Whether from modesty, lack of literary skill or sheer shortage of time, composers on the whole have proved rather reluctant to produce full-scale, soul-bearing autobiographies. Nor are such texts as have appeared always what they might seem. Wagner's My Life was very much a revisionist version of the facts for his second wife, Cosima, to whom it was dictated. Stravinsky's dry and remarkably misleading mid-career autobiography was actually ghosted for him by an associate, while Copland's late volumes of memoirs and Those Twentieth Century Blues by Tippett were largely prompted and pulled together by assistants. True, there has been a recent surrogate tradition of self-revelation in book-length interviews, exemplified in the conversation books of Stravinsky and Robert Craft, but also including volumes from Poulenc, Varese, Messiaen, Carter, Cage, Ligeti, Xenakis, Berio, Boulez and Stockhausen. Neither should we forget such essay collections with strong autobiographical connotations as Schoenberg's Style and Idea or Alexander Goehr's Finding the Key.
Yet that leaves little more than a handful of truly significant composer- testimonies, and of these, at least two concentrate on youth alone: Carl Nielsen's enchanting My Childhood and the marvellously quirky Prokofiev by Prokofiev. Turning a lifetime of steady productivity and performance into a gripping narrative can be a problem, of course, and in My Happy Life the unspeakably fertile Darius Milhaud virtually gave up trying half way through. Ultimately, the classics of the genre both date back to the 19th century: Rimsky-Korsakov's painstaking account of his part in the emergence of the Russian tradition and, greatest of all, that key document of European romanticism in all its extravagant idealism and despair, The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz.
Now, however, we have a substantial new candidate for this exiguous canon. To mark his 70th birthday two years ago, Hans Werner Henze brought out a full-scale autobiography in German, just published here in an English translation under the title of Bohemian Fifths (an old technical term signifying a defiance of musical correctness). The book has much going for it. A lifelong diarist, Henze has a fund of immediate impressions and exact information to draw on. He is also a composer of wide literary culture who has collaborated with such contemporary writers as WH Auden, Elsa Morante, Ingeborg Bachmann, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Edward Bond - and if Stewart Spencer's translation has its occasional flatnesses, it is serviceable enough to convey just how evocative a writer Henze at his best can be. He has also resisted the temptation merely to recycle the account of his earlier years he included in his 1982 essay collection Music and Politics, telling the tale anew.
It is quite a tale. Born in Westphalia in 1926, eldest son of a schoolteacher who was later shamed into becoming a Nazi and finally disappeared on the Eastern Front in 1945, Henze himself was forced to serve in the forces of a regime he instinctively loathed during the final year of the Second World War, while coming to terms with his homosexuality. Personally alienated and, by 1953, fearful of resurgent Fascism, he made a classic German escape to the land where the citrons grow - Italy, which has remained his home base ever since. Here, over the next few years, he strove to reanimate the great symphonic and operatic forms of decimated European tradition - an enterprise which set him increasingly at odds with the post-war avant- garde of Boulez and Stockhausen. But by the mid-1960s, he had come to feel that purely aesthetic ideals were not enough, that art must be action. There followed a period of increasing political involvement as he campaigned for the liberal Willy Brandt, consorted with the radical Berlin students and, in 1969-70, travelled to revolutionary Cuba to help in the evolution of the New Man - even putting in the odd afternoon with the other intellectuals on the sugar plantations.
His disillusion was inevitable. Already in 1968, the Hamburg premiere of his protest oratorio The Raft of the Medusa had been disrupted by riot police. And no sooner had he left Cuba than his friends were incarcerated by Castro. Through the ensuing years of dismay and deteriorating health - including a severe heart attack in 1978 - one gets the impression that it was only the obsessive professional grind that held him psychologically together; and that the recent Ninth Symphony - a huge choral structure dealing with the fates of individuals in the Resistance to Fascism, represents an ultimate confrontation with the dark side of his German heritage which has run like a wound through his creative life.
So that, although Henze is hardly a Berlioz fan, Bohemian Fifths can only be compared in scope with the Berlioz Memoirs. Both project emblematic narratives of the fate of the self-consciously Romantic spirit in eras of cultural change and political turmoil. Except that, where Berlioz ended up a burnt-out case save for a few nostalgic flickers, Henze has apparently come through, his courtesy, humour and solicitude intact, his professional achievement - not only in composition, but as conductor, producer, teacher, impresario and animateur - vast; a welcome presence in our midst - and yet again at the Royal Northern College of Music Henze Festival in Manchester next week.
Which is why the fevered, almost surreal undertone that increasingly surfaces in the book is so unsettling. Already at the end of the war he found himself, doubtless on account of his blond good looks, drafted into a more than slightly camp army unit that was still, incredibly, making morale-boosting films for the German forces as the Third Reich imploded around them. Again, what he hints at of his love life sounds less humanly fulfilling than devastating, phantasmogoric. He builds himself a luxury retreat in the Roman hills: it immediately becomes a target for earthquakes and bandits, who burst in and rob his guests at the dinner table. Towards the end of the book a figure called Hachi Bum Bum begins to flit through the pages, but one remains uncertain whether this is a real personage or more a literary symbol of wry, clown-like survival.
Suddenly it all begins to connect up with those rather frequent passages in his vast output where, despite his evident expressive and technical intentions, the harmonies and textures remain unaccountably, obstinately out of focus, so that one seems to be hearing a kind of aural mirage of music rather than music as such. Were those early traumas simply too much? At some level, it is as if this warm, gifted, idealistic man cannot ever quite believe in the reality of his life and art.
`Bohemian Fifths: An Autobiography' by Hans Werner Henze (Faber, pounds 30). RNCM Henze Festival, 10-14 Nov, RNCM, 124 Oxford Road, Manchester (0161- 907 5278/9)Reuse content