Hans Werner Henze died today in Dresden at the age of 86. He had gone there for a rare and unusually well-promoted performance of his anti-capitalist opera, We Come to the River, knowing that his reception in his home country would always be equivocal. For most of his life, from his 20s on, he chose to live in Italian exile.
Aside from propagating the most revolutionary forms of Communist idelology – Mao, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were personal heroes – Hans sought nothing more than to be allowed to live and work in peace. He fled Germany, he told me, more for its intolerance of homosexuals than for its right-wing politics, although the shadow of Hitlerism pervaded over his youth and was never fully shaken off.
He loved London and had an apartment around the corner from Harrods. We spent a memorable day together at Aldeburgh. There, on Britten’s beach, he suggested to me that his works would never be fully understood, let alone appropriately appreciated, while he was alive.
It was a tragic assessment for a composer to make. I asked if it applied just to Germany. No, he said, everywhere.
His standout works, for me, are the 1958 Frederick Ashton ballet Undine, the W H Auden opera Elegy for Young Lovers and the seventh symphony (1984), by far the most assertive of his orchestral pieces. But there is much to absorb and much more to reassess now that Hans has sadly gone.
May his fine soul rest in peace.