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How will Germans mourn their greatest post-War composer? With pursed lips and very mixed feelings

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.

Here’s a full curriculum vitae from his publisher. And an excellent appreciation from Guy Rickards in the Guardian.

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  1. I only met Henze once, at a reception after playing solo viola in a performance of his chamber opera “Phaedra”, in the berlin state opera house, with michael Boder conducting and sir Simon rattle near-by in the audience, in September of 2007. The performance had a few good viola solos, and I got a copy of the live radio broadcast off the Rundfunk-berlin-Brandenburg “rbb” … I have to say, it was a lot of fun to play his piece, and there were definitely elements of Stravinsky, Ravel, Broadway and Mozart in his compositional style, although his music is atonal…

  2. Greatest post war German composer was Richard Strauss followed by Paul Hindemith.

    There are those composers with natural talent, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, and there are those who aspired…….

  3. Greg Hlatky says:

    One of his works was dedicated to a homicidal maniac. History’s greatest killer was a personal hero. He was ideologically affiliated with the most murderous political philosophy ever (European, of course). ‘Nuff said.

    • “He fled Germany, he told me, more for its intolerance of homosexuals than for its right-wing politics”

      The paradox being that in Cuba (which he greatly admired),the degree of intolerence towards Gay people was in a different league altogether from his home country. To be fair, things have mellowed in more recent years.

      Henze’s politics rarely stood up to close scrutiny but his music does….and it’s frequently very fine.
      The first moevement of the 2nd piano concerto has an austere beauty which is very moving.

  4. Hans Werner Henze was one of the most humanistic composers of the 20th century. The world in which he lived was divided between two monolithic ideological blocks which also strongly affected the arts. Western modernism (mostly abstract expressionism and its related genres) were pitted against Social Realism in massive secret programs such as the CIA’s “Congress for Cultural Freedom.”[1] He was one of the few who openly refused to embrace either side. He refused to carry an aesthetic party card, with notable consequences such as Boulez and Stockhausen ostentaciously stomping out of one of his performances at Donaueschingen. The West conveniently forgets that its own aesthetic doctrines were often almost as totalizing as those in the East, and yet Henze was one of a handful of composers that successfully showed *both* sides alternatives.

    In a like manner, he refused to embrace a blind, McCarthyistic hatred of Marxism and was thus ostracized in Germany and else where. He stood against the abuses of the United States against Latin America, and for causes like the rights of homosexuals. These stances also brought a great deal of ostracism and opprobrium upon him. He always showed us how an artistic could be socially engaged without embracing totalizing aesthetic and political concepts.

    He was also strongly dedicated to helping young composers with major festivals like the Munich Biennale. I hope that young composers today will learn to appreciate Henze’s humansitic values and consider them something worth emulating – to say nothing of his fine music.

    [1] Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books.) There’s a very informative review of Stonor’s book here:

    This wiki article about the Congress for Cultural Freedom is also informative:

  5. re-posting this from several weeks ago:

    David says:
    September 7, 2012 at 12:12 am

    There’s something gloriously ironic about Henze, some of whose compositions are dedicated to mass-murderers (Guevara, Ho Chi Minh), claiming moral authority about whose music should be played where. It’s indisputable that there are Israelis for whom the music of Wagner will never be acceptable, yet equally true that there are many for whom the man’s views and art are easily separated. As other comments have pointed out, this is a matter for the citizens of Israel. There is an unfortunate tendency in Germany (most noticeable in the artistic community) towards leftist moral posturing – a further irony being that these people often support causes and ideologies whose victim count dwarfs that of the Holocaust.

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