Henze and the happy turning

April 1 2013

A friend sent me something unsolicited on Hans Werner Henze, the great German composer who died last October. I replied:

“I had some thoughts about your moving HWH email, so jotted them down.

“Your description of the rather anti-religious atmosphere in his house was interesting. On the whole, he seemed to be an atheist to the end, thinking that human beings were better and kinder without religion. But he disconcerted a German journalist a few years ago by referring to the universe ‘and its Maker’.

“And then, his penultimate work, called An den Wind, for chorus and ensemble (2011) had this blurb, translated from German on his publisher’s website. It’s not very theological, but it’s very Henze:

‘A legend: inscrutable, rooted and seasoned in the past; a myth: which in the turning of the ages changed or discarded its old skins, rich in mystery and significance – this comes to us direct from the unconscious and via memory, taking form in the Holy Scriptures, filling us today with awe and with love.

‘Working with the poet Christian Lehnert, I immersed myself in the theme of the “Outpouring of the Holy Spirit”, with the miracle, and as it were with the healing, the saving of souls, as depicted in medieval art (for example in painting), where we find the Apostles gazing childlike into the starry heavens, searching for grace, for answers and for blessing.

‘In our art, Christian and I portray and present the world as we experience it today – with its unearthly storms of desert wind, with its loneliness and fears, with its longing for peace, for love, for calm of mind. A choir of many voices declares the agony of the abandoned, the eternal mourning, the loss, but also the moments of joy and delight, for these are certainly not lacking – especially not when proclaimed by the purity of young voices, filling the world with forgiveness, love, hope and radiant light.’

“Henze was always looking for the happy turning. The better world.

“First he looked for it in disgraced Germany after fascism, then in unbombed Italy, where he felt he had found it. Amicizia. Fraternité. Then in Cuba. In Cuba all men could be artists: uomini sociali. He never flirted with Stalin. Revolution was a word for moral redemption. That optimism must have made him attractive as a young man in the ’40s.

“His involving of a whole community in an arts festival in Montepulciano was a mildly politicised version of what Britten had already accomplished at Aldeburgh. It was Aldeburgh plus Cuba.

“Perhaps at the end, he thought that this better world might be somewhere else. John Drummond said: ‘There are some composers for whom it is always autumn. With Henze it is always spring.’

“So I don’t find this wide-open religious tone very strange at the end.

“Your account of the time he spent teaching you illustrates his best side. He’d spend hours with students in wintry classrooms in Manchester doing the same thing. You were lucky to have that and much more.

“But Henze, one feels, was corrupted by self-awareness. It has become a cliché to say of some artists that they were their greatest work. I worry that that is true of him and that his music might die with him.

“From the late ’90s until about 2004, he produced some works (Six Songs from the Arabian and others) which were influenced by visits to the Swahili coast.

“Since I had last heard of you heading towards Kenya, I wondered, when I heard those pieces, whether it was you who had brought him there. From what you say, that was not the case.

“Where did he stay? Lamu! My heart sank when I heard that. I am sure Lamu is wonderful, but it’s where rock stars and a few millionaires go, isn’t it? Henze called himself an outsider, but he was as bourgeois as anyone. The spectacle of Germans in quest of the exotic always embarrasses Brits. His self-portrait in Cuba in his autobiography is revealing and honest here.

“My heart also sank when I walked into that mews house near Harrods, by your arrangement, in summer ’81. It seemed so conventional. I have the same feeling when I look at some of La Leprara in films. It is almost like a posh hotel.

“But my reaction on engaging with him was, like yours, to be riveted by his charm. A really wonderful sense of humour regularly punctured the nearly-oracular seriousness. He laughed that evening until tears ran down his face. He was warm, funny, vain and cultured. Talented in every way, it seemed.

“Robin Holloway:

‘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 [told not least by Henze himself] and not what is actually there.’

“I’m not sure he is right. The next 2 links are to the last 2 known portraits of Henze:



7 Responses to “Henze and the happy turning”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    A posh hotel with knick-knacks.

    He is not one of the fifty composers in BBC Radio 3’s Fifty Modern Classics (between 1950 and 2000) series.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Henze would have been uncomfortable reading what Ustvolskaya allegedly said: “It is difficult to talk about one’s own music … my ability to compose music unfortunately does not coincide with the ability to write about it. There is, by the way, a commonly held view which says that the two are mutually exclusive …”

    How could Henze write an entire opera and publish a 400-page diary about the writing of it, as he did with The English Cat? And that was far from his only diary about a work in progress.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    He had a peasant-like solidity at the coffee-table. Which is another version of am Tisch.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    Nor should one forget

    Wiegenlied der Mutter Gottes, setting of Lope de Vega, boys’ choir and ensemble (1948)

    Requiem: Neun geistliche Konzerte, instruments, no voices (1990–93)

    Heilige Nacht, voice (and piano?) (1993)

    Ode al dodicesimo apostolo, piano (1996)

  5. davidderrick Says:

    A written interview he gave prior to a Philadelphia production of Elegy for Young Lovers early in 2012 refers to An den Wind.

    “Q: I understand that you’re finishing a new piece. What can you tell me about it?

    A: It is a kind of cantata about the mystery of Pentecost, to be premiered on May 26 [2012] in the church of St Thomas in Leipzig by the wonderful boys’ choir there which celebrates its 800th anniversary. The title: An den Wind. Musikstueck zu Pfingsten.

    He says there of Auden:

    “WH Auden was a great artist. He [also] loved people, helped people, encouraged people, all of that with a deeply Christian thinking in the background.”


  6. davidderrick Says:

    From the reply I got to my reply:

    “Hans’s humanity and free spiritedness were always riveting, unless he was in a bad mood of course. His ‘vision’ as an artist was beguilingly unlimited in scope; which is why though an atheist, myth, even religious myth, is happily sourced by him in his work.

    “Hans was anti-religion, but there was a nascent spirituality in him and his art, something of a ‘Real Presence’ which needed unravelling.”

    This description of Henze’s political tone circa 1981 may surprise some:

    “His was a kind of ‘low church’ communism; that is, meticulously ideological, literalistic, preachy. At times the artistic Hans seemed to disappear completely beneath the unromantic marxist discourse which outed itself at unexpected moments. He could sound like one of the comrades outside Brixton tube selling the International.”

    Those who suspected a Gramscian, compromesso storico-influenced Euromarxist would be getting it wrong. His radicalism came in the late ’60s and, at least on paper and in the earlier days, was more extreme than that. But still, this paints a grungier picture than one would imagine.

    And then one has all the usual questions about champagne Marxists. Somebody needs to examine that intellectual history, but music historians are not really qualified to.

    The description also sits oddly with his hatred of dogma in artistic matters and of toeing lines, and with a certain gallantry towards the past, all shown in his free-spirited rejection of the orthodoxy of Darmstadt.

    “Friendliness” was an important word for him.

  7. davidderrick Says:

    Quoted here:

    “Paradise is here or ought to be, not later, when nothing happens.”

    “In this world there is no hereafter, only presence: you can meet angels and devils in the street at any time.” In this world?

    Or maybe this is the right way of looking at it. There is other, but it does not come after this world.

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