The Contemporary Classical Music Weekly
Main Essential Library Archives  Resources Composer Bios

Voices: Hans Werner Henze at 75
by Duane Harper Grant

Despite a 50-year plus composing career and scores  (pardon the pun) of works to his credit, Hans Werner Henze remains an enigma. One reason may be that he always seems to be willing to push the envelope just a bit more than most in order to express what he feels needs expression. Rather than settle into a safe, repetitive style, he is an artist who looks deeply into his subject matter, exploring new and novel approaches. Also, part of his personal philosophy seems to thrive on confrontation. Conforming, because of social, artistic and political pressures, is something that he seems to feel brings the composer's intentions into question and is potentially a great danger. So just who is HVH, as he sometimes refers to himself. .

I don't have a complete answer but I did have the good fortune of being in London for a week during the Henze at 75 celebration where I attended several concerts and heard Henze himself shed some light on the subject as he talked with and was talked about by his good friend and long time associate Sir John Drummond, the former director of the Edinburgh International Festival and BBC Proms. The music, as always, could say what words could never express. And as usual, it had the final word.

Among the most memorable:  On March 29, Cristoph Von Dohnanyi led the Philharmonia Orchestra in a performance of Henze's  Symphony No. 5, a work written for, and dedicated to, Leonard Bernstein and The New York Philharmonic that was first performed in 1962. A concise 20-minute work of classical structure (which Henze it should be noted, often employs) the piece says to young composers that the old rules (of composition and structure) are very important. Learn them very well. Henze is a romantic at heart and he draws upon the sensibilities of that era of music and art. These romantic flares are used to great effect in the 5th, as are influences of Stravinsky, Bartok, the Viennese (12 tone) school and even jazz. Its colorful and exuberant pace and orchestration seems to lend itself as almost a tone poem of an urban scene, an exciting city of sounds and events where disparate elements are brought together by geographical, and in this case musical form. Its concise structure weaves textures and thematic material nicely through the three movements (fast, slow, fast).

Also on the program was the U.K. premiere of Fraternite (air for orchestra). Unfortunately not yet recorded, this beautiful and introspective piece was premiered in NY by Kurt Masur and the NY Philharmonic as part of the Millennium celebration. The title, meaning brotherhood, is a reference to the French slogan, ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, which had influenced the beginning of the United States of America. It is, as its title suggests, a statement of hope for the new and of hope for brotherhood as it pertains to all people in all places. It is a gentle and inspiring work, which upon its reflective and harmonically lyrical opening invites the listener to commune with it, to imagine, to feel secure while traveling with and exploring its possibilities. It grows on and moves one in its pensive passion. Its tone is lyrical and reflective. The pace; Andante cantabile.

On April 4, Von Dohnanyi and the Philharmonia Orchestra performed Henze's Requiem.
This work, which Henze calls Nine Spiritual Concertos for piano, concertante, trumpet and chamber orchestra, was first performed complete on February 24, 1993 in Cologne by the Ensemble Modern conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. A segment of Requiem was first performed as a part of a memorial concert for his good friend Michael Vyner at Covent Garden in May 1990. The other parts of the work were composed over a period of a few years thereafter. The piece, as a whole, is as much a dedication to Vyner and a tribute to his life and work and to the shared memories of 1950’s London. 

The total performance time of the nine segments is almost 80 minutes making it, in its total scope, a rather formidable work. Henze does not mind having the “concertos” performed by themselves or combined with others in or out of order. 

It is a requiem sans voices, which is not unusual for Henze. Many of his works attempt to express the meaning of words without the use of the human voice. He theorizes that there are semantics of musical pitch and timber which allows him to translate words into musical expression. 

It is a very deep and conscious-stretching work. There is a strong sense of theatre and the play of the human drama as it relates to the different parts of the requiem and their respectful emotional stages. It is emotionally charged and as Henze himself puts it, much of it is about the expression of pain and of tears. As he says,  "I’m always looking to find a new way [to express], a new key, for those dark rooms we have to go to find our way and to find ourselves". There is also the essence of resolution, of heaven and light present in one of the movements. 

Perhaps more than any living composer, Henze reflects the diversity and complexity of the twentieth century. He personally has lived through the worst of times (as a boy growing up in Hitler’s Germany, challenging that fascist regime and then in effect, living in self imposed “exile” in Italy where he still lives)  and the best of times (the survival and triumph of his own art and voice and the acknowledgement of his contribution to music and the politics of struggle). 

Like other composers and artists Henze’s career is marked by different and unique periods of exploration and discovery; musically, politically, and socially. He seems to be constantly willing to subject himself to the winds of change and to absorb those changes via the very real world as it is at that moment. He brings sensitivity and an openness of mind and heart to that quest and the search for a realization of just what is going on.

Personally and artistically he has found peace in finding his place and has reconciled with himself (and with Germany as well). He is comfortable with what he now sees as his role as a composer. 

"I realized that as an artist I could not really do anything. All I can do is try to improve my own work and thereby in a small and humble way improve the world in which I live. The possibility for change is to make a contribution and grow from this service," he says. "One's possibilities grow as a teacher--one who loves music and people."

Henze Resources on the Web
Voices: Henze at 75 (Philharmonia Orchestra)
Schott Music Publishers
Bohemian Fifths
Hanse Werner Henze's Autobiography