the SNO giving the UK premier of his sixth symphony and, in a late-night concert at the Gateway Theatre. two new works: El Cimarron and Essay on Pigs.
In 1981, there was an entire Usher Hall programme devoted to Henze’s music and in 1984 Henze returned to conduct the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Hans Werner Henze’s father was a teacher whose school was closed by the Nazis. Henze served from 1944 in the German army, which he hated. After being captured by the advancing British troops, he was able to continue his musical studies. By 1947, he was recognised as a budding force in music after the premiers of a symphony and a violin concerto.
In 1952 he wrote his first opera, Boulevard Solitude, which was his first international success. This led to Henze receiving many commissions and from artists such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Pears and Julian Bream. In all, Henze composed 20 operas, nine symphonies, 12 ballets and many orchestral, chamber and choral works.
In 1958, he was commissioned by the Royal Ballet to write the music for Ondine, which was to be a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn with choreography by Frederick Ashton. It proved somewhat disappointing: one dancer recalling that Henze’s music was “demanding”, while Ashton pleaded with the composer to “give me a tune; I want a tune”.
Two years later, Henze produced his most Italian opera, The Prince of Homburg, which was often performed and was revived in London by English National Opera in 1996. In 1974, the same company gave the UK premier of The Bacchae of Euripides called The Bassarids and again it found favour in many European opera houses.
So, anticipation was high when the Royal Opera commissioned a new opera from Henze in 1976. We Come to the River had a libretto by Edward Bond and a huge cast (127 named roles), three orchestras and a military band. It was considered an over-ambitious venture and Henze’s production was deemed ill-conceived. However, the 19-year-old Simon Rattle wept, “because of the sheer beauty of the music”.
Henze decided to concentrate on instrumental music, including his third, fourth and fifth string quartets, the last being dedicated to Benjamin Britten. That was premiered in 1983 and was followed by the seventh symphony, commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic – one of Henze’s most poignant.
Henze’s music is now widely accepted – notably the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra performed his eighth symphony in June this year under Matthias Pintscher. Previously, in 2009, Robin Ticciati made his debut as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s principal conductor with Henze’s first symphony.
The tenor Ian Bostridge was honoured to have a song cycle (Six Songs from the Arabian) composed for him by Henze in 1996 and that was followed by Immolazione for John Tomlinson and Bostridge.
Henze, who had been ill for some time, is survived by Fausto Moroni, his partner of more than 30 years.
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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