I just learned last night that the great German composer Hans Werner Henze died on Saturday October 27th at the age of 86. I have been fascinated by this man and his music since the mid 1970s. While generally classified as a sort of neo-romantic these days I recall the man and the music of controversy.
Henze was, for me, one of the great political composers and stands with the likes of Luigi Nono, Hans Eisler. His compositions like ‘Essay on Pigs’, ‘The Raft of the Frigate Medusa’, ‘El Cimmaron’, and the 6th Symphony stand out as some of the finest political commentary achieved in classical music. The premiere of The Raft of the Frigate Medusa had to be cancelled due to political protests which broke out in the concert hall and among the musicians themselves.
Though he may be better known for his wonderful operas and film scores (which I like as well) I will always remember when DGG suddenly dropped Henze from their catalog in the 1970s due to how politically hot he was. I recall his interview in Stereo Review, I believe, where he discussed his homosexuality and denigrated his German homeland for their discriminatory practices. Henze had moved to Italy where he spent many productive years.
Much of his music has, for me, a sort of “in your face” quality that reminds me of the expressionism of Schoenberg and the sound world of Varese. Pieces like the Essay on Pigs will still not fail to offend, repel and fascinate listeners because of it’s dissonant style and unusual extended vocal techniques as well as the political content of the text. One of my favorite Henze pieces will always be the noisy and very dissonant 6th Symphony which he composed during a stay in Cuba. And while his style mellowed somewhat after that his compositional approaches were frequently pushing the envelope using tape, spoken voices and dissonances that worked well in the context of his work.
The sweeping grandiose orchestral works include ballets, 10 symphonies, various concerti. His operas are rather frequently performed. And his chamber music, including 5 string quartets, deserve more attention. It is clear as to why he is considered a sort of neo-romantic and I don’t think that that is at odds with his political convictions. Henze seems to me to have been an idealist, supporting progressive and radical political ideas as a part of his grand and all embracing style. Harsh sounds did not need to be excluded from his sonic pallete. He seems to have embraced a wide variety of techniques and sustained a long and productive career. Perhaps he was the ideal post-modern romantic.
RIP, Hans. We go on listening. Thank you for the sounds.
- Henze and the Modern German Symphony (kvnomusic.com)
- Hans Werner Henze, 1926 – 2012 (operachic.typepad.com)
- Top Five Pieces That Helped to Spark Revolutions (wqxr.org)
- Hans Werner Henze is dead (intermezzo.typepad.com)
- Prom 26: Promming in Someone Else’s Shoes (theartofpromenading.wordpress.com)