Hans Werner Henze talks to Alan Blyth

Hans Werner Henze talks to Alan BlythHans Werner Henze talks to Alan Blyth

"To recollect is not at all easy" is how Henze responded to my first question about his early years, but as he began to delve into his past a picture of a hard but fascinating childhood and youth began to emerge. "My musical upbringing was irregular because we lived in the country, in a very small village indeed, where my father was a teacher. The only place where you could hear any music was Bielefeld. We lived 30 kilometres away and although you could get a train there, you often couldn't get one back. Occasionally I was able to stay there overnight with an uncle but that meant being late for school the next morning, and only about once a year could I see an opera.

"All middle-class children in Germany learn the piano and I was no exception, but I didn't care for it very much. I remember that when I was 10 I had no thought of becoming a musician — I wanted to be an explorer in Africa because I liked animals and plants. All I did as far as music was concerned was to occasionally practise the piano and prepare for my next lesson. At that time we didn't even have a radio. My curiosity in music was finally aroused, however, by hearing Mozart onthe radio a few years later. The beauty of his particular sound did — and still does — seem to me inexplicable. You can't give it a name; you can only say that the structure of Mozart's musical thinking is in complete harmony with the orchestration — and I don't think that says very much. You can also describe him as writing the essentials without any kind of decoration. This is what makes it so beautiful. In about 1937 or 1938, when I began listening, the radio used to broadcast a series of programmes of just his music, twice a week I seem to recall. Later when I went to the music academy in Brunswick I must have heard Figaro at least 40 times, usually standing in the gallery. I was so amazed by it.

"Then about this time, when I was 13 or 14, composing began to seem a possibility. My teacher took me to hear him play chamber music with his friends, and then I founded a little ensemble myself with some school friends. I played the piano and recorder, and would write trios and quartets for ourselves. I neglected my homework and instead played the piano more and more. Eventually my musical activities were so engrossing that those hours in school seemed quite superfluous, even like lost time. My parents decided I should go to the music academy even before taking my exams, so I left high school five years before I should have done. That was in 1942. By that time, I was already able to play some Schubert and Beethoven sonatas, and I was also busy composing although I kept the pieces to myself. I also studied percussion as an extra.

"In 1944, when I was 17, I went into the army, signalling for armoured cars — very tough — but I never went into action. In the last winter of the war — in 1945 — we were transferred to Prague. From there we went to Berlin, which was being besieged. Then we were moved to the north because there was some idea of reorganising the army in Denmark — but capitulation intervened. So at the end of the war I found myself in Denmark, where I was captured by the British. After three months we were discharged, I went home to a very miserable situation. My father did not come back, in fact never returned; we don't know where he died. I had to work in transport for six months. Then the Bielefeld theatre reopened, and I got a job there as a repetiteur. Although I would have liked to continue my studies, 1 had to earn money to keep my family, which consisted of my mother and five younger brothers and sisters".

In 1947, he found a benefactor, who helped his family, and that meant he could go back to his studies. "I went to Heidelberg because Wolfgang Fortner was there and he had a great name as a teacher. That was at a church institute. We were only about 40 pupils in all, mostly preparing to be organists in churches, choral conductors and so on. I remember we all had a very severe course in counterpoint and harmony, and learned a great deal about very early music, most instructive and informative. It gave me a rigorous training and discipline that has proved useful ever since: to score clearly, to know about the possibilities of instruments, and voices.

"I showed Fortner my scores and he thought I did have talent in that direction. He also gave me private lessons on modern techniques — except 12-tone. Instead, I learned about 'free counterpoint', how to develop atonal melodic lines and how to put counterpoint to these, as an evolution from Fux's methods. One felt that music had had no revolutionary break, that things have developed quite normally through the centuries up to our own time. I still believe that to be the case. Then in 1948 I met René Leibowitz when he came to lecture in the summer at Darmstadt. He opened up the world of dodecaphony for me, mainly by analysing Schoenberg and Berg scores. That was something I needed very badly, because the romantic side in my writing, in my way of expression, could not find an outlet in terms of the counterpoint I'd so far been taught. Now I found a way of doing so.

"The Hindemithian kind of works written under Fortner's guidance were already being performed, even published. My chamber concerto for flute, piano and strings was an immense success — incredible! Then came my violin sonata, which is still being played, a string quartet and my first symphony, which I later had to revise. Then came some works that I imagined were 12-tone but were not really so — the violin concerto, two more symphonies, in 1947-8, and a chamber sonata, a trio for violin, cello and piano. The first really serial piece was Variations for Piano. Then came Apollo Hyacinthus".

After a short spell working in a theatre on Lake Constance (which went bankrupt in the winter of 1948-9), he had no job and was penniless. From 1950 for two years, he wrote incidental music at the Wiesbaden theatre, all at great speed. Then he was put in charge of the ballet there. "However, we didn't get the necessary encouragement so it was rather frustrating and the excellent company with so much talent dispersed. The chiefs of the theatre didn't realize the chance they were missing. My publishers then had pity on me because they thought I was wasting my time and they gave me a monthly allowance, which allowed me to go and live in Italy in 1953".

