Composer  Hans  Werner  Henze
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Born in Gütersloh on 1 July 1926, Hans Werner Henze received his earliest musical training at the Braunschweig Staatsmusikschule. As a child, he witnessed the branding of modern music, art and literature by the Nazis. After having worked as a répétiteur at the Bielefeld Stadttheater Henze began to study with Wolfgang Fortner at the Heidelberg Institute for Church Music in 1946. In the late 1940s he came across serialism and began to attend the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music. After fulfilling his engagements at the Constance Theatre and the Wiesbaden Hessisches Staatstheater, Henze left Germany in 1953 and settled in Italy. It was also the geographical distance to the German contemporary music theory that helped him to achieve new varied forms of expression in his own music. In the late 1970s and early 1980s Henze turned to more traditional forms. From 1962 to 1967 Henze taught a master class of composition at the Salzburg Mozarteum while other teaching assignments led him to the USA and Cuba. In Cologne Henze held a chair at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik from 1980 to 1991. In addition, he was appointed composer-in-residence at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood/USA in 1983 and 1988-1996 as well as of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1991. In 1976 Henze founded the Cantiere Internazionale d'Arte in Montepulciano and in 1988 brought the Munich Biennial: International Festival of New Music Theatre into being which he headed until 1996.

henzeHenze's oeuvre as a composer is very comprehensive: He wrote solo concertos, symphonies, oratorios, song cycles, chamber music. It was especially the works for music theatre that have made Henze one of the most frequently performed contemporary composers of our time. The radio opera version of his early opera Ein Landarzt based on Franz Kafka's story of the same name was awarded the 'Prix Italia' as early as 1953. His varied opera repertoire includes works such as Das Wundertheater (1948/64), Boulevard Soltitude (1951), a setting of the Manon Lescaut material, König Hirsch (1953-56), Elegie für junge Liebende (1956/61, rev. 1987), Die Bassariden (1964/65, rev. 1992), Pollicino (1979/80) as well as 'Das verratene Meer' revised in 2003/2005 (Gogo no Eiko, original version 1986/89). Henze entertained a close relationship with Ingeborg Bachmann, their joint collaboration resulting in works such as (1964), Der junge LordDer Prinz von Homburg (1958/59, rev. 1991) as well as Nachtstücke und Arien for soprano and large orchestra (1957).

In the centre of Henze's orchestral compositions are his ten symphonies, including Sinfonia N.9 for mixed choir and orchestra (1995-97) with verses by Hans-Ulrich Treichel based on the novel The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers – an impressive example of Henze's examination of Germany's National Socialist past. Sinfonia N.10, commissioned by Paul Sacher, was premiered at a widely acclaimed performance in Lucerne in 2002 by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

Among the numerous awards and prizes received by Henze are: 1990 Ernst von Siemens Music Award, 1995 appointment as Accademico Onorario of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome, 1997 Hans von Bülow Medal of the Berlin Philharmonic, 1998 appointment as Honorary Fellow of the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 2000 Praemium Imperiale in Tokio, 2001 Cannes Classical Award in the category 'Best Living Composer', to mention but a few. 2003 saw his appointment as Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, Paris and his receiving the Prize of the International Summer Academy Mozarteum 'Neues Hören' for the successful conveyance of new music. On the occasion of Henze's 80th birthday in 2006, numerous international concert halls, such as the Konzerthaus Dortmund and the Kungliga Filharmonikerna Stockholms Konserthus, dedicated special concert series to him. In 2007 the recording of Henze's melodrama Aristaeus with Martin Wuttke and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Marek Janowski was awarded the Echo Klassik in the category 'Best First Recording of the Year'. [See my Interviews with Marek Janowski.]

Henze died in Dresden on October 27, 2012.

-- Biography from the Schott Website (with photo and link added for this website presentation) 

Henze was in Chicago in November of 1981 to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concerts of his own music.  Despite the fact that the topics he agreed on for this interview were going to be mostly his operas and other stage works, his reason for being in the Windy City led to my first question . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Do you feel that you are the ideal conductor for your own music?

Hans Werner Henze:   No.  Ideal, I wouldn’t say.  Of course, I know my scores quite well.  I know how they ought to sound, and with an orchestra like the Chicago Symphony, even I can bring it across.  Although I’m not a professional conductor, I have a lot of experience.  I have sort of gained by a lot of experience during the last twenty years conducting occasionally some orchestras.

henzeBD:    Do you enjoy conducting?

