Born: July 1, 1926; Died: October 27, 2012.
Hans Werner Henze, who has died aged 86, quickly established himself after the Second World War as Germany's leading composer, at least in terms of productivity and political activism, with only Karlheinz Stockhausen as his major and musically more radical rival.
His output, dominated by more than 20 operas, 10 symphonies and a multiplicity of other works, was phenomenal. As a conductor he appeared at the Edinburgh Festival with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra but it was through his slightly earlier connections with Scottish Opera and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with Sir Alexander Gibson as his champion in the 1960s and 1970s, that he was principally known in Scotland.
Born into a well-to-do family during the rise of Nazism, Henze found himself in growing opposition to his schoolteacher father whose commitment to Hitler he considered disgusting, and whom he vividly recalled "roaming drunkenly through the woods with his party cronies, bawling out repulsive songs". Forced to join the Hitler Youth at 12, he spent the rest of his life condemning the experience, claiming he never lived down his sense of shame over the existence of the concentration camps, about which he said everybody in Germany was aware.
Soon after the war he visited Italy, where he encountered his future librettists WH Auden and Chester Kallman and where he lived for the rest of his long career, ultimately in a villa producing an annual 200 litres of olive oil – perhaps a rather meagre amount compared with his output as a composer. Much of his earlier music, such as his cantata Being Beauteous, possessed an intense Italian lusciousness, and from 1976 he ran the Montepulciano Festival in Tuscany.
Meanwhile, operas and symphonies, and a large quantity of ballets, were pouring from his pen. His first Auden opera, Elegy for Young Lovers, flopped at Glyndebourne in 1961, but triumphed at the Edinburgh Festival a decade later, after being cold-shouldered by Covent Garden and Sadler's Wells. In a Scottish Opera production created by Henze, with the young David Pountney as his assistant and Gibson as conductor, the Alpine tragedy was enacted by one of the company's finest casts, led by John Shirley-Quirk as the egocentric poet who sends his mistress and new young lover to their deaths in a snowstorm, thereafter reciting his "elegy" in their memory.
The production later toured Europe, inspiring Henze to write to Gibson saying: "I really loved every minute of these times, and I think a great deal of the delight was due to your good humour. I'll never forget you even attended the tedious lighting rehearsals. I sat through the whole thing three times, enjoying how the sound of the orchestra [the RSNO] matched the goings on on stage."
Gibson, who had established himself as Britain's leading conductor of Henze's orchestral music, gave the British premieres of the third and fourth symphonies, unveiling their exquisitely gleaming abstractions to audiences in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Operas and concert works were now closely intermingled in Henze's output, with the rhapsodic four hours of King Stag sharing material with the symphonies. In 1977 the Stuttgart Opera, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, brought Boulevard Solitude, Henze's pioneering 1951 modernisation of the Manon Lescaut story, to Glasgow's Theatre Royal – a trip reputedly so expensive, a representative of Scottish Opera said it would have been cheaper flying the Glasgow audience to Germany.
By then, at the Salzburg Festival, The Bassarids had brought Henze's operatic style to its succulent climax, though fine things were still to follow, along with an intensifying political awareness that was to throw him into fresh controversy in his native Germany, particularly when the premiere of his oratorio The Raft of the Medusa, inspired by the Guericault painting and dedicated to Che Guevara, had to be abandoned in Hamburg when students draped a red flag over the conductor's podium, storm troopers invaded the hall and the orchestra walked out.
Scotland received a small taste of Henzian politics when Peter Diamand brought El Cimarron (The Runaway Slave) to the Edinburgh Festival. But by the time, during Frank Dunlop's directorship, The English Cat reached Edinburgh, political assertiveness seemed on the wane, though the millennial Symphony No 10 – A Storm, A Hymn, A Dance, A Dream – showed Henze's lifelong lyricism was still alive.
In 2006, during a visit to London, he fell into a four-month coma from which he recovered and went on composing. Death finally claimed him last week in Dresden where he was to attend a performance of his anti-war opera We Come to the River, written for Covent Garden in 1976.
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