Hans Werner Henze

1926 2012

Hans Werner Henze

Composer • Conductor


Han Werner Henze produced a formidable volume of works which have established him firmly in the repertoire of 20th Century Western music. The works are astonishingly diverse, a feature which may find a comparison with his turbulent personal and political life. In the 60s Henze moved to the political far-left and many of his subsequent works reflect revolutionary ideals and dogmatic thinking. He left behind a legacy hard to pin to a specific tradition, easily adopting Schoenberg's serial approach,Stravinsky's colouration and aleatoric techniques. 

Hans Werner Henze was born to a schoolteacher, Frank Henze and his wife Margarete (née Geldmacher). In 1930 the family, including Hans' 5 younger siblings moved to Bielfield. His father was an amateur musician of significant local standing, directing a workers' chorus and brass ensemble. He also played viola in a local chamber orchestra.This atmosphere meant Hans himself received music lessons early in life, beginning with piano shortly after starting primary school.

1935 brought upheaval to the family in the form of the Nazi party who dissolved the collective school where Hans' father Frank worked, denouncing it as socialist. The family was sent to the small village of Dünne. In the memoirs written by Hans he recalls his father as an uneasy convert to the Nazi party, how the bookshelves were gradually filled with anti-communist and anti-Semitic literature and propaganda as replacements for the previous occupants of the shelves; now banned by the regime. His father adopted the new order, dressed his elder sons in the brown Hitler Youth uniform and the propaganda on the airwaves became obligatory listening for the family.

The radio had a different effect on the young Henze. It propelled him on his quest to be a musician as he was exposed toMozart and Bach on the airwaves. He followed this path, originally against his father’s wishes, but who later reconciled himself to it. He began his musical studies in earnest at the Brunswick State Music School for orchestral musicians. He studied piano, percussion and music theory. During his studies the music of Hindemith,Bartók ,Stravinsky, and the 2nd Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern <>) was a mere rumour. He played as timpanist in the school orchestra, absorbing the repertory of orchestral music. This led to his 1st Symphony in 1947, a neo-classical work steeped in the orchestral tradition. The slow movement,'Notturno' contains an extended viola solo, a possible ode to his father.

His father volunteered for the Eastern front in 1943, a front from which he would, like so many others, never return. In the subsequent implosion of the German state Henze was conscripted and forced to join a tank regiment. In the chaos he journeyed West to escape the Russian advance, reaching Denmark where he was captured and interned in a British prisoner of war camp. Speaking afterwards of this episode he said 'Everything that the facists persecute and hate is beautiful to me'.

His mature career began when he relocated to Heidelberg where he studied with Wolfgang Fortner. He gained a solid foundation in renaissance counterpoint, in instrumentation and score reading and in the aesthetics of modern music. His early pieces reflect someone who is learning quickly, absorbing many influences. In 1946 he attended the Darmstadt summer course. He received a premiere of his 'Kammerkonzert' which was a neo-baroque concerto grosso. This led to him being noticed by the publisher, Willy Strecker which marked the beginning of a long-term deal with Schott publications. 

There then came a period in Henze's life where he immersed himself in 12-tone serialism. He questioned his own aesthetic and undertook studies of the music of Berg and Bartok's violin concertos. This led to his own, '1st Violin Concerto'(1947). The bitonal harmony against folk-like melodies with 12-tone melodic themes have a clear Stravinsky-like influence, one he retained for much of his career. He honed the technique further with works like 'Whispers from Heavenly Death' (1948) for high voice and 8 instruments, the Kammersonate for piano trio (1948, rev. 1963) and the chamber concerto for harpsichord and eight solo instruments,Apollo et Hyazinthus (1948–49).

Henze became increasingly involved in theatre and dance, receiving many commissions to write stage works. He found a voice of his own in stage works, becoming a master at stylistic quotation and parody. In 1949 he was appointed musical advisor to a German theatre in Konstanz, but the theatre itself did not last long. Between 1946 and 1953 he composed many works for stage and ballet to fulfil commissions, including, 'Das Wundertheater' (1948, rev. 1964), a choreographic poem, 'Ballett-Variationen' (1949 rev. 1992 and 1998), the ballet 'Jack Pudding' (1949) and 'Das vokaltuch der Kammersängerin Rosa silber' (1950). The fascination with dance inspired his purely musical pieces of this period also, his 3rd Symphony having subtitles for movements such as 'Evocation Dance'. He was inundated with work between 1950 and 1953 and many of the works he later removed from his oeuvre.

In 1953 he fled to Italy. He was fleeing social pressure due to his sexuality and a colossus of stress in German life. He chose a hermit-like existence on the island of Ischia where he composed, learned the local culture and language and criticised his compositional language and goals. His time in Italy relaxed his 12-tone experiments and his style became more neopolitan and tonal. 

The first works to show the change of style were the Fourth Symphony (1955), the opera 'König Hirsch' (Berlin, 1956), and the 'Fünf neapolitanische' Lieder for voice and chamber orchestra (1956). he fully embraced lyricism with further operas, 'Der Prinz von Homburg' (Hamburg, 1960), 'Elegy for Young Lovers' (Schwetzingen, 1961), and 'Der Junge Lord' (Berlin, 1965). Musical life continued in Italy, he moved closer to Rome and maintained close ties to Germany. 

A monumental achievement came in 1964 when all 5 of his symphonies at the time  were performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Herbert von Karajan conducting. The Deutsche Oper Berlin commissioned new opera from him after this, resulting in 'Der Affe als Mensch'.

His later life was marked by a return to political activism, at least in his music. He lived in Cuba in 1969 and 70, where his 6th Symphony was premiered. Many of his later works had overt political messages in them such as 'Voices', a collection of songs for the oppressed and 'El Cimarron' telling the story of a Cuban slave, Esteban Montejo. 

Henze was an intense critic of his own style and music at all times during his career, never afraid to try new languages if he saw the need and then aware enough to realise his own draw back to lyricism. He had many critics at the time including Luigi Nono and Stockhausen and he has been accused over-writing. He certainly has a staggering output of works, but his return to lyricism illuminates a common thread in his music which can be deciphered across his career; one of honest expression.

Left: Henze with the Austrian poet and author Ingeborg Bachmann