HWH:    Yes.  If the orchestra’s good, I like it.  I have a sort of permanent conducting relationship with the London Symphony, and also with the Berlin Philharmonic.  That’s what gives me the possibility to gain experiences again and again.

BD:    Do you attend performances of your music that are conducted by other people?

HWH:    Oh yes, of course.

BD:    Do you find them satisfying?

HWH:    When Solti played Heliogabalus Imperator, that piece I wrote for him and his orchestra, I was stunned by the precision and by the art that he employed to get the piece across.  [See my Interviews with Sir Georg Solti.]  Recently I had the experience of hearing Mehta conducting my Barcarola, which is part of my program here, with the New York Philharmonic.  There, too, I could see what professional conductor can do.  [See my Interviews with Zubin Mehta.]

BD:    Did he find things in the score that you didn’t know were there?

HWH:    No.  I pointed out some things in the score that he didn’t know were there.

BD:    I want to concentrate mostly on your operas, and your views on opera today.  Let me ask you a very easy question
— where is opera going today?

HWH:    That’s not a very easy question.  [Both laugh]  I think it’s important, for all those who run opera houses, that they think of the new generation or generations coming up, who have other expectations, perhaps, from living theater as such, and would like to see more contemporary means of expression involved.  Perhaps also, the choice of subjects is something.  Let’s go to the organizers of opera houses, and see some stuff from the composers who still feel like writing for the opera stage.  It is very important to keep the opera from being a museum.  It’s very important that it’s lively, and that new ideas, new techniques, new craft, new subjects, new forms of musical theater should be introduced into the opera house in order to keep it alive and interesting.

BD:    So then you feel that it is still alive?

HWH:    It is alive.  It is alive, but sometimes I think it could be alive-er by opening the doors more widely to the young, and perhaps also to those who do not think that they have anything to do in an opera house.  They might be intimidated by the dinner jackets and the long skirts the ladies wear, and by the whole ceremony about it.  They might be discouraged to go because of that.

BD:    Is there too much ceremony, or would you like to make it a different kind of ceremony?

HWH:    I don’t know.  I would like to see more democracy in these places, more of a wider range, perhaps, of repertoire that would attract other people.  It seems to me important to find audiences also among the young, who do not know anything about opera.  One must raise their curiosity.

BD:    You’ve done some producing of your own operas.  Have you produced other people’s operas also?

HWH:    Twice only in my life.  I did Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher, Joan on the Stake (sic), by Honegger, a long time ago in Germany, and I did The Magic Flute some years ago in Stuttgart with an Italian designer called Pier Luigi Pizzi.

BD:    Did you find these satisfying?

henzeHWH:    No.  I wasn’t happy with my production of The Magic Flute.  It didn’t work.  I tried to see it from the angle of the freemasonry, and tried to get all that under control, which is usually left aside a little bit, and in the mystery and in the mist.  I tried to depict the priests and Sarastro’s world as the world of the illuminated, progressive people of that time, of Mozart’s time, and Mozart identical with them and their aims, their humanitarian aims.

BD:    These ideals, of course, are all in The Magic Flute.

HWH:    Yes, of course.  It’s a part of it.  I opened a lot of dialogues, and let a lot of dialogues with Masonic ideas in it be spoken.  Usually these things get cut.  But suddenly Papageno’s world didn’t fit in all this anymore, and that was the problem that came out.  Papageno didn’t cut such an important figure as he ought to.  I think that every professional producer will agree with me that The Magic Flute is the most difficult piece to do and to do justice to.

BD:    More difficult than Die Frau Ohne Schatten?

HWH:    Well, there’s more logic in Die Frau Ohne Schatten.  Things sort of happen, and the music carries them along anyway, but in Mozart you have these dialogues.  Then you have another scene, and the timing seems to be difficult to understand; the logic doesn’t quite come out.  It seems to be slightly illogical from time to time.  One doesn’t quite know what happens to the Queen of the Night in the end, and all of that.

BD:    Too many loose ends?

HWH:    Yes.

BD:    You wouldn’t take it upon yourself to write another two or three scenes to explain what happens to the Queen of the Night?

