The composer Hans Werner Henze has died

Guest29th Oct 2012
Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) (Photo: Schott)Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) (Photo: Schott)

Hans Werner Henze, who has died aged 86, was unquestionably the most important composer to have emerged from Germany since 1945 and the leading European operatic composer after Britten. His output covered all the major musical and theatrical forms and fared reasonably well on record.

Long resident in Italy, having been disillusioned by the survival of so much of the former Nazi administrative apparatus in Cold War West Germany and increasingly intolerant social attitudes, his relocation propelled Henze into the forefront of European composition, especially when during his years in Ischia he befriended or came into contact with William Walton, Frederick Ashton (for whom he wrote Ondine in 1958; wonderfully recorded by Oliver Knussen for DG, 3/98), Luchino Visconti (with whom he created Maratona di Danza) and – most influentially – WH Auden and Chester Kallman, to whose libretti he composed two of his most successful operas, Elegy for Young Lovers (1962) and The Bassarids (1966). In the meantime he had also met his long-term partner, Fausto Moroni, with whom he settled eventually in Marino, near Rome. (Moroni passed away unexpectedly in 2007 following Henze’s recovery from a severe illness and completion of his penultimate opera, Phaedra). Henze’s later music has not found much favour with recording labels although his once-declared last opera L’Upupa – which preceded Phaedra and the actual final Gisela! – has appeared on a Euroarts DVD.

An able conductor, mostly for DG, of his ten symphonies (1947-2000; No 1 has been rewritten several times over) he provided the definitive recordings, much reissued, of the first six, though others – Simon Rattle and Sylvain Cambreling (in No 7), Marek Janowski (Nos 7 and 8), Markus Stenz (No 8), Ingo Metzmacher (No 9) and Friedemann Layer (No 10) – took up the baton for the later four, a very different set of works built on a larger scale. Henze also conducted recordings of several of his many concertos and even Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, with Christoph Eschenbach. Of his 24 operatic works – some of which overlapped with other genres and many of which have still to make it onto disc – he directed only a disc of excerpts from Elegy for Young Lovers, the monologue El Cimarron (9/71) and the laboured anti-opera Natascha Ungeheuer

Vocal and choral works often marked crucial stages in career by accident or design, for instance the Five Neapolitan Songs (1956) for voice and orchestra, which revealed a new Mediterranean style of lyricism in his writing for voices and which he recorded with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The opera The Bassarids marked the high-point of his early career; the oratorio The Raft of ‘The Medusa’ (1968) its nadir following the riot at its premiere before a note was played and led to a 15-year period of isolation from his homeland; Henze’s recording of this latter, a vigorous and lyrical masterwork, was made during the rehearsals. Henze recorded several other cantatas but it is the a cappella cantata Orpheus Behind the Wire and the immense song cycle Voices that remain perhaps his most singular vocal creations. Among a fine body of chamber and instrumental music, the five string quartets, performed by the Arditti Quartet stand out.

Guy Rickards

See also Alan Blyth's interview with Henze from April 1972 and James Jolly's blog 'Cooking Christmas lunch for Hans Werner Henze'

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