From Guy Rickards, Hindemith, Hartmann and Henze (London: Phaidon Press, 1995) pp. 140-149
When Henze crossed the Italian frontier in 1953 he kept on driving until he reached Venice. There he felt he could safely drink in the Italian atmosphere. He quickly moved on, crossing Tuscany (with a brief stopover near Florence) in a few days. His target was Ischia, the small island in the Bay of Naples which he had visited two years previously. Ischia was still largely undiscovered; a poor fishing community surrounding a small seasonal population of artists—some of whom were of considerable eminence. The self-exiled British composer William Walton had settled there with his Argentine wife, Susana. Also present on the island were the choreographer and director of the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, Sir Frederick Ashton, and the world-famous poet, Wystan Hugh Auden. The Waltons were permanent residents but Auden, with his companion Chester Kallman, would spend the summer months on Ischia each year, then would go ‘back to New York to make money’. Henze rented a tiny cottage—it had no running hot water so he had to visit the local village for a bath—and settled down in this peaceful idyll. He had with him the still incomplete score of Ode to the West Wind, his extended instrumental evocation for cello and orchestra of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s well-known poem, plus the plan and some sketches for the Gozzi opera, König Hirsch (‘King Stag’).
Despite his absence from Germany, Henze’s music was in high demand. Ein Landarzt was given a staged production in Cologne in May and Northwest German Radio, which first broadcast the work, wanted another. Das Ende einer Welt (‘The End of a World’) received its première on 4 December. The première of Ode to the West Wind took place in Bielefeld on 30 April 1954, and his ballet after Tchaikovsky Die schlafende Prinzessin (‘The Sleeping Princess’) in Essen on 5 June. During this year Henze reduced Ein Landarzt to a concert monologue for baritone singer and small orchestra; the radio version was awarded the prestigious Prix d’Italia.
Few of his works caused Henze such effort, or suffered such a chequered history, as König Hirsch. Completed late in 1955, it had its first performance during the Berlin Festival on 23 September 1956, in a drastically cut version by Hermann Scherchen. There were noisy demonstrations of approval and opprobrium from the audience for nearly half an hour afterwards. Composer and conductor were held jointly culpable but Henze remained bitter about Scherchen’s involvement. That the score was special to him is confirmed by a letter written in January 1973 to Joachim Klaiber: ‘It should be seen as a diary, an autobiography, which tells how I discovered music.’ Scherchen’s pre-eminent place among the avant garde had made him aggressive and overbearing; he was known to musicians as the ‘Red Dictator’.
In 1955 Henze constructed his Fourth Symphony from the opera’s second-act Finale and in 1990, he extracted a further short orchestral work, La selva incantata (‘The Enchanted Wood’), from the music of the final act. The original version of the opera, which Henze had always preferred, was not performed until May 1985, when the American Dennis Russell Davies conducted it in Stuttgart.
In December 1954, Walton invited Henze to the première at Covent Garden of his opera, Troilus and Cressida. The British immigration authorities refused to allow Henze into the country until Walton had personally vouched for him. On Ischia the Waltons liked to host dinner parties and at one Henze received an extremely unpleasant surprise, as he recalled to the present writer: ‘They had a German who had been recommended to them who had just come out of Spandau jail, Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi leader, as a guest. I left immediately; they didn’t know who it was but for me it was the most shocking thing.’ As a boy, Henze and his brother Gerhard had had a poster of Hitler on their wall with a motto written by Schirach: ‘Each German boy and girl should thank God on their knees every morning that they have got the Führer.’ The music-loving Schirach was head of the Hitler Youth, which Henze had been forced to join.
Two ballet commissions involved Henze in working with two artists of the highest calibre. Maratona di danza (‘Dance Marathon’) was the idea of Luchino Visconti, best known as a film producer. The ballet deals with a young boy in post-war Rome who is caught up in and killed by the dance marathon craze common to many countries at the time. The music caused Henze difficulty due to the requirement to use jazz for the marathon, and jazz of a sleazy and unimaginative type at that. The second ballet was more conducive to his skills and brought him into contact with Sir Frederick Ashton, who wanted a full evening ballet for Covent Garden. He had originally approached Walton who, smarting from the indifferent reception of Troilus and Cressida, suggested Henze as a replacement. The ballet Ondine was staged in London on 27 October 1958, to Ashton’s choreography with Margot Fonteyn in the title role as the water nymph of Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué’s story.
