The saddest story in post-war music

August 14 2012

Below, eloquent take-down of Hans Werner Henze by Robin Holloway. Henze is a central figure of post-war music and at the same time strangely ignorable. I mention him occasionally here because I am interested in him. There is more to Henze than Holloway implies, but much of this hits home.

Was it specifically or mainly in Germany that the post-war avant-garde froze into an “unparalleled rarefication”? A true picture of post-war German music – such as presented, for example, in RCA’s vast but hardly-noticed collection of CDs some years ago (well over 100 of them) called Musik in Deutschland 1950-2000 – suggests something different. I don’t agree that Henze’s agitprop music is all a regression.

“The recovery of German composition from the ruins of the Second World War makes a tangled tale. The advanced music proscribed by the Nazis, sweeping into the cultural vacuum, understandably produced, rather than equilibrium, an extreme emphasis upon the merely novel that rapidly froze into an institutionalised avant-garde of unparalleled rarefication. Backed by the authority of Adorno, the instinctive antipathy of the two principal lines of contemporary music in its first half-century – Stravinsky and Schoenberg – widened into an impassable abyss. [Each backed by Adorno? Wasn’t he mainly on the Schoenberg side?]

“Hans Werner Henze, aged twenty in 1946, appeared from the start the only composer from this bad background able to resolve the problem. His intrinsic endowment – fertility, fluency, flair for story and words, subject-matter in general and the stage in particular – seemed infinite in its promise. His unbigoted openness, as a German avant-gardist, to the neo-classic Stravinsky, gave him access to his own much wider field of reference – Tchaikovsky ballet and Italian opera, the late-romantic glories of his own tradition, and its more recent history in Weill and Hindemith as well as the Schoenberg school, together with jazz and the voices of popular music, indigenous or commercial, from many lands. [His openness to Stravinsky gave him access to German late romanticism?] For advocates of the middle road he became the man to get music back onto the rails: after revolution, consolidation; after fragmentation, integration; after alienation, communication. Such pieces of the mid-to-late 1950s as the Fourth Symphony, the five Neapolitan Songs, Nachtstücke und Arien [yesterday’s post] seemed like an oasis. A personal favourite of mine, from somewhat later, was the Cantata della fiabba estrema [settings of Elsa Morante] with its soaring lyric soprano solo, supported by the small chorus’s off-Bach chorale and the dulcet hues of the little guitar-centred ensemble, rendering the title’s ‘extreme fable’ in accents hedonistic, erotic and refined. In the pieces of this time the rush of colour to the head, below the belt, and all the other places that other music of the day didn’t reach, or even aim for, was equally inebriating.

“Or so it seemed at the time; but these pieces have not worn well. One’s need for deliciousness and sensuality made for wishful hearing. Intimations of reality came with the first impact in this country of the oratorio Novae de Infinito Laudes (1962). The score had looked as copious in fantasy as the texts, chosen, with Henze’s customary sense for the striking, from the writings of Giordano Bruno. Why did it sound so anonymous? Maybe the performance, maybe one’s ears. One gave it many tries; the unmemorability persisted. Doubts were confirmed even by the three operas of those years that can still be seen as his high-water mark, Elegy for Young Lovers (1959-61), The Young Lord (1964) and the vast Euripides/Auden [quasi-symphonic] Bassarids (1965)

“Then came the radical chic of the late sixties. Solidarity with the Cuban revolution produced inter alia the Sixth Symphony; back in the Fatherland the bourgeoisie were épatée most notoriously by The Raft of the Medusa, a vast semi-staged oratorio out of Géricault via Che Guevara. The sheerly musical quality of his politically committed phase dropped sharply as the agitprop intensified. Perhaps the low point was reached in an operatic collaboration with Edward Bond, We Come to the River: the culinary lavishness of the medium and the poverty of the message remain vivid in the mind long after its Covent Garden première; the music, however, didn’t survive the night. In those fifteen years Henze has continued to be enormously prolific in a wider range of media than any other living composer. Courted by the world’s top orchestras and opera-houses, guest at prestigious festivals and host of his own, he remains in spite of the radicalism and the pieties about the solitude of the creative artist an establishment figure par excellence. 

“The problems concealed by his general acceptability have been posed anew by the BBC’s recently concluded Henze festival at the Barbican [June 1991] [bracket in original]. The fact is that never in all his torrential output has Henze achieved a voice of his own. The old joke of ‘Henze’s Law’ – when in doubt, write a cadenza – can be extended to cover everything that matters in musical composition. When in doubt, make for the jungle of complication and drench everything with colour. The fundamental inadequacy of the basic elements – a coherent ordering of harmony, counterpoint, motif/theme/melody, architecture – out of which music in any idiom whatever must inevitably be made is thus disguised for a bit. Time and again one’s ear is first beguiled, then bombarded, battered, bamboozled and at last bored. The final reaction is despair – where is the piece behind all this masterly semblance? 

“Sampling the broadcast last summer of his newest opera, after Mishima’s Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (another canny choice), one found the same old welter of indiscriminate notes in an orgy of clapped-out expressionist gesturing. The Seventh Symphony of 1984 – which I have heard all through, many times – is another version of the same. This large work aims high and sounds, first go, like a million dollars. But it is toy money.

“Henze’s is the saddest story in post-war music. He is a martyr equally to the need since the deaths of Strauss and Schoenberg in the years on each side of 1950 to find a great German master, and the cultured materialism that has prevailed in that country ever since. The fairies at his cradle gave him every gift, but impishly withheld the indispensable jewel of artistic personality. Sad also are the culture-vultures, who, literary sensibilities a-twitching and cloth ears a-flap, hear only what they’re told and not what is actually there.”


Robin Holloway, from On Music: Essays and Diversions, Claridge Press, 2003. There is a second volume, Essays and Diversions II, Continuum, 2007. Buy here.

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