HWH:    Oh, no.  Oh, no!

BD:    I just ask because you’ve recently arranged Don Chisciotte of Paisiello, and I just wondered how yours is different from the urtext version.

HWH:    Oh, it was a very free adaptation of that score.  It’s a rather charming score, by the way, and I did that for my little festival in Italy, in Montepulciano.  There’s a theater and musical festival.  It is more than a festival, it is really a workshop.  In the first year, in order to involve the local population into the production
the idea behind it allI orchestrated parts of the music for the local brass band.

BD:    Ah!  [Laughs]

HWH:    The rest of the music is mainly to accompany the arias and so on, and is for a small group of about twelve players.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve written a couple of operas originally for radio, and then, re-written them for the stage.  What’s involved in changing an opera from radio, purely aural medium, to the stage, which is also a visual experience?

HWH:    The Country Doctor [Ein Landarzt] can make quite an effect on the stage, especially if it is done as a mono-drama, perhaps, just a deeper miming the mysterious goings on in the story.

BD:    There was a nice production of it on Channel 11 here in Chicago some years ago from Northwestern, done in English with Ronald Combs.  [Note: The date on the tape in the Northwestern University Music Library is June 18, 1971.  Hugo Vianello conducted and Robert Gay directed.  See my Interview with Robert Gay.]

henzeHWH:    Oh, yes?

BD:    It was very impressive; it really was.

HWH:    On television?

BD:    Yes.

HWH:    Oh, I didn’t know that.

BD:    So you are occasionally not aware of performances of your works going on!

HWH:    Yes.  It happens quite a lot.

BD:    Are you glad that your works are being performed when you don’t know about them, or does that bother you at all?

HWH:    No, it doesn’t bother me at all.  It’s not a bother, really.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Do you like other producers and other conductors to get their hands on your works and bring them to the public?

HWH:    Yes.  It’s important to have producers and conductors approach it from their angle, from their viewpoint, and come up, perhaps, with new ideas and new solutions of how to perform these things successfully.

BD:    There was a production some years ago of The Young Lord at New York City Opera, and the notoriety was Rudolph Bing [General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera 1950-1972] playing the silent role of Sir Edgar.  [Note: This was in 1973.  Julius Rudel conducted, and Sarah Caldwell directed.  See my Interview with Julius Rudel, and my Interview with Sarah Caldwell.]  From your point of view, did that much notoriety take away from the rest of the opera, or did that give an added benefit?

HWH:    I don’t really know whether it caused any extra curiosity.  It was not a very stunning performance Mr. Bing did, I must say.  He had terrible stage fright.  [Pauses a moment]  It was all right.

BD:    Some of your works are called operas, and one is called a musical, and another is a play, or a drama...  How do you differentiate between these when they’re all going to be on the stage for similar kinds of forces?

HWH:    Well, you have opera buffa, you have opera seria, you have drama giacoso...  There are so many forms already in the tradition.

BD:    So why do you not use these labels?  Why do you put new labels on them?

HWH:    I don’t really put new labels.  For instance,  Boulevard Solitude, my first opera I called, rightly, drame lyrique, Lyrisches Drama. , because in order to label it in the category it belongs to, it belongs to French Opéra Comique Lyrique.  That’s sort of a light, smaller-sized French opera.

BD:    Would it be a successful season if, say, all four of the Manon Lescaut operas were staged
the Auber, the Puccini, the Massenet, the Henze?

HWH:    No.  They are simply the same subject in various appearances.

BD:    Maybe sometime there’ll be an anniversary of that play, or of Prévost, and some theater director will get an idea to do all the operas he can gather on that one subject.

HWH:    All in the same evening?

BD:    No, but over the course of the season.

henzeHWH:    That would be rather taxing for the theater goers, wouldn’t it?  The theater goers, after all, are concerned with subject, and the story of Armand des Grieux and Manon is a moving one.  Every individual can probably remember a situation in his life when he found himself in situations like poor Armand des Grieux, and everybody has sort of met his Manon once in his life, probably, so there’s a lot of identification.  But then through the season, to repeat this identification constantly, I think, cannot be very amusing for the opera goers.

BD:    Here you’re being very concerned with the audience.  When you’re at your desk writing your music, are you concerned with the audience?

