Hans Werner Henze
b. Gütersloh, Germany, 1 July 1926
Though his style has undergone many changes, Henze has created some of the most approachable music written since 1945, and his operas occupy a prominent place in the modern repertory. Conscious of the need for reconciliation between the traditional and the experimental, Henze has remained, in his own words, ‘a reluctant modernist’.
In 1951 he composed Boulevard Solitude, his first full-length opera, a work of political commitment but displaying a bewildering stylistic prodigality. Two years later Henze moved to Italy, a country that has stimulated his work in many ways: through its light and colour; through its freer attitude towards his homosexuality; and, perhaps above all, in its emphasis on community. The four-hour König Hirsch (1956) revealed the influence of Italian folk-song and the orchestrations of Puccini. It was followed by such works as Der Prinz von Homburg (1960), in which Henze ridiculed Germanic militarism; Elegy for Young Lovers (1961), a setting of a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman exploring the artist’s relationship with society (an abiding Henze concern); Der junge Lord (1965), a tribute to opera buffa; and The Bassarids (1966), another Auden–Kallman collaboration.
In the mid-1960s, Henze underwent a radicalization of his politics, proclaiming his revolutionary socialism through music that rejected luxurious tonality and lyricism in favour of a stripped-back, hard-hitting, sometimes strident style. As he stated in 1970: ‘My crisis was not so much about opera as about music, music making and people, and in this context I could see that I would contribute no more new operas’. Nonetheless, by the mid-1970s Henze was again writing for the conventional theatre: We Come to the River (1976) was followed by Don Chisciotte della Mancia (1976), The English Cat (1983, another Bond collaboration) and Das verratene Meer (1990). We Come to the River was a huge project, with a named cast of over a hundred, and its extreme demands (three orchestras, three stages and a military band) have kept it out of production. The hard-edged political agenda of Henze and Edward Bond was also problematic in some quarters – the audience at the premiere certainly didn’t take well to finding itself on the receiving end of a bluntly expressed anti-capitalist assault. The rather more successful English Cat is a modern ballad-opera along the lines of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.
In Venus and Adonis (1997), Henze returned to the sound-world of his early works, with some gloriously sensual and atmospheric writing. Lauded by critics since its premiere, this tale of life, death, love and sex ranks as one of his most impressive achievements, alongside his most recent stage work, Phaedra (2007).
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