Born in Gütersloh,Westphalia, Hans Werner Henze is one of the most prolific of contemporary composers and unquestionably one of Europe’s finest.
His musical education was interrupted by the war; he eventually graduated in 1948. Hindemith and Stravinsky were his initial models, but after completing his First Symphony in 1947, he began to explore 12-note music under René Leibowitz’s influence. In the 1950s his stylistic fusion of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, in operas such as Boulevard Solitude (1951), King Stag (1955) and The Prince of Homburg (1958), left him out of step with the avant-garde but more commercially successful.
In 1953, exasperated by the political and cultural conditions in Germany, he emigrated to Italy. The move introduced him to several important theatrical collaborators: Luchino Visconti (Dance Marathon, 1955), Frederick Ashton (Undine, 1957) and W. H.Auden (Elegy for Young Lovers, 1961, The Bassarids, 1965 – both with Chester Kallman – and Moralities, 1967, after Aesop).
After the triumphant 1966 Salzburg premiere of The Bassarids, Henze’s life and music changed profoundly through an increased commitment to left-wing politics. He sought to synthesise the revolutionary in music and words, as in the oratorio The Raft of the Medusa (1968).The scandal of the riot at its premiere isolated Henze from the German musical establishment for many years. Visits to Castro’s Cuba proved inspirational, for instance in the Sixth Symphony (1969) and several numbers of the song-cycle Voices (1973). Henze also collaborated with Edward Bond in the ‘actions for music’ We Come to the River (1976), the ballet Orpheus (1978) and the opera The English Cat (1982).
In the 1980s Henze began an aesthetic rapprochement with his homeland, with his ‘German’ Seventh Symphony (1984) and a renewed interest in German texts.The poet Hans-Ulrich Treichel provided librettos for the operas The Betrayed Sea (1989) and Venus and Adonis (1995) and for the choral Ninth Symphony (1997). Henze has also turned to setting his own German texts, as in Songs from the Arabian (1999) and what he had declared would be his final opera, L’Upupa, oder der Triumph der Sohnesliebe (‘The Hoopoe, or the Triumph of Filial Love’), premiered in 2003. However in 2007 he completed a chamber opera, Phaedra.
The 1990s had been a time of retrenchment but his recent output continues to be as varied as ever, with pieces for guitar, for percussion and for cellos. He has also produced a string of engaging orchestral pieces – Fraternité, Seven Boleros, the Tenth Symphony, Sebastian im Traum (2004) and – heard at 2006’s Proms – Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba (2004–5).
Profile © Guy Rickards