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Il Divo

Christmas 2014

Hans Werner Henze dies aged 86

5 November 2012

Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012)
Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012)(Photo courtesy of Music Sales)

The composer Hans Werner Henze has died in Dresden, aged 86. A musical giant of the postwar era, Henze was a prolific writer for the stage: he penned more than two dozen operas over a 60-year period, maintaining a regular rate of roughly one opera every two-and-a-half years right up until 2010.

A deeply political thinker who had been heavily shaped by his experiences of Nazi Germany and the Second World War, Henze was an adherent of left-wing ideologies throughout his life. This informed his choice of texts and subjects for the stage, as well as his decision to leave postwar Germany for Italy shortly after the success of Boulevard Solitude in 1952 – a reworking of the Manon Lescaut story that remains one of his most popular operas. Other modern classics to emerge from this early phase of Henze’s career include two works with English libretti by W H Auden and Chester Kallmann: Elegy for Young Lovers (1961) and The Bassarids (1966), the latter a widely admired exploration of the conflict between human rationality and unbridled passion that unfolds in a single act lasting two hours.

Despite these successes, however, Henze increasingly felt his own musical and political path diverging from the ideologies that dominated avant-garde European culture. He became an isolated voice after openly associating with the student riots of 1968, making two visits to Cuba and experimenting with other theatrical forms, such as his musical La Cubana (1973).

From the mid-1970s onwards, Henze began a new and important creative association with the English playwright Edward Bond, which led to several commissions for Covent Garden including We Come to the River (1976), Orpheus (1979), and The English Cat (1983, revised 1990). Henze’s return to writing opera in German was also spurred by a new creative relationship, this time with the poet Hans-Ulrich Treichel, his librettist for Das Verratene Meer (The Ocean Betrayed, 1990) and Venus und Adonis (1997).

The composer announced in 2003 that L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe would be his last opera, but over the next seven years felt moved to write two further works including a ‘concert opera’ inspired by the Greek myth of Phaedra. In a curious echo of Britten’s late cantata, its transcendental but inconclusive ending offers an old man’s valedictory perspective on the nature of existence: ‘We are all born naked. We press towards mortality and dance…’


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