HWH:    Yes, and how!  When I’m writing for the theater, I try to imagine the place, the people.  I write with the voices of the first performers in my mind.  I know the performers.  I know the players in the orchestra, so I think of them while I write.  I want them to have a good time.  I want them to have fun playing this music.  I want them to be able to show their skills, their instruments, and possibly also to like the stuff.  Usually, musicians like a composer to write well for their instruments.  They think that is a good thing, and I agree with them.  It’s important to write for instrumentalists as though they were playing roles.  The first clarinet has a role to fulfill and to play in the theater in the evening.

BD:    So you have another cast of maybe eighty-five more players down there in the pit?

HWH:    Yes, and they all have something to do.  They are all involved in the theater and the drama.  And it’s important for the singers to be comfortable, even if it’s difficult to sing what I write for them.  They must be comfortable, and they must be able to perform their role in a convincing way.  So it’s part of the composition, a compositorical technique, to bring that across.

BD:    Do you tailor anything for a specific person?

HWH:    Oh, yes, absolutely.

BD:    If you tailor something for one person, when another singer comes along who maybe can’t quite handle that demand but has something else, would you want them to re-write it a little bit, or must it then stay in that original form forever?

HWH:    Sometimes I do change a few notes, if a singer wishes so.

BD:    So it’s all right for you to do it, but not for the singer or the subsequent conductor?

HWH:    No, that I don’t like.  [Both laugh]  I do it myself, rather.

BD:    So you must be the only one doing the tampering?

HWH:    Yes, but your question mainly was about the audience.  It’s awfully important to think of the audience, so you have to think of these people sitting there in the dark, looking at the stage, hearing something new they have never heard.  What are the messages I want to convey?  What is it that I want to say, and how do I say it?  How do I make it clear?  How do I make it plausible?  What do I do to bring the ideas, including the story, across, and not bore my audience?  You see, that is very important.

BD:    Do you ever want your audience to be a participatory element?

HWH:    Acting and playing?

BD:    Or maybe responding to what is going on.

HWH:    Mmmm, no.  I think they ought to listen, and try to get as much as possible.

BD:    You regard them, then, just as spectators and learners?

HWH:    Learners.  Yes, learning something new.  Learning a new piece, learning to know something new, a new piece, like reading a new book or seeing a new painting, something like that.

BD:    Quite a number of your pieces have been revised, for one reason or another.  There is a tendency today to go back and revive the original version of things.  Do you like to see your original version done, or only the revision?


HWH:    It depends.  It changes from case to case.  For instance, I rewrote my First Symphony, and I hope that no score is left of the first version, which was so bad.  In the theater I have only revised the King’s Stag, because the original version lasts about six hours and demands for enormous orchestra.  It has never been actually performed without very severe cuts all through, and the form sort of got demolished.  So I wrote a new version with less orchestra.

BD:    Is this just for practicality?

HWH:    Yes, for practicality.

BD:    Sometime if it were practical to do this original version that lasts six hours, would that be a good thing to do, or is the new version to be taken as the only one?

HWH:    In the original version there is about one hour of music that has never been heard, and one day it will be.  There will be a production of this, probably in Stuttgart thanks to the young American conductor, Dennis Russell Davies, who is the general music director in Stuttgart now.  He is very adventurous and new, and full of initiative and good ideas.

BD:    Should impresarios and general directors be more adventurous than they are?

HWH:    It much depends whether they can allow themselves to be adventurous or not.  Sometimes it’s very much the question of the box office.  Every seat has to be sold, and more adventurous things might keep the audience away.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you enjoy making recordings?

HWH:    Yes, if they let me make one.  Recently I haven’t had any.

BD:    For you the composer, what is the difference between performing it live, and performing it on the flat, round piece of plastic?

henzeHWH:    I try very much to make this recording a kind of document of the most precise and most correct rendering of the piece in question.  I’ve been able to do that various times recently with the London Sinfonietta, where the orchestra is specialized in contemporary music.  With their help, some of my newer works are on record now in an impeccable way.  For instance, there is one recording published by Decca, with Second Violin Concerto and Viola Concerto on it, and there is a song cycle, Voices, and a little bit older is a recording of Kammermusik 1958 with Philip Langridge singing and the Sinfonietta playing. 

BD:    These are all with you conducting?

HWH:    Yes, and they are all very, very precise and very correct and transparent.

