Obituary: Hans Werner Henze

No composer of the modern age was more haunted by the past than Hans Werner Henze, who has died in the eastern German city of Dresden, at the age of 86. Henze spent most of his life grappling with Germany’s musical tradition on one hand and trying to exorcise its Nazi past on the other. And yet, of all the leading lights of the postwar era, none contributed as much to the future as Henze did – by encouraging young talent and leaving a performable oeuvre.

His workshop-festival for youth at Montepulciano will be a lasting legacy, as will a core of essential works including Boulevard Solitude, his children’s opera Pollicino, his Ninth Symphony and the ballet Undine.

A gregarious man of wide literary interests and strong hedonistic urges, Henze was one of the most energetic and prodigiously gifted composers of the 20th century: he wrote prolifically and at length, inviting the charge that he had diluted his well of inspiration in music of rambling diffuseness.

In the 1960s he was too politically engaged for his own good. Visits to Cuba may have stoked his imagination, notably for El Cimarrón, but his leftwing activism – culminating, notoriously, in the disruption by riot police of the Hamburg premiere of Das Floss der Medusa in 1968 – was a waste of creative energy, as he later acknowledged.

For the last 20 years of his life he happily accepted the role of Grand Old Man of German music, receiving visitors at his Italian refuge, tending his magnificent olive orchard, sipping Tio Pepe and composing almost to the end.

Henze assimilated many musical styles in a personal hybrid of lyricism, German intellectual rigour and tonally-oriented atonality. It was always eminently performable: he began his career as a ballet conductor and readily allowed dance metaphors to mould his music.

Another factor distinguishing him from contemporaries such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen was that he wrote for the most commonly available forces: the classical forms of symphony, concerto, opera and string quartet were his meat and drink.

Those contemporaries’ contempt for Henze and his rejection of their musical ideology coincided with his escape to Italy in the 1950s, bringing a degree of tranquillity to his world. But his hang-ups – about his music-starved childhood, his wartime service in Hitler’s army, his outsider status in Germany – followed him, as did his incurable idealism.

Born in Gütersloh, Westphalia, on July 1 1926, the son of a schoolteacher who was a Nazi sympathiser, Henze studied in the late 1940s with Wolfgang Fortner and René Leibowitz, quickly embracing the 12-note method.

After an apprenticeship as a conductor, he established himself as the most widely performed of Germany’s postwar composers, forging fruitful associations with Luchino Visconti (Maratona), Frederick Ashton (Undine), Ingeborg Bachmann (Der Prinz von Homburg) and W.H. Auden (Elegy for Young Lovers).

In 1964 the Berlin Philharmonic played all five of Henze’s extant symphonies and the Deutsche Oper commissioned Der junge Lord, the success of which financed the completion of La Leprara, Henze’s handsome villa in Marino. This period culminated in the premiere of The Bassarids, his second Auden opera, at Salzburg in 1968.

Thereafter Henze’s socialist dreams gained the upper hand, dominating his 1970s compositions up to and including his complex Edward Bond opera We Come to the River, which mystified everyone at its 1976 Covent Garden premiere.

By the time of The English Cat (1983), which uses a Victorian mask to satirise hypocrisy, Henze was starting to relax again. And his youthful passion for drama, ballet, mythology and classical themes of love came full circle in Venus und Adonis (1997) and L’Upupa (2003), the latter exhibiting a Flute-like retrospective wisdom.

From the mid-1970s Henze poured his experience into youth and education projects. A life-long Anglophile, he was especially pleased to note the success of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek at the 1988 Munich Biennale, a festival for new opera which he had founded. He wrote two volumes of autobiography, the first of which, Bohemian Fifths (1999), is available in English.

When I last visited him at Marino in 2009, two years after the death of his longtime partner Fausto Moroni, Henze was frail, melancholic, still struggling with the ghosts that had haunted his life – but ever-appreciative of earthly pleasures.

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