Hans Werner Henze: Composer widely regarded as one of the greatest of the 20th century

 

Hans Werner Henze was one of the pre-eminent composers of the 20th century.

Over his 60-year career he wrote a wide range of music, including opera, ballet, film scores and ten symphonies. Defying categorisation into one style or another, and finding influence from many diverse forms, he once noted that "many things wander from the concert hall to the stage and vice versa."

He saw music as a means to promote and foster peace in the world. According to Henze, "If music were a part of man's everyday life, as it should be, there would certainly be less aggression and much more equality and love on Earth; for music is a means of communication and understanding, a means of reconciliation."

Henze was born in Gütersloh, Germany in 1926, the eldest of six children. His father Franz was a teacher and one-time liberal who converted to Nazism. Henze, like his brothers, were obliged to take part in the Hitler Youth movement.

After showing an early aptitude for music, and encouraged by his mother, he entered the Staatsmusikschule [state music school] Braunschweig. His studies were interrupted by wartime service as a radio operator with the German army on the Eastern front, where he was captured by the British and imprisoned until the end of hostilities. The rhythm of the military march would recur in his music as a symbol of repression and a reminder of the horrors of war.

Returning to civilian life, Henze took on his first professional musical role as an accompanist at the Stadttheater Bielefeld in 1945. Two years later he completed his First Symphony and Violin Concerto, influenced by the work of Schoenberg and Alban Berg and using the 12-tone technique learnt from his tutor Wolfgang Fortner.

The political situation and an atmosphere of homophobia prompted him to leave his native country in 1953. He moved to Italy, initially to the island of Ischia, off Naples, then to the Napolitan mainland and latterly to a villa in the Alban Hills, overlooking the River Tiber, where he remained for the rest of his life.

During the late 1950s and early '60s Henze worked with the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann in a collaboration which resulted in two operas. Der Prinz von Homberg (1958) is a three-act work telling a tale of love and war, which premiered in Hamburg in 1960 and was performed in London two years later under the baton of Leopold Ludwig. Der Junge Lord (1964) satirises in two acts provincial German society. The critic Jamie James noted: "Beginning with aria and duet, trio and quartet, it concludes with the full ensemble in a catastrophe of amazing (and amusing) complexity; the young lovers are reunited, and the ridiculous hypocrisy of the townspeople is exposed."

In the world of ballet it is for Ondine that Henze is probably best known. It premiered in October 1958 at the Royal Opera House, choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton, who commissioned Henze after seeing the opera König Hirsch (King Stag, 1956). Margot Fonteyn starred in the title role as the water sprite who falls in love with a knight, in a piece which was part of her repertoire for the next eight years. Revived in 1988, the ballet is now once again regularly performed. Zoe Anderson, reviewing the Royal Ballet production for this newspaper in 2009, said, "Audiences, and indeed the choreographer, found Henze's washes of sound hard work, but Barry Wordsworth's conducting balances lushness and texture with a driving sense of momentum."

His opera Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa), with a libretto by Ernst Schnabel, was based on the 1819 painting by Théodore Géricault. It was intended as a requiem for the revolutionary Che Guevara, whom Henze admired. The premiere had been scheduled for Hamburg in December 1968 and nearly ended in a riot. As preparations for the performance began, a student put up a large poster of Guevara and an official from the German radio station NDR tore it down. Students countered by raising the Red Flag, to which the Chamber Choir responded in chant, "We will not sing under the Red Flag". The police were called and the performance was cancelled. Only three years later, in Vienna, was the piece shown.

We Come to the River, with a libretto by Edward Bond, was first performed at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in July 1976. David Atherton, who conducted, told The Independent: "In the opera he really pushed accepted operatic boundaries: a huge cast of principal singers, including 110 of Britain's top-named artists, a percussionist who was one of the protagonists onstage, and three orchestras situated not in the pit but in separate distinct parts of the stage."

Emphasising the complexity of the production for cast and audience, Atherton continued: "This not only required high levels of co-ordination to synchronise three simultaneous scenes at different tempos, but created a fundamental problem for the theatre-goer: how to process the narrative and music development of three story lines at the same time."

The same year Henze organised the first Cantiere Internazionale d'Arte di Montepulciano, an annual festival of music and theatre in the Southern Tuscan town. He followed up in 1988 with the creation of the Münchener Biennale and was artistic director of both events until 1994. The current director, Peter Ruzicka, said, "Hans Werner Henze's immeasurable achievement is that with the Munich Biennale he founded a forum for music theatre of the young generation and by doing so established a foundation for the future."

Classical music superstition speaks of the "curse of the ninth", which supposes that a composer's ninth symphony will be his last. Tempting fate, Henze's own ninth was completed and first performed in 1997. Inspired by the novel The Seventh Cross by Anne Seghers, it is subtitled as "Dedicated to the heroes and martyrs of German anti-fascism". The work, and its musical interpretation by Henze, tells the story of seven men who have broken out of a wartime prison camp and eventually escape in a ship. The "cross" of the title is the crucifix to which each man will be tied if he is recaptured.

Defying the superstition, his Sinfonia No 10 was commissioned by Paul Sacher and first performed at Luzern in 2002 by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, under Sir Simon Rattle. Henze had the conductor in mind. "When composing No 10, I thought of Simon as a Lucifer … as a mensch with a pure and elegant English brain, with subtle hands and the sensory apparatus of a modern man in love with the world."

One of his most recent works, Phaedra (2005), his 14th opera, was completed after he awoke from a near-coma following a mysterious ailment. He said of this time: "The illness started when I was in London to hear a piece of mine. Suddenly I couldn't walk. It was then that I stopped liking life... And then one morning, I just stood up... And then I started writing again." Art parallels life when, in the second act of Phaedra, Hippolytus is revived by Artemis.

His publisher, Schott Music, said: "With the unshakable courage of his convictions, but also with his joi de vivre, his love of beautiful things and of nature, Henze's restless spirit reveals to us a man who never lost sight of his artistic aspirations, despite many personal sufferings, and historical dangers. To him, composing was both an ethical commitment and personal expression."

Hans Werner Henze, composer: born Gütersloh, Germany 1 July 1926; partner to Fausto Moroni (died 2007); died Dresden, Germany 27 October 2012.

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