BD:    You don’t worry about the fact that these are frozen performances
that they can’t grow or change in any way?

HWH:    No, they’re very good for documentation.

BD:    Your most recent opera is We Come to the River, which was done at Covent Garden.  You call that an

Actions for music.  Edward Bond, the librettist, who is the English playwright, called it like this.  I have worked with again afterwards.  He wrote the plot for Orpheus, a ballet, and he has written a libretto for me for a comic opera, which I am writing now.  But to come back to We Come to the River, this is a work designed for three stages and three orchestras, and yet Covent Garden, of course, is proscenium art theater.  We sort of covered the pit, and had a lot of action taking place almost in the stalls.

BD:    So you’re almost in the audience’s lap?

HWH:    Yes, and each of the three stages has an orchestra attached to it.

BD:    A big orchestra or a smaller one?

HWH:    No, a dozen players is the average.  It’s a very polyphonic piece.  Actions are going on simultaneously, but I have not composed anything aleatoric, or hardly anything aleatoric.  It’s all counterpoint that has to be taken in, sometimes very, very multiple counterpoint.  Sometimes it then becomes almost like natural noise of emotions, of the counterpoint, so it emerges into waves of sound eventually.

BD:    Do you really think the audience can grasp all of this?  Are you not throwing too much at them?

HWH:    It is a complicated thing to watch, but on the other hand, the action is very clear, or the actions are very clear.  If I have three actions going on at the same time, there is one necessarily that is the central one, the most important one. 

BD:    Is it, then, the work of the producer to help make sure that those important actions are what is brought to the fore?

HWH:    Yes.  Absolutely.


BD:    Tell me about the new opera you’re working on.  [This would be The English Cat, and it is listed on the Schott website as
‘A Story for Singers and Instrumentalists’.]

HWH:    The new opera is a buffa, and I am going back to the little theater in Schwetzingen, near Mannheim and Heidelberg.  It is in a seventeenth century house with wonderful acoustics, a bit like Drottningholm in Sweden, or the Cuvilliés in Munich.  Many people probably know that one.  I think it seats about seven hundred people, not more.  So it’s designed for a small orchestra, only thirty-two or three players are involved, and it’s a cast of twelve singers, of whom three are the principal performers and play one role throughout the whole evening.  There are quite a lot of side roles, and the singers get five or six roles to sing throughout the whole evening, changing costumes a lot, sometimes also singing backstage or in the pit.  They wouldn’t fit in the pit in Schwetzingen.  They would have to be backstage.

BD:    You would never have them singing from behind a box or out in the audience, or from one of the holes in the ceiling?

HWH:    No.  It wouldn’t work in this case.  There’s a scene where they represent the moon and the stars who sing, and so they have to be back behind the stage.  This is the same theater where Elegy for Young Lovers was world premiered in ‘61.  I like to go there because the working conditions are excellent.  The music is excellent; it’s all provided by the radio station of Stuttgart, this huge old southern German radio, whose festival that is, the spring festival in May.  My performance will be next year on the 3rd of June, and I will have been able to rehearse for three months beforehand.  [Note: The premiere actually took place the following year, June 2, 1983.]

BD:    Do new works require, of necessity, more rehearsal than a revival of a standard work?

HWH:    Yes, of course.  I have to discover the piece first.  I have to find the right way to put it on.

BD:    Is there ever a case where a piece of yours or somebody else can be rehearsed too much?

HWH:    Over-rehearsed?  No, that hasn’t happened yet.  [Both laugh]  That never happens, I think.  I was thinking of productions such as those in the Komische Oper in Berlin, the capital of the Democratic Republic, where Feldenstein used to be.  He had sometimes two years to produce a piece.  That is a lot, but even there one didn’t have the feeling of being over-rehearsed.  You had the feeling that it was a masterful production, with singers who knew every detail of what it was all about.

BD:    It never lacked spontaneity?

HWH:    Oh, no, never.  Absolutely not.


BD:    Do you approve of your works being done in translation?

