Hans Werner Henze: Symphony no. 1

performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under the composer’s baton

If music were a part of man’s everyday life, as it should be, there would certainly be less aggression and much more equality and love on Earth; for music is a means of communication and understanding, a means of reconciliation.

Hans Werner Henze

(cover image by David Kovalenko)

Hans Werner Henze was born on July 1, 1926 in Gütersloh, an elegantly named city in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. He was the oldest of six children, and their father Franz was a conservative man. He served in World War I, and later worked as a teacher in a school “formed on progressive lines,” whatever that means. It must have been true, though, because the school closed in 1933 “because its progressive style was out of step with official views.”

As a result, I guess, the family moved to Dünne, where Franz the father “fell under the spell of Nazi propaganda.” As a result, the musically (and already politically) inclined Hans, and some of his siblings, were eventually enrolled in the Hitler Youth.

Thankfully, Hans also had some exposure to classical music, and Wiki says that “his father realized that his son had a vocation as a musician,” which I take to mean that he had clear musical potential.

He began studying music formally in 1942. Hans’s father re-enlisted the following year, and died on the Eastern Front. Henze himself was conscripted a year later, in 1944, and was trained as a radio officer. He was even captured by the Brits and held in a POW camp until the end of the war.

He eventually restarted his studies, with Wolfgang Fortner, who had previously led the orchestra of the Hitler Youth of Heidelberg. Henze had some successful premieres of his pieces at Darmstadt, and turned to serial techniques in 1947. For personal and political reasons, he moved to Italy in 1953, where he spent most of the rest of his life. He died in Dresden on October 27, 2012.

His list of compositions on Wikipedia lists 10 symphonies, three violin concertos, two piano concertos, a requiem, five string quartets, and lots more chamber and vocal work. There are also 14 ballets, in addition to 40 “operas, music theatre, and other dramatic works.” Wiki says:

Henze’s music has incorporated neoclassicism, jazz, the twelve-tone technique, serialism, and some rock or popular music. Although he did study atonalism early in his career, after his move to Italy in 1953, Henze’s music became considerably more Neapolitan in style.

So there’s lots to look forward to from him.

This work specifically was the product of Darmstadt in 1947, when the composer was a mere 20 years old, and was first performed under the baton of Hermann Scherchen with what Wikipedia calls “Henze’s accustomed bad luck.” There was an issue resulting from illegible copies of a handwritten score, meaning that only the slow movement could be performed despite Henze’s efforts to complete them all by hand. The complete work was finally premiered the following year, on August 26, 1948.

But that’s not the end of the story. Almost two decades later, in 1963, during “Henze’s first great purge on his early work,” the work was heavily revised. The slow movement was left largely unchanged, and “the revised sheet music contains a number of rhythmic, harmonic and melodic cells from the original version.” The composer described the resultant work as “different and better.” The biggest change was that a fourth theme and variations movement was removed entirely, and the work was rescored for chamber orchestra. Later revisions occurred in 1991, and again in 2005, but what we have here, with the Berlin Philharmonic, is the 1963 revision. (I believe there exist recordings of these more recent revisions. There must.)

  • Allegretto con grazia
  • Notturno
  • Allegro con moto.

While it’s only the second movement that actually has the ‘nocturne’ designation, there’s something magical about the first movement right from the beginning. It’s vibrant and tense and kind of energetic, like the buzz a ballroom filling before the event begins. There are phrases that pull the ear along at different points, like the beginning crunch from low strings, the oboe solo, the ascending line from piano, and while they each seem like disparate threads, snippets of conversations, eye contact with other guests as you move through the banquet hall, there still is overall forward motion. Things like the muted trumpet calls give the feel of an even larger space, and we have washes of big, hefty phrases from cellos and basses here and there. All of this creates a sound world that’s so vivid, captivating, and really unlike any symphony I’ve ever heard.

This magical sort of subdued nervousness lasts in various forms and colors until the real, glorious climax of the first movement, which you’ll just have to listen for, because Henze presents it and everything that comes after it beautifully, calling to mind maybe Webern’s passacaglia. Those little gestures and motifs return in bits and echoes to round out the movement in a way that cools down and leads to the true Notturno central movement of this little symphony.

The second movement (and shortest, by a little bit, in this recording) strips away any of the elements that might have seemed modern or challenging in the first movement. Granted, they weren’t great hurdles, but there was a sort of klangfarbenmelodie approach to the development of the material, the separate threads instead of one standout melody. Here, though, Henze shows a really delicate side, with a peaceful phrase from flutes and beauty and depth in the strings. The muted, distant trumpets and the oboe solo from the first movement make cameo appearances here, but the soul of the work is in strings, creating a magical forest through which flute and clarinet sing and flutter. A solo violin gets a beautiful solo to top it all off, the crowning, gleaming intimate gem of this central movement. This is a great first symphony, and a wonderful movement, because it shows Henze’s exceptional ability to craft soft, effective melodies and textures, where the name, to those who know of it, might conjure up other images.

All three of these movements, actually, are of about equal length, with only a difference of 10 or 20 seconds between them. The second movement ends in much the way it began, peacefully, serene, and the third movement returns to the spirit of the first, marked ‘allegro con moto,’ or ‘with movement.’ It is as if this event that everyone was gathering for in the first movement is finally (or at least very nearly) underway. The trumpet and harp and some others give chirps and their final statements before the real focus of the piece is revealed. There’s a triplet figure that begins with clarinet, as if to set off a domino effect, put the whole thing into motion.

You’ll know when it hits, led by trumpet, backed by low string voices. Piano and woodwinds add color to this German Stravinsky-like finale, with fantastic rhythmic interest, and a greater sense of menace or bite. Tension and instability build as strings tap their strings with the wood of the bow (col legno, or mit dem Holz in German), piano and trumpet and others stutter and spark, almost like gunshots being fired.

I could almost see this passage being given some kind of ‘march’ indication, in a satirical or sort of abstract way, but again Henze takes all of his gestures and brush strokes and the buildup of tension and is able to reach an interesting, satisfying conclusion, even if it leaves something of a question mark when it’s done. It’s not the explosive, showy climax of the first movement, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

These are sound pictures, and in listening to how Henze finishes the argument he’s constructed in this symphony, and even after listening to not so much of his music, I feel this is such an intrinsic character of his music. It has a vividness, an immediacy that’s palpable even in a more challenging idiom like the kind of language in the third movement. The presentation is fascinating, and this work, in its brief 17 minutes, left me wanting to come back time and time again to get a better feel for its contours and shape, the colors and detail hidden in what might seem like a fairly odd piece at first listen. I’m very excited to spend more time with Henze’s work.

But we won’t be doing that for at least a little while. He’s finally been introduced to the blog, so we might be including him in the Editor’s Choice series eventually. I’m inclined to do so, but we shall see. Fr now, we’ll move on to a definite mainstay of the blog this year, so do stay tuned for that and thank you so much for reading.

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