Hans Werner Henze dies aged 86
The German composer's work with the ROH included the ballet Ondine and opera Boulevard Solitude.
29 October 2012 at 5.00pm | Comment on this article
The German composer Hans Werner Henze has died at the age of 86.
Henze’s work for the Royal Opera House included, most famously, the score for Frederick Ashton’s ballet Ondine. He composed the opera We Come to the River (1976) for The Royal Opera, and his opera Boulevard Solitude (1952) was performed by The Royal Opera in 2000 to enthusiastic reviews. In 1980 David Syrus, Head of Music for the Royal Opera House, conducted the British premiere of Henze’s children’s opera Pollicino at the Royal Opera House.
Henze was one of the most influential and prolific composers of the late 20th century. He composed 24 operas, ten symphonies, choral music, a wide range of chamber music and songs, music theatre works including the vaudeville La Cubana and a dozen ballet scores. Henze was first inspired to compose for ballet when Sadler’s Wells Ballet visited Hamburg in 1948. He saw and was much impressed by Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet, and wrote to the choreographer to express his admiration and to introduce himself. The two men would later collaborate on the ballet Ondine, at the recommendation of British composer William Walton. Ondine has become a core work in The Royal Ballet’s repertory.
Hans Werner Henze was born in Germany in 1926, and showed a strong interest in music from an early age. His strong interest in left-wing politics developed during his unhappy childhood in Nazi Germany, when he was forced to enrol in the Hitler Youth. His musical studies were interrupted by World War II, when he was conscripted and was briefly a British prisoner-of-war. He resumed his studies with composer Wolfgang Fortner and in 1946 became a music assistant at the State Theatre in Konstanz, where he wrote his first opera, Das Wundertheater. In 1950 he moved to work at the Hesse State Theatre, Wiesbaden. Unhappy in Germany, where as a gay man he lived under the threat of arrest, he moved to Italy in 1953, eventually settling in Marino, near Rome, with his partner Fausto Moroni. By the time of his move to Italy he was represented by leading music publisher Schott and was establishing an international reputation.
As a young man, Henze embraced the 12-note compositional style developed first by Schoenberg; following his move to Italy his musical style became more vocally and tonally orientated, though he returned to 12-note composition for various works during his career. His many musical inspirations during the course of his career included neoclassicism, jazz, folksong, renaissance Italian music (including Monteverdi), the music of Mozart, experimental musical techniques, world music (including traditional Cuban music) and, in some later works, popular music. He drew inspiration from a broad spectrum of poets and writers in both his instrumental and dramatic works (including Greek tragedy, Cervantes, Goethe and Dostoevsky). W.H. Auden was librettist for three of his operas.
Henze was supportive and encouraging to young composers and performers. In 1976 he founded the Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte, an annual summer school in Montepulciano, to promote new music, and in 1988 he established the Munich Biennale, an opera festival for new opera and music theatre works. Composers championed by Henze included British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, whose first opera Greek had its premiere at the 1988 Munich Biennale.
Henze continued to compose in his last years; his Elogium Musicum, a piece for choir and orchestra written in memory of his long-term partner Fausto Moroni, had its premiere in 2008.