On a path of his own

Bayan Northcott surveys the first 70 years of a composer who may have succeeded in encompassing our confusing era only too well
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In 1956, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau travelled to Naples to sing Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer. Next day, finding himself at lunch with Hans Werner Henze, he immediately asked for a new song-cycle. Only approaching 30, Henze was already quite a name in new music - if a controversial one. For while the avant-garde ideologues of Darmstadt - Boulez, Stockhausen and Nono - were beginning to suspect him of historical nostalgia, his vast "magic" opera King Stag was just about to outrage the bourgeoisie of Berlin.

In fact, Henze had always felt something of an outsider: as a child, instinctively loathing the Nazi regime as embodied in his father, and, as a young man amidst the post-war devastation, continually under threat for his homosexuality. Convinced by 1953 that fascist values were returning to West Germany, he had escaped to Italy, secluding himself for much of the next three years in Ischia, where he was befriended by WH Auden and Sir William Walton. His move to Naples in January 1956 had been something of a return to the world. Later he would settle outside Rome, but he has never returned to live full-time in his native land. However, the request by the great German baritone proved timely, for Henze was entranced by the sounds, musical and otherwise, of his new-found environment, and had recently come across a collection of anonymous 17th-century Italian lyrics which he already wanted to set. The result was Five Neapolitan Songs with small orchestra, recorded by Fischer-Dieskau in full youthful bloom at the end of 1956.

Released a year later, this was the first work of Henze to reach a wide public and it remains a vivid introduction to the salient qualities of his music - though also to its residual problems. For while, as one might expect, the score alludes intermittently to Neapolitan folksong, the idiom owes most to the so-called neo-classicism of Stravinsky - yet a dissolved and turbid neo-classicism, as if Stravinsky had in turn been recomposed by Berg.

The resulting music is full of expressive turns, haunting moments, darkly bright textures. Whether the work's melodic writing is always so memorable, or its continuity from one patch of invention to another is always so convincing, might be debated. Yet the real puzzle is the inconsistency of its harmony, which seems to fluctuate between the most sensitive working of note against note, and ad hoc chordal pile-ups occasionally sounding not just out of focus but almost out of tune.

It would, of course, be absurd to claim that such qualifications of material, continuity and harmony undermine Henze's entire output. But they recur often enough to prompt the question, why? Attempting to write too much, too quickly, might seem the likeliest answer. Yet Henze would emphatically deny that he is a facile composer: if his output now approaches some 200 works, this is because, conducting and social life aside, he has devoted the last 50 years to little else. The sheer variety of genre and style, of function and subject matter which he has attempted to encompass, together with an evidently endless internal debate between his artistic ideals and his social consciousness, might get one closer to a diagnosis. So the struggle to establish a modus vivendi in the harsh environment of post-war Germany was duly registered in abrupt switches between neo- classicism, serialism and jazz; so the retreat into the hedonistic aestheticism of his early Italian years, in which musical substance often seemed on the point of deliquescing into pure sensation, was offset by the swing towards political commitment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when his pieces sometimes threatened to collapse into mere rhetoric and sonic montage.

Yet, over the last decade or so, Henze could reasonably feel that he has finally "come through". If the outsider was tempted for a time to throw in his lot with revolutionary collectivism, his innate liberal humanism, not to say his personal courtesy, survives intact. Certainly he can take satisfaction in having resisted both the avant-garde dictats of Darmstadt and more recent, market-led fashions in anti-modernism; and the warm reception of such substantial recent scores as the Seventh and Eighth symphonies suggests that a considerable public is now prepared to accept him in the traditional sense as a master.

Next year, he will bring forth both a Ninth symphony and an autobiography. Meanwhile his 70th birthday falls on 1 July. Tomorrow he will be at the Snape Maltings to hear his long-standing advocate Oliver Knussen direct the Five Neapolitan Songs and his recent Appassionatamente for orchestra - the opening items in an Aldeburgh Festival retrospective that will also include a suite from the full-length ballet Ondine composed for Covent Garden in 1956-7 and one of the most affecting of Henze's conceptions, the guitar sequence-cum-octet-cum-Holderlin song- cycle Chamber Music 1958, written for Peter Pears and dedicated to Britten. Back in London, The Prince of Homburg, Henze's anti-militarist opera of 1958, will be running at the Coliseum from 22 June and the Proms will hear the new Three Pieces for Orchestra on 23 July. Not least, Deutsche Grammophon is shortly bringing out its 14-CD Henze Collection.

For the 1958 release of the Five Neapolitan Songs led directly to a DG contract enabling Henze to record many of his major works over the next 17 years. In addition to the Neapolitan Songs and much else, the new set includes such early successes as the touching Violin Concerto (1947) and the hyper-romantic Shelley paraphrase Ode to the West Wind (1953). Henze's famous recordings of the first six symphonies (1947-69) with the Berlin Philharmonic are recycled, plus a diaphanous highlights disc from his chamber-opera collaboration with Auden and Kallman, Elegy for Young Lovers (1961), and the whole of his black comedy The Young Lord (1964) conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi. From the more overtly political years, there is the impressive oratorio The Raft of the Medusa (1968), recorded the day before its police-interrupted premiere, and that motley theatre-piece The Tedious Way to the Apartment of Natascha Ungeheuer (1971), in which Henze, with multiple irony, attacked wealthy would-be socialists like himself. And the edition culminates in the tragic piano concerto-cum-tone poem Tristan (1973).

Do these, will these recordings and performances finally overcome the feeling that there remains something amorphous in the detail, something not quite together in the very heart, of his musical language? It has to be admitted: probably not. Hans Keller, who considered that Henze had all Britten's gifts except for his genius, used to put the matter down to periodic lapses in self-criticism. But Henze himself possibly got closer to the problem when he remarked in 1963: "Old forms seem to me, as it were, like classical ideals of beauty, no longer attainable yet still visible in the distance, stirring memories like dreams. But the path to them is obscured by the densest darkness of our age and is the most difficult and most impossible. To me, it seems the only folly worth living for."

In other words, what has made traditional ideals of synthesis and unity more and more difficult to reanimate is the extent to which the sounds and techniques of modern music authentically express the disarray of modern life itself. The alternative approach of a Stravinsky or a Britten, of reducing such sounds and techniques to their essentials as a fresh starting- point, never seems to have been open to Henze. But then his near-genius for the inessential, for the decorative elaboration of material, for the poetic or sensational exploitation of the richest textures, is doubtless part of the reason why listeners like this one, knowing they will be intermittently disappointed, nevertheless find themselves drawn back again and again over the years to his vastly ambiguous oeuvre.

n The Henze Collection will be available from early next month as 14 CDs, boxed or separate, on DG 449 860-2

n The Aldeburgh Festival opens tonight and runs to 23 June. Booking: 01728 453543

n ENO's new production of The Prince of Homburg opens at the London Coliseum on 22 June and plays in repertoire until 5 July. Booking: 0171- 632 8300