Nachtstiicke und Arien was a set of orchestral pieces encompassing settings of two poems by the Austrian poet, Ingeborg Bachmann, who helped adapt the libretto for Henze’s next opera, Der Prinz von Homburg (‘The Prince of Homburg’), from the play by Heinrich von Kleist. The initial suggestion had come from Visconti, but Kleist’s story of the individual caught by and defying the machinery of the State, possessed a real and pertinent appeal to the composer, both in the wider context of German political life as well as in his relationship to the musical establishment. Henze’s music fell between two stools: too adventurous for the conservative press and the bulk of opera-loving audiences (which did not stop them turning out to hear it), it was also not radical enough for the pioneers. Der Prinz von Homburg was, however, staged right across Germany in most of the leading, and many lesser, opera houses, becoming more viable commercially than any of its predecessors. Henze had taken great pains with this score, for the first time working out many of the compositional problems in smaller-scale, satellite works. These included Kammermusik 1958, the orchestral Three Dithyrambs, sonatas for string orchestra and for piano, and the pantomime Des Kaisers Nachtigall (‘The Emperor’s Nightingale’).
Kammermusik 1958 is totally unlike Hindemith’s works of the 1920s, being not a concerto but an extended song-cycle for tenor, guitar and eight other performers, setting Friedrich Hölderlin’s ‘In Lovely Blueness’. The cycle was composed during a visit to Greece, the inspiration also for Hölderlin’s fragmentary poems, to a commission from North German Radio. It was dedicated to another English composer, Benjamin Britten, as ‘a true act of homage and an expression of gratitude for the inspiration that his works have given me’. Henze had encountered Britten’s music in 1946 with Peter Grimes and was particularly impressed with the four ‘Sea Interludes’, often performed separately as a concert suite. The two composers later struck up a cordial relationship, Britten returning the compliment by dedicating his setting of Brecht’s Children’s Crusade to Henze in 1968. Five years after completing Kammermusik 1958, Henze added a purely instrumental epilogue celebrating the seventieth birthday of Josef Rufer, a disciple of Schoenberg. (Rufer’s writings on twelve-note composition had been widely praised and had even made a favourable impression on Hindemith.) The three guitar interludes, or Tentos, from Kammermusik 1958 were in addition published separately and have enjoyed success independently in the recital room.
In 1959, Henze linked up with his erstwhile neighbour on Ischia (and Britten’s former collaborator), W. H. Auden. Whilst on the island, Henze had been in awe of both Auden and Kallman, still fresh from their triumph with Stravinsky in The Rake’s Progress. ‘When I lived there,’ Henze confided, ‘I saw them quite a lot but I still didn’t have the courage to ask them about a possible collaboration. Years later when I had left Ischia I wrote to them in New York and the answer was affirmative.’ The result was another opera, Elegy for Young Lovers, and occupied Henze from 1959 until 1961. The opera takes its title from a poem which is about to be declaimed publicly as the opera ends. If heard, the poem would recount the tragic events of the opera as a further example of the manipulative poet Mittenhofer’s subjugation of the lives—and deaths—of those around him to the service of his art. Elegy for Young Lovers was first performed in a German translation in Schwetzingen in May 1961.
Inevitably, comparisons were drawn with The Rake’s Progress and both music and libretto were often found wanting. Writing in 1964, Wolf-Eberhard von Lewinski found the opera ‘so complex and unusual in terms of plot that it does not draw the favour of the larger public’. This did not prevent the work from being rapidly taken up in Switzerland, Germany and Britain and becoming something of a modern classic. So pleased with it were the librettists that they immediately suggested to Henze a new opera, to be based on the ancient Greek drama, The Bacchae, by Euripides [The Bassarids, 1966]. Elegy for Young Lovers also provoked an irreconcilable row between Stockhausen and Herbert Eimert, the director of the electronic studio in Cologne where Stockhausen worked. Eimert had reported back of his delight with Henze’s music; Stockhausen considered it anathema.
