Feature

Hans Werner Henze, 1926–2012

The composer who was repelled and inspired by Germany

The link between music and politics figured early in the life of German composer Hans Werner Henze. As a boy he watched his Nazi father “roaming drunkenly through the woods with his party cronies, bawling out repulsive songs.” Such memories left Henze alienated from Germany but also deeply obsessed with it.

Henze’s father “discouraged a musical career,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.), “but his mother took him to the opera.” Forced to join the Hitler Youth and later the Wehrmacht, he resumed his interrupted musical studies after the war and launched into a prolific conducting career. West Germany’s official amnesia about the recent war disturbed him, however, so in 1953 Henze moved to Italy, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Henze “enjoyed collaborations with many leading artists,” said The Guardian (U.K.). The poets W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman wrote the librettos for his operas Elegy for Young Lovers and The Bassarids, and the New York Philharmonic both commissioned and, in 1963, premiered his Fifth Symphony. He taught for four years in the U.S., where “he was deeply affected by the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements,” and later lived in Cuba.

But as Henze grew older, “the matter of Germany became increasingly important to his music,” said The New York Times. He modeled his Seventh Symphony on Beethoven, and in 1988 established a music festival in Munich. His late work “Elogium Musicum,” both “Mediterranean-Classical in its sunlight and German-Romantic in its expressive depth,” is “a fitting memorial to its composer.” 

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