HWH:    Yes.  I don’t mind it so much, although translations never get the complete range of expression and feeling that the original setting, and the original language, has allowed for.  Elegy for Young Lovers, for instance, played a lot in a German translation on which I have also collaborated.  Various different people tried to grasp Auden’s meanings and put them into readable and singable German.  That is not easy at all, and in this case now with The English Cat we have the same situation.  We Come to the River and all these libretti were written in English, and I much prefer to hear them in the original language, of course.  But if it happens that a translation is necessary, I don’t mind so much.  It’s important that the opera should be sung in the language the audience knows; at least contemporary music should claim for this.  A Mozart opera, if it’s in Italian, to have a translation I think is really not so good, because Mozart most certainly used the Italian, the sound of the Italian, as part of his whole sound imagination.

BD:    So there’s more lost in Mozart than in a contemporary work by moving the language?

HWH:    [Sighs]  Well, for the time being I think there’s more lost.  One day, in case one of these pieces of our time will survive the centuries and will become such a well-known affair for everyone, then translation wouldn’t be necessary any more.  One would have the whole stuff sung in the original language.

BD:    [Taken aback]  You say “in case” these things survive.  Are you not optimistic about the future of opera???

HWH:    I’m optimistic, and also worried sometimes.  Especially in this country, everybody knows that opera very much depends on the general economic situation, and it’s always art that suffers first, and cuts have been made.  You can see it in various countries now, even in Germany where one wouldn’t have expected it.  But there are such terrible cuts now in the budgets of the theaters and the concert organizations, and the people begin to worry.  I can only hope that there will be a sufficient amount of sense in those who are responsible for economy and culture in the countries they are supposed to look after, and to work for.  Music, theater, all manifestations of art are very necessary for the moral well-being of the people, and every orchestra that is shut down, every theater that is closed is a big, terrible loss to the civilization of that country to which that disaster happens.

BD:    Thank you so very much for coming back to Chicago.

HWH:    Thank you very much.  This was good.



Hans Werner Henze

Published in The New York Times, October 28, 2012

Hans Werner Henze, a prolific German composer who came of age in the Nazi era and grew estranged from his country while gaining renown for richly imaginative operas and orchestral works, died on Saturday in Dresden, Germany, where he was due to attend the premiere that evening of a ballet set to one of his scores. He was 86.

His longtime publisher, Schott Music, announced his death in a statement. No cause was specified, and no further details were provided.

Born into a European generation that wanted to make a fresh start at the end of World War II, Mr. Henze (pronounced HEN-tzuh) did so without wholly negating the past. He wanted a new music that would carry with it the emotion, the opulence and the lyricism of the Romantic era, even if those elements now had to be fought for. Separating himself from the avant-garde, he devoted himself to genres many of his colleagues regarded as outmoded: opera, song, the symphony.

By the early 1960s Mr. Henze was an international figure with enthusiastic admirers in the United States. His Fifth Symphony was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, which gave the work’s premiere in 1963, with Leonard Bernstein conducting. More than 40 years later, the orchestra took part in commissioning one of Mr. Henze’s last orchestral works, the tone poem “Sebastian Dreaming.”

He maintained relationships with other American institutions as well, including the Boston Symphony, which commissioned his Eighth Symphony (1992-93), and the Tanglewood Music Festival, where he was composer-in-residence in 1988.

His music expressed passionate but mixed feelings about his German heritage. His Nazi-era childhood alone would have produced, at the least, ambivalence about that heritage, but his homosexuality only further estranged him, particularly from the bourgeois West German society of the immediate postwar years. And he found little sympathy at home for his embrace of the Romantic past.

He had to escape, and in 1953 he abruptly left for Italy. But he went on writing operas for theaters in Germany, where he was far more popular than any other composer of his time. That success brought him material comfort, and he came to give a fair physical impression of the kind of well-to-do burgher he might well have feared and despised in his youth: tight-suited, bald, energetic even when still. What failed to fit this image of stiff propriety was his unfailing charm, his sardonic sense of humor and his fondness for his many friends.

As he grew older, the matter of Germany became increasingly important to his music. Having written his Cuban-inflected Sixth Symphony (1969) — produced during a period when he spent a great deal of time in Cuba — he composed his Seventh (1983-84) for the Berlin Philharmonic, taking Beethoven as his model. Again with Beethoven in mind and again writing for the Berlin Philharmonic, he made his Ninth a choral symphony — and a drama — telling a story of desperation and hope set during the Nazi epoch.

