FRANKFURT: Germany's foremost contemporary composer Hans Werner Henze, who died Saturday at the age of 86, was a non-conformist both politically and artistically throughout his life.
Born on July 1, 1926 in Guetersloh as the eldest of six children to a school teacher, Henze's early interest in arts and music, his homosexuality and his politics were the source of conflict with his father, a political conservative who later became an avowed member of the Nazi party.
Henze was conscripted to the army in 1944 where he trained as a radio officer, but was soon captured by the British and held in a prisoner-of-war camp until the end of the war.
It was his experiences there that left him with a lifelong abhorrence of war and fascism. And after the war, his disgust at the extent to which West Germany continued to be ruled over by many of the same institutions and attitudes led him to leave his home country for Italy in 1953, where he subsequently made his home.
“If I was very young when I left Germany, it was to flee an image of barbarism and it was with a desire to learn the values of a different culture.
I italianised myself,” he said in a French newspaper interview in 2003.
“I have a German passport and an Italian identity card. If you live somewhere like Italy, you bathe in a culture that encompasses antiquity, Christianity and music from Monteverdi to Verdi.”
Musically, too, the highly prolific composer, whose output covered more than 40 operas and stage works, 10 symphonies, concertos, chamber music, oratorios and song cycles, refused to be pigeon-holed.
He experimented with a whole range of different styles, from serialism, dodecaphony, atonality to neo-classicism and jazz, but always counted among his greatest influences composers Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith.
In the post-war years, Henze's music was regularly performed at the Darmstadt international summer courses for new music, a laboratory for the avant-garde that saw its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s with uncompromisingly serialist composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono.
But Henze soon turned his back on the Darmstadt school, criticizing it for ridiculing or ignoring young composers who did not fully take on board its theories.
Schott Music, his publisher over nearly six decades, described him as “one of the most versatile and influential composers of our time.
“What is unique about his work is the union of timeless beauty with contemporary commitment,” it said.”
Henze enjoyed a unique and close collaboration with the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann, who wrote the libretti for his operas “The Prince of Homburg” (1958-59) and “The Young Lord” (1964).
Those, alongside other works such as “Elegy for Young Lovers” (1959-61) and “The Bassarids” (1964-65), counted as “milestones in his compositional output”, Schott said.
In the mid-1960s, Henze's left-wing politics exercised a huge influence on his music, notably on the choice of subjects and texts.
The premiere of his oratorio “Das Floss der Medusa” in Hamburg in 1968 sparked a riot. Conceived as a requiem for Che Guevara, the choir and orchestra refused to perform when students hoisted the red flag and a post of Guevara on the podium.
His sixth symphony was composed while Henze was living in Cuba and first performed in Havana.
The tonal language of Henze's later works became more reflective, using richer and more luscious textures.
The Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where many of his works were performed, paid tribute to Henze, describing him as “one of the most important contemporary composers” and dedicating Saturday's world premiere of a new opera by one his pupils, Joerg Widmann, to his memory.
“With the unshakable courage of his convictions, but also with his joie de vivre, his love of beautiful things and of nature, Henze's restless spirit reveals to us a man who never lost sight of his artistic aspirations, despite many personal sufferings, and historical dangers,” his publisher Schott wrote.
“To him, composing was both an ethical commitment and personal expression. He had to write, with relentless self-discipline, and when times were hard it threw him the anchor he needed and saved him from his darkest moments.”