Henze moved from Naples to Rome in 1961, where he received a commission from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for a new symphony—his fifth. He completed it in 1962 and it was premièred the following May by Leonard Bernstein. He completed the recomposition of the early First Symphony as a three-movement chamber work, conducting its first performance in April 1964 with the Berlin Philharmonic. Henze had begun to develop a closer relationship with this orchestra following a commission for a short orchestral piece in 1959, Antifone, given its première by Herbert von Karajan in January 1962. The same orchestra finally gave the much-delayed first performance, under Henze’s direction, of the Fourth Symphony during the Berlin Festival in October 1963.
Over harp-plucked arpeggios, woodwinds and strings, the full-blooded soprano soars; dark and dramatic, she sweeps me up into this evocation of a relationship gone wrong. I lose my bearings, lost in the myriad modulations: So this is the architecture of breakdown, this is the fog that enfolds when rhythm becomes unfixed and tone has no home. I cling to the words of the poem, the poem that Ingeborg Bachmann slipped into a letter to her ex-lover, Paul Celan. For all its dissonance, the music is ravishingly lyrical, alternating vehement strings with the understated violence of woodwinds.
Wohin wir uns wenden im Gewitter der Rosen,
Ist die Nacht von Dornen erhellt, und der Donner
Des Laubs, das so leise war in den Büschen,
Folgt uns jetzt auf dem Fuß.
Wo immer gelöscht wird, was die Rosen entzünden,
Schwemmt Regen uns in den Fluß. O fernere Nacht!
Doch ein Blatt, das uns traf, treibt auf den Wellen
Bis zur Mündung uns nach.
Wherever we turn in the storm of roses,
The night is lit up by thorns, and the thunder
Of leaves, once so quiet within the bushes,
Rumbling at our heels.
Wherever the fire of roses is extinguished,
Rain washes us into the river. O distant night!
Yet a leaf, which once touched us, follows us on waves
Towards the river’s mouth.
Do you know, my love, the story that gave rise to this anguished song? It goes like this: At the crossroads of the twin plagues, in 1942, a young man from a German-speaking Jewish family tries in vain to persuade his parents to escape while there is still time. The parents stubbornly insist on staying; in a fit of anger the son leaves the house. That very night, the Masters of Death come to arrest his parents. In a forced labour camp the father dies of disease; worked to exhaustion, the mother is shot in the head. Wracked by guilt, the son is overcome, traumatized by the consequences of what he did and failed to do. He survives the war, and three years after its end moves to Paris. There, writing in German, he pursues the practice of poetry.
In Germany, in 1935, a nine-year-old boy is enrolled in the Hitler Youth. In 1942 he begins his musical studies. In 1944 he is conscripted and promptly captured; he waits out the war in a British prisoner-of-war camp. After the war, he resumes his studies and becomes a composer. In 1953, elated as if rescued from a disaster—from the beginning he had hated the Masters of Death—he crosses the Alps into Italy, the country in which he will make his home.
In 1970, in Paris, the poet from the crossroads jumps off the Pont Mirabeau and drowns himself in the Seine. In 1973, in Rome, the Austrian poet—no longer living with the German composer—suffers serious burns when an unextinguished cigarette sets her bedroom ablaze. Hospitalized, she is deprived of the barbiturates she is addicted to and suffers seizures as a result. She dies a few weeks later. The German composer is devastated by her death; his music takes a darker turn. When they would write to each other, they would often write in Italian, and occasionally English and French: Where the poet from the crossroads cultivated an ever-greater intimacy with the German language, the two friends who felt ashamed of their parents and homeland needed to distance themselves from it. Listen! The singer ends the song, speaking of a leaf floating towards the mouth of a river.
Did you hear the anguish at the intersection of history, family, and vocation?