Hans Werner Henze was born on July 1, 1926, in Gütersloh, Westphalia, in northwest Germany. After army service in 1944 and 1945 he studied with Wolfgang Fortner at the Heidelberg Institute for Church Music and with the French composer René Leibowitz. He soon became acquainted with the modern music that had been banned by the Nazis — notably Stravinsky and Berg, as well as jazz — and gained the means to create a sprightly style that carried him through an abundant youthful output. By the time he was 25 he had written three symphonies, several ballets and his first full-length opera, ”Boulevard Solitude” (1951).

In his Second String Quartet (1952) he drew close to his more avant-garde contemporaries, but the moment quickly passed. The next year he left his post as music director of the Wiesbaden State Theater to settle on the Bay of Naples, and his music at once became luxurious and frankly emotional, as exemplified by his fairy-tale opera “King Stag,” first performed in Berlin in 1956.

It was an exultant period, which also brought forth his Fourth Symphony (1955); the full-length ballet “Ondine” (1956-57), produced with choreography by Frederick Ashton at Covent Garden; “Nocturnes and Arias,” for soprano and orchestra (1957); and “Chamber Music,” for tenor, guitar and octet (1958).

In his next opera, “The Prince of Homburg,” first produced in Hamburg in 1960, he caricatured German militarism within a style fashioned after the bel canto operas of Bellini and Donizetti. After this came “Elegy for Young Lovers,” to a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, about a poet’s use of his family and acquaintances in his art. The story’s alpine setting offered Mr. Henze the opportunity for glistening, radiant music, scored for a chamber orchestra. The work had its first performance in Schwetzingen, Germany, in 1961, and has been more widely seen than any of the composer’s other operas.

“The Young Lord,” presented by City Opera in 1973, is the only of one Mr. Henze’s full-length operas to have received a professional staging in New York. (His one-act opera “The End of a World” was presented by Encompass New Opera Theater in 2003.)

Working again with Auden and Kallman, he went on to a much bigger operatic project, “The Bassarids,” a remake of Euripides’ “Bacchae,” which was presented at the 1966 Salzburg Festival. The undertaking provoked a creative crisis, out of which Mr. Henze re-emerged as a radical socialist. He had contacts with student leaders, taught and studied in Cuba for a year, and composed several explicitly political works, among them “The Raft of the Medusa” (1968), a semi-dramatic cantata protesting racism and other forms of discrimination, and “El Cimarrón” (1969-70), a concert-length work for baritone, flute, guitar and percussion telling the story of a runaway slave.

But once again Mr. Henze moved swiftly on. By the time he composed what might have been his biggest essay in political engagement — the opera “We Come to the River,” with a libretto by the English socialist playwright Edward Bond, produced at Covent Garden in 1976 — his musical interests had returned to his more characteristic moods of nostalgia, reverie, burlesque and erotic passion. Among his other important works of this period is “Tristan” for piano, orchestra and tape (1974), a symphonic poem on the medieval legend including quotations from Wagner’s treatment of it.

In 1976 Mr. Henze founded a festival in the small Italian town of Montepulciano, where he pursued his ideals as a musician in society, working with local performers and drawing other, younger composers to do the same. He was extraordinarily open and encouraging to student composers, and there are many whose careers he made by crucial advice or an important break.

Further works with Mr. Bond followed: the ballet “Orpheus” (1979) and the surreal-satirical opera “The English Cat” (1983). But “Tristan” had signaled a rapprochement with Germany.

From his home near Rome, his principal place of residence since 1961, Mr. Henze made increasingly frequent and lengthy returns to his native country, and in 1988 he established a biennial festival of new music theater in Munich.

He had begun his artistic life in the theater, and he found it hard to leave. Having announced that “L’Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe” (“The Hoopoe and the Triumph of Filial Love,”) which had its premiere in Salzburg in, 2003) would be his last opera, he went on to produce a “Phaedra” for the Berlin State Opera in 2007 and “Gisela!,” an opera for student singers, for the Ruhr Festival in 2010.

The crowning work of Mr. Henze’s late period is “Elogium Musicum” for choir and orchestra (2008), which he wrote in memory of Fausto Moroni, his companion of four decades, who died in 2007. At once vast and intimate, Mediterranean-Classical in its sunlight and German-Romantic in its expressive depth, it is also a fitting memorial to its composer.


henze          henze




© 1981 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 27, 1981.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB 1986 and 1996.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.