His leaning towards opera really arose through his interest in ballet. "I was fascinated by the interplay between musical and physical motion. When I wrote my first opera, Boulevard Solitude in 1951 — it had its premiere the following year — 50 per cent of it was dance. The singers were treated in rather a statuesque manner because I didn't believe in the traditional movements for them. I overcame that view when I saw Italian opera and I realised that the physical presence of music in a human body is much stronger in a singer because of his voice. This process of making music physically present is still concerning me today. In Cimarrón and Natascha Ungeheuer, I make even the musicians visible and they more or less become actors. I think I will pursue this line".

Today he believes that the theatre in whatever form must have social relevance. "But that has always been the case. All Mozart's pieces have connections with what was happening then. And, of course, all my earlier operas have that kind of significance too. Even King Stag has allusions to the Nazi past. Now I believe that my ideas in this respect are better expressed in looser forms. I can't say how I will develop: I'm searching, talking, thinking all the time about this question. At present I'm working on songs for a vaudeville, the text is by Enzensberger, considered the best German poet of the day, who is also a political essayist. He has Written a documentary play about the Bay of Pigs. I hope the NET in America and possibly the BBC here will put on our work. The music will always be part of the action; it never makes comments".

Henze has also written a piece for Solti and the Chicago Symphony, called Heliogabulus Imperator, about the boy emperor who upset Roman traditions of his time. "The idea that sin would be abolished which he put forward naturally upset the Roman senators of the time; so did his matriarchical religion. His success with the masses eventually brought his downfall and assassination. It's called an 'allegoria per musica' and it's for orchestra alone".

He would like to spend all his time composing at his home in Italy — or at least composing, walking, thinking and gardening, but he has to travel abroad to promulgate his own music because he feels that so many conductors are not willing to tackle modern scores. "There are several who could do my works marvellously but they can't be bothered. One declared that he didn't think contemporary music had proved worth his while. I don't have any conductor who really looks after my music, although your Alexander Gibson has done a great deal in Scotland".

He has equivocal feelings about conducting himself. "Sometimes I like it, but it depends very much on the orchestra. Sometimes there is tension between me and the players because they simply won't pay attention. I had quite a different experience with the LSO here. To begin with, all the players were so kind; then I appreciated the respect they have for themselves and for those who work with them. They are very keen learners; they take their parts home and by the following rehearsal they know it all. When we recorded the Beethoven concerto with Eschenbach, the working atmosphere was marvellous, and they made a ravishing sound. It was the first time I'd recorded someone else's music and I must say it felt strange to be accompanying a Beethoven piano concerto".

His political standpoint now plays a large part in his whole life. "My anti-fascist attitude has always existed. After I went to live in Rome, my contact with intellectuals has intensified very much; they are all socialists, if not communists, and their ideas emerged from the Resistance movement and developed into the taking of a more solid standpoint. The Vietnam war, the black rebellion in the United States, and the New Left there and in Europe are the three factors that accelerated my thought, forcing me to take a more active part. It's no use just sitting back in a flat and thinking about these things. My daily routine and function as a man in society had to be reviewed. This caused my work to change and I began to write music more consciously than before — and more critically, more slowly, and with less self-pity, less concern with my individual problems, or more identification of these with the world's problems. Frankly, I think this has improved my work; it's stronger and more humble at the same time.

"My visits to Cuba have been a wonderful lesson — to see what a revolution really looks like — although this under-developed country cannot at all be compared with a European one. The Third World has been oppressed for centuries. What is really astonishing there is the new kind of musical appreciation. The premiere of my Sixth Symphony was packed with young people, who have an enormous curiosity for everything new in art. They believe modern art to be theirs — their world of expression and feeling. They have, let us say, no 'hearing problem' with it because they have no habits or pre-conceptions — their ears are not stuffed with 19th-century music. They have no aesthetic views. Very interesting".

One of Henze's most recent works, Prison Song, a setting of a poem by Ho Chi Minh, will have its 'premiere' on record when Decca issues a disc by the Japanese percussion player Stomu Yamash'ta later this year, and it is very typical of Henze's current thought. "Ho wrote this poem in prison to pass the time and it reflects how people feel when their feet are clasped in irons. Then he says that it's strange how people rush to be shackled so that they know they can sleep in peace, a reference to a certain state of mind found all over the world. The work lasts only seven minutes and involves pre-recorded tape as well as a number of percussion instruments and an Asian flute, all going on while the poem is being recited. As you can imagine, it's very eerie and also very difficult to do".

Although the most calm and philosophic of men, Henze is none the less bitter about his neglect in Germany — this is mostly a thing of the past — and the comparative lack of performances by our own BBC. Boulez's attack on him in that famous article still rankles. He is also not at one with Stockhausen's line of thinking. Yet you don't feel that these feelings arise from envy or backbiting. They are simply the natural reaction of a man with absolute convictions, in life as much as in his art.

From Gramophone, April 1972

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