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Henze - the UK premiere of Elogium musicum

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 20:23 UK Time, Sunday, 17 January 2010

henze_and_fausto_moroni.jpgWhen it comes to something which is completely new - the UK premiere of Elogium musicum - where to start with a new piece entering one's ears?    A quick read of the programme notes is always a good start:  in particular the information that the piece was provoked by the tragic death of Henze's long time life-partner Fausto Moroni.  But also the fact that it is written in Latin - not liturgical Latin text, but to a libretto especially commissioned by Henze from Latin scholar Franco Serpa.  

It certainly helps a lot too if one is at the performance and able to watch such an expressive conductor as Oliver Knussen at work, his gestures may often be small but  they communicate so much.  However, as in Henze's operas, I found that for me the key to gaining a rapid understanding of this incredibly moving and passionate music was to follow the text itself in the programme.  There's so much word-painting - for example in the first section entitled Falcons where Henze likens his unexpected bereavement to a pair of falcons in the sky, one of them suddenly being struck down in its prime.  The music soars, swoops with the power of these birds and then one feels the immense shock and pain as one bird dies and crashes into the ground.  It's so vivid, so accessible and almost painful to listen to in the depth of despair and tragedy it conveys. 

Then, in the 2nd movement the spiky orchestration underlying such words as (in translation) 'vultures, dark crows, black menacing monsters' generates the anger of the music, mirroring the anger of the personal loss. Interestingly, much of the writing for the BBCSO Chorus is almost renaissance in style, (perhaps fitting with a Latin text?), very chord-like, often in unison and vertical in texture with little use of polyphony or contrapuntal elements.  

  • The picture shows Hans Werner Henze (l) and his life-partner, the late Fausto Moroni, in whose memory Henze composed Elogium musicum.

But this changes in the 3rd movement which was one of the highlights of the piece for me - with the women depicting the chattering of crickets, whilst the men complain!  So vividly painted in both chorus and orchestra, so much to catch on the ear, demanding and needing another listen, and soon!   I loved the dramatic masterstroke of Fausto - described as king of the trees and flowers (Fausto Moroni spent much time creating the garden of Henze's home) - suddenly shouting 'Basta! (Enough!) - depicted in unison by the choir, so similar in effect to the wonderful 'Slain!' outcry in Walton's Belshazzar's Feast.  This is followed by a General Pause from the performers - which wasn't picked up by some in the audience, who perhaps thought it was the end of the piece, but will undoubtedly become one of the big dramatic 'moments' in choral repertoire.  Knussen held the hall in silence - then the murmured pianissimo concluding statement of 'Suddenly there is silence, perfect silence' from the chorus, absolutely spellbinding and breathtaking, a real coup de theatre.  Brilliant, just brilliant.  

The last movement is a valediction to the person that has been lost, gloriously passionate and sensual orchestration with a beautiful positive ending praising God (a little unexpected perhaps from the normally resolutely secular Henze...?)   This is a 21st century choral masterpiece, no doubt in my mind about this.  I wanted to hear it all over again, from start to finish, I wanted to get the score, to stop and replay some of the most amazing sections.  

It goes without saying that the Chorus sang beautifully with great expression throughout the piece, kudos to their hard work and direction from chorus master Stephen Jackson.   The orchestra too, was fantastic, I'd love to hear what violist blogger Phil and his colleagues thought of the performance.  What a pity they only had the chance to play it once through in performance on this occasion (I do prefer the American/European subscription series planning when one can have several repetitions of the same work. 

Henze received a standing ovation: he deserved it, I felt privileged to have been able to hear this UK premiere, and cannot recommend highly enough this piece when it is broadcast on R3.  Unforgettable, absolutely unforgettable.


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