Henze String Quartet no. 1

performed by the Arditti Quartet

(I find it unbelievable that the Arditti Quartet’s recordings are no longer in print and are therefore not available on Spotify or anywhere. Some copies can still be found on Amazon or other places, as in… you must by a hardcopy. Such a shame.)

(cover image by Samuel Zeller)

We first saw Hans Werner Henze on the blog at the very beginning of this year, and since he’s already made an appearance, he now qualifies, as was the plan all along, for inclusion into the Editor’s Choice series.

This isn’t necessarily because I’ve been listening to his music for ages and am so excited and passionate about it, as is the case with Simpson, Diamond or Holmboe. More like Schnittke, Henze’s work really intrigues me, and is often powerful enough to be compelling even without the charms of a sweet, easy-on-the-ears melody.

His first string quartet dates from 1947 and premiered in Heidelberg on (or around) Easter of the same year, which also saw the completion of the composer’s first symphony. Arnold Whittall says that the first quartet wasn’t actually published until twenty years later, but from listening to it, we can see that it predates the composer’s infatuation with the Second Viennese School. Whittall describes it thusly:

Its predominant characteristic is an unapologetic, vigorous neo-classicism evoking the Stravinsky of Pulcinella, and even the as-yet-unwritten Rake’s Progress. But the second movement offers an early example of Henze’s tendency to prolong ideas to a point where the music moves into a kind of assertive anonymity…

The work is in four movements, as follows, and has a running time of about 19 minutes:

  1. Allegro molto
  2. Andantino
  3. Lento, ma non troppo
  4. Presto

The first movement has a lyrical flair, dressed in neoclassical garb, a sort of sweetness balanced by crisp, modern acidity of tone, but again, as Whittall says, it shouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s heard 20th century neoclassicism, and maybe a bit of Webern. It’s got its charms but also bite, making for a compelling, and perhaps at times even conflicting, confusing first movement. I’m hooked, though.

The second movement is more uneasy than the first, subdued. I’d call it a nocturne if it had any sort of standout aria-like melody, but instead we have persistent cello pizzicato and a kind of slow unraveling of a more languid type. It’s the longest movement of the work, and exhibits a whispered stillness.

The third movement is very short, the shortest of the work, in fact, even at a lento marking. It’s even more pensive than the previous movement, which one could mistake as the slow movement. This one’s slower still, but contains spellbinding moments of real, true universal beauty, outstanding finesse, like a delicate scene away from the action in a movie.

The finale ramps the energy back up, but it’s driven rather than chaotic. It has a satisfying crunch to its step, like a brisk walking pace on gravel, but it isn’t abrasive, not that I’d be opposed to that. The closing movement of this work leaves me thinking about the effective presentation of the content in these four movements, and how this is probably one of the easier pieces of Henze’s to approach. There’s no denying that some (much?) of his other work presents its own challenges to listeners, but not this one.

Which brings me to the matter of personality. While I’m not nearly as social and outgoing as I used to be, I still wouldn’t be the kind of person to say “Oh, no, sorry, I already have a friend with blonde hair,” or “I already have a few Australian friends; I haven’t any need for another.” That’s ridiculous.

Why, then, do we dismiss this or that composer because we already have some idea of what a German composer from the mid-20th century might sound like? It can be easy to bundle those guys together, to assume that a connection to the Second Viennese School, or to Darmstadt, or anything else, really, generalizes a composer’s work into one specific category, like putting all the socks into the same drawer?

That’s silly and unnecessary. While I have in this article, and often do, make comparisons to other composers, as with Stravinsky above, it’s essentially like meeting and getting to know people: the more you know about them, the more you appreciate how they are individuals, unique in different ways, rather than just being this or that type of person. Are there uninteresting people? I’ve met some for sure, but we can’t be too quick to dismiss or categorize less we miss out on something really special.

Henze’s first quartet is a wonderful little work, and hopefully a piece that can make an argument for some people who wouldn’t otherwise ‘get to know him’ to give him a second (or even really a first) chance. We’ll be seeing more of him in a few months. Sorry not sorry.

This is a very exciting month, for posts, for concerts, for guests, and not all of it is directly related to the blog, but it’ll sneak in. Please go find a recording of this quartet somehow, and stay tuned for exciting things. Thanks so much for reading.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s