Obituary: Hans Werner Henze | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 28.10.2012
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Obituary: Hans Werner Henze

Celebrated by the conservative audience, but restricted by the stuffy legacy of the Adenauer era, Hans Werner Henze was seen as one of the most prolific composers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

He was the alternative for an entire generation of musicians and music fans. Those who couldn't follow the radical compositions of the post-war avant-garde knew they could turn to Hans Werner Henze.

His operas were beloved by a conservative educated public in the 1950s and 1960s, even despite his later political involvement with German students and Cuban peasants.

Man and music

The opera Pollicino from Hans Werner Henze Foto: Bernd Thissen dpa/lnw +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Henze was a star of the opera world in mid-century Germany

In an interview given near the end of his life, Henze said he had always been obsessed by the desire to "make modern man as familiar as possible with music as a wonderful means of expression."

Henze's life revolved around creative people, those who sang or played an instrument. For him, humans were fundamentally musical beings: if a person is encouraged, he said, he or she will sing and play music for an entire life, alone and with other people. And, because he found this musical life better, Henze never lost sight of the musical community.

Freedom in Bella Italia

Henze's life away from music, however, was difficult. Born on July 1, 1926 in Gütersloh, western Germany, he saw, in the form of his father, a committed Nazi, how a man can lose his humanity.

Despite achieving success as a composer in Germany in his early 20s, Henze fled from the stuffy atmosphere of the Adenauer era, heading for the promised land: Italy. Only here, in his adopted home, could he begin to breathe free as an artist and as a homosexual. In his autobiography, written at the age of 70, Henze described the day he left Germany as the happiest day of his life.

And yet, as he left this oppressive life, his public sought him out all the more. With works like "Boulevard Solitude", "König Hirsch" and "Der Prinz von Homburg," Henze became the star of the opera world in the 1950s and 1960s, beloved by directors, singers and conductors.

'The new Richard Strauss'

But it made him queasy to hear well-known musicians, like the conductor Karl Böhm, describe him in raving terms as "our only hope" and "the new Richard Strauss." He also sometimes angered the conservative audience. But, considering the post-war gulf that had opened between the middle class and the radical avant-garde scene, characterized by composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, such rejection was moderate.

Music lovers that wanted the future of music to remain the traditional opera, symphony or concerto, that saw music as an expression of the soul and emotion, they turned to Henze.

The composer becomes political

Hans Werner Henze and Ingeborg Bachmann Archiv Schott Music / Ilse Buhs.

Henze often collaborated with Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann

Henze stayed in Italy for the rest of his life, though he gradually became involved in German society toward the end of the 1960s. The composer, who in his early life had been withdrawn and apolitical, became an enthusiastic supporter of the student and socialist movement. For the only time in his life, he would say later, he felt a sense of belonging.

This period was relatively short, but Henze learned from the experience and continued to get involved. He launched festivals, like the populist Cantiere in Montepulciano, in Tuscany, where he lived out his dream of bringing together art and music, and the Munich Biennale that celebrated musical theater.

Toward the end of his life, Henze conducted, organized, worked with amateurs and children and taught for more than 10 years at the Cologne Academy of Music and Dance, but found less and less time to compose. The older he got, the louder the voice inside him got: "You can't waste any more time. You must write music."

And in his last few years he did just that, as far as his health allowed. He was able to look back with pride on his life's work, which despite some skepticism still found many fans.

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