Henze String Quartet no. 2

performed by the Arditti Quartet, a recording that’s almost completely unavailable now

(cover image by Martino Pietropoli)

Henze’s second string quartet was written in 1952, when the composer was around 26 years old. It was a commission from the Südwestfunk Baden Baden, and premiered on December 16, 1952 in Baden Baden.

The work is in three movements, as follows, with a playing time of about 15 minutes:

  1. Viertel = ca. 70
  2. Achtel = 69
  3. Achtel = 152

How’s that for precision?

Arnold Whittall, writing for Gramophone, says that “In the Second Quartet the allusions are to Webern and Schoenberg.” This is unmistakably true, but what I find so captivatingly interesting and refreshing about Henze’s music, at least what of it that I’ve heard, is that there’s a remarkable juxtaposition of old and new. The music is undeniably modern, mid-20th century stuff for sure, but along with the obvious Schoenberg and Webern references, there’s also a likeness to, say, Hindemith, maybe not in this work specifically, but it’s there, even if we may see it more obviously next week.

What I also hear in his work is a freshness, an almost uplifting sort of energetic quality that I don’t hear in Schoenberg or Webern. This piece certainly isn’t casual listening, but I find it so very compelling. Let’s listen.

I mean, how do you talk about this? It’s the kind of pointillist sounding, splatter-painting-style composition that is difficult to pull apart if you don’t have the score (or program notes or a ready-made analysis with you). What I would suggest, for lack of a better thought process in appreciating this music, is to try to pick out what may make this sound different than, say, Webern, Schoenberg, Babbitt. I’ve seen remarks online to the effect that Henze’s young approach to serialism was primitive at best, and that his approach (obviously) changed as he matured, but even here, we can appreciate something about his voice.

In the second movement, there’s something more of a sense of the quartet moving together, trying to accomplish something. While the harmonies may come of as nothing short of caustic to some, if you can separate that sentiment from the texture of the music, you may find something a bit more delicate. It’s certainly not a melodious slow movement, but it is softer than what came before.

The finale, then… is almost something you could tap your foot to! Could this be rondo-like in structure? Could it be even almost dance-like in places, with a heartbeat provided either by the cello, or the nearly-ever present pizzicato? There’s even a hint of playfulness to it, a more musical quality that might just convince even the most reluctant of listeners to follow along for the ride.

This comes off as more challenging than the works we’ll be discussing next week. That could be because it comes a few years after them both, but I hope you’ll stick around to hear a slightly more approachable Henze. If you’re interested in music that challenges you, be it in harmony, form, whatever, and have a hunger for something modern, Henze’s quartets, especially this one (and probably onward) may be just what you’re looking for. My insights here (what insights?) are meagre at best, but I still enjoy knowing about this work, having access to a recording of it (mind you, the Arditti recording is out of print, I believe, so it’s not on Spotify or iTunes, and this specific quartet isn’t even on YouTube. I find this complete lack of availability at least a little surprising considering the fame Henze has, at least among very recent composers).

What else can I say about this piece? Not much, except that I myself have the tendency to get lost in a very interesting sound world like this, as you can see almost completely ignorant of the specifics of what’s going on from a musical, theoretical, specific standpoint, but enjoying at least the idea of the music, even if it would take many, many (more) listens to have even a feigned familiarity with its shape.

Please stay tuned for more, lighter, colorful Henze next week, and thanks so much for reading.

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