MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications


Henze in the concert hall

FOR THE POST-WAR GERMAN COMPOSER, the language predicament is greater than it is for oornposers of any other nationality. On the one hand, he may feel the humanistic Viennese tradition to be still the 'universal' language that the 19th-century thought - or at least hoped - it was. On the other hand, its world-wide significance has very obviously been impaired - for some totally destroyed - by forces ranging from subjective serialism to the unfortunate association with German nationalism (and ultimately Fascism). The Art-Work of the Future will not, thus, be built upon foundations laid down by Bach, Beethoven and Wagner, but only by fertile contact with the music of other cultures - especially Eastern music and jazz. Only through embracing terms of reference outside those of European music in the last few centuries, will real solutions appear.

For composers outside Germany, the transition has not been too hard, and has certainly been productive. English music seems 'to have been 'reborn' through revival of medieaval, renaissance and folk-music practices. French music has looked to the F.ast for stimulus, and gone places as a result. American mnsic has proliferated in techniques and esthetic poses which, taken overall, are a negation of Western culture since the Renaissance. It was Stockhausen, more than anyone, who has been responsible for dragging German music screaming into the world of chance, indeterminacy and electronics, but as an antidote, Hans Werner Henze is a powerful figure. He is a sort of Strauss to Stockhausen's Mahler: yes, but much more. To Henze, Stockhausen's uncompromising rejection of their common heritage is anathema: the latter's abdication of the composer's humanistic throne, he regards as basically neo-fascist.

It is not simply that Henze is an old-fashioned reactionary. He, too, 'has been deeply influenced by musical attitudes and procedures outside the European tradition. He recognises the need for expanding musical horizons. In his work, however, he seeks to discover and retain what is of eternal value from the past and relate it to the present-day world: '... in my world, the old forms strive to regain significance even where the modern timbre of the music seldom or never allows them to appear on the surface'. Henze's musical development centres on his attempts to focus upon classical ideals of beauty and order in dramatic contexts where they are easily obscured.

In the spheres of ballet music and chamber music (songs, string quartets etc), he quickly learned 'to convey types of expression which are at opposite poles. His clarity of invention and design here became prodigious and almost unfailing. The balle'ts crystallise his neo-classic ambitions, although their debt to Stravinsky is always evident. His chamber music developed a personal vein of lyricism which is more distinctive. The Kammermusik (1958), for instance, displays a unique control of musical versus literary values.

The operas, however, are Henze's focal creative work, for in them he tries to reconcile all the various elements which are explored in the other compositions, and he seeks out some kind of linguistic solution. They are not overall successful, even though the stagecraft and musical content is generally brilliantly handled. Henze's themes are too great for him as yet, and even in The Bassarids (1967), the most impressive of them, lots of issues are unanswered.

In a way, his greatest present achievement are his symphonies, whose connections with the theatre and his actual operatic designs are quite overtly stressed. 'Everything moves toward the theatre and returns from there. The theatre is clearly evident in the orchestral pieces, although the characteristics of certain symphonic traditions are kept'. The symphonies are also the central aim of other orchestral works, which were either planned at first as symphonies or meant as stepping stones to them. Henze starts from the premise that the symphony is not dead. 'Mahler's adieu applied to his own lyre, not 'to the whole of European symphonicism. We are free to pick up the threads of his musical legacy: besides its indisputable necrological qualities his music contains many points of contact, challenges and stlmuli'. Henze extends 'his neo-classicism - his consuming interest in past ideals, his vision of their relevance in a modern epoch - to the sphere of the symphony. His progress is clearly mapped by their individual conquests.

Leaving aside the immature First Symphony (1947; revised 1963), his main preoccupations are with the balletic approach of Stravinsky. Both the Second (1948) and Third (1949) employ the techniques of the pre-classical symphony the various movements are in dance-forms, use ariosi, ostinati etc. The Third draws together the Berg-like chromatic angularity of Henze's melodic style, and his rhythmic vitality. The debt to Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements is very obvious (cf bars 26-56 in the finale; or the closing pages), but like Tippett's Second Symphony another work strongly influenced by the aforementioned Straviasky its own identity is very marked.

It is in the Fourth Symphony (1955) that Henze extends the scope of his lyrical writing, perhaps the most Europpean - and hence, most hazardous - facet of his idiom. This strange work is certainly his least immediately impressive symphony. although its rewards are greater as the complexities of content and structure begin to piece themselves together. One needs, I suspect, to be quite aware of its original stage-context in the opera Konig Hirsch. The second act of the opera ended with an extended, unbroken sequence of five orchestral movements - Genesi, Introduzione e Sonata, Variazioni, Capricciii. Ricercar. At this point, the half-man and half-animal Stag King engages in dialogue with the forest (the former a tenor, the latter sung by a hidden five-part chorus) against an orchestral back-cloth portraying the four seasons. Added to this are Scollatella (soprano) and her three mirror-images, gradually transforming themselves into plants. The symphony emerged from Henze's shortened version of the opera (1962), which utilises the second and third m'ovements and the coda, transferred to the start of Act III. In the symphony, the vocal lines are given to instruments. For the most part, it is an elusive, poetic work, hanging fire until towards the end.

Henze manages a more satisfactory and directly communicative blend of the romantic and neo-classic musical irnagery in his Fifth Symphony (1963). At first, the dance rhythms and lyricism are starkly opposed in the sonata-s'tyle opening move- ment, but the second movement gives precedence to song of a bleak character. At three points in the score, the solo 'voices' of alto Aute, viola and cor anglais, respectively, emerge from the texture. They are not there as display passages so much as dramatic separation of the chhef melodic interest from the rest of the sounds (cf the cor anglais melody in Act III of Tristan). This leads naturally to the concerto-like separation of musical materiaf in the finale, where particular ideas tend to be associated with specific instrumental groups. The structure consequently gains in clarity and potency, for Henze is thus rethinking the dramaturgy of the full orchestra. All his previous symphonies presuppose traditional Brahmsian or Haydn-esque relationships between the instrumental forces involved. Here, in the Fifth Symphony, he moves closer to the world of Bartok, Stravinsky, Tippett, without relinquishing the characteristic lyrical 'bent of his own style and heritage. It is something to be proud of, and constitutes the basis of an effective counterblast to Stockhausen, although, of course, there is a long way to go before its full potential is tapped, and this involves much more far-reaching expansion of German musical vocabulary. That seems to be Henze's role.