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Composer Hans Werner Henze Remembered

Late composer and conductor Hans Werner Henze, circa 1965.
Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive
Getty Images
Late composer and conductor Hans Werner Henze, circa 1965.

Hans Werner Henze, one of the most important composers to emerge from postwar Germany, died Saturday in Dresden, Germany at age 86. His death was announced by his publisher, Schott Music, though no cause was given. Henze had been in Dresden to attend the premiere of a ballet at the Semperoper by choreographer Helen Pickett set to one of his scores, Das Vokaltuch der Kammersängerin Rosa Silber ("Vocal Fabric of the Singer Rosa Silber").

Henze was born in Gütersloh, Germany in 1926, and his family moved to Bielefeld and then Dünne before he turned 10. According to the London Telegraph, Henze's father, a schoolmaster named Franz, "became an enthusiastic convert to Nazism; young Hans retained memories of his father, in Nazi uniform, 'roaming drunkenly through the woods with his party cronies, bawling out repulsive songs.'" Henze himself was forced to enroll in the Hitler Youth and serve in the military — experiences that shaped his entire creative output, with many pieces that explicitly confront both the dark havoc of Nazi Germany and German self-identity in the decades that followed.

As a young composer, Henze began to explore serialism and attended the famed Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music. But he became something of a musical outsider. Unlike many of his compatriots and other composers of his generation, he explicitly went on to reject many of the priorities of modern European music. Though Henze wrote everything from chamber music to concertos, his work as a composer of opera, symphonies, song cycles and musical theater stood out in several ways. Not only did he bring a richly lyrical and even Romantic coloring to these forms, but his embrace of them was in itself a statement, as many of his contemporaries had rejected them as old-fashioned and irrelevant to 20th-century concerns.

Although many fellow composers derided Henze's work, his music was championed widely. The New York Philharmonic commissioned his 1963 Fifth Symphony and joined with the Eduard van Beinum Foundation, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich to commission 1984's Dream of Sebastian. The Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered Henze's Eighth Symphony in 1993.

Frustrated by both Germany's political history and the oppressive homophobia he felt there, Henze left Germany in 1953 to make a home near Rome with his companion Fausto Moroni, with whom he remained until Moroni's death in 2007 (and for whom he wrote 2008's Elogium Musicum for choir and orchestra). In 1976, Henze founded a festival in the small Tuscan hill town of Montepulciano called the Cantiere Internazionale d'Arte, where his children's opera Pollicino premiered in 1980.

Here's a bit of Pollicino, which is based on fairy tales by Carlo Collodi (the author of Pinocchio), the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. Here, it's performed by the Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw of Calw, Germany.

Despite Henze's often bitter feelings towards his home country, his music was widely embraced in Germany, notably by the Berlin Philharmonic, which commissioned his Seventh Symphony in 1984 and his 1997 Ninth Symphony. In the latter, Henze looked back to Beethoven in creating a choral symphony he called "'an apotheosis of the terrible and the painful," a setting of a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers about prisoners trying to flee a concentration camp. Henze proclaimed the symphony "the summa summarum of my life's work" and dedicated it "to the heroes and martyrs of German anti-fascism."

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.