Henze Violin Concerto no. 1

performed by Wolfgang Schneiderhan and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the composer’s baton

(cover image by Zak Elley)

Hans Werner Henze wrote three violin concertos, each decades apart from one another, in total spanning a half a century of the man’s output. Today we discuss the first, which Wikipedia lists as dating from 1947, with other sources, as we shall see below, claiming 1948. In any case, the composer was a mere 21 years old. This work, I think

Regardless, this is a slightly earlier work than the string quartet we discussed (so poorly) last weekend. I have hardly discussed enough of Henze’s works to comment literally at all on any kind of overall trajectory in his work, but it would appear that these five-ish years are relatively formative, as we shall see.

The work is in four movements, as follows, with a playing time of about 24 minutes:

  1. Largamente, rubato – Allegro molto
  2. Vivacissimo (tempo 1) – Alla marcia (tempo 2)
  3. Andante con moto
  4. Allegro molto vivace

Guy Rickards at Gramophone says that:

The vibrant First (1948), begun while he was still studying with Fortner, shows his initial, halting attempts at 12-note composition, an ambitious endeavour embarked on with no formal guidance (though the stylistic bedrock is still Hindemith). While a little learning may be a dangerous thing, here it goes a long way indeed. The Concerto teems with magical sounds pointing the way to the operas of the 1950s and ’60s.

I don’t mean to take Rickards’ entire review of the concerto, but he does hit on a few points that I feel are relevant to a discussion of this piece.

I think, really, though, the point I would most like to convey about this work, and a few of the others coming up, is that they’re in this magical sweet spot of really almost radically modern works, but with such a traditional appeal. Rickards mentioned 12-note [sic?] composition, which can turn off many listeners, but do you hear it here? The color and vividness and richness, as I hope you will see, are so appealing as to make any of the more challenging aspects of this work at the very least palatable, if not thrilling.

The first movement, and the longest of the four, begins with a poignant solo violin passage, and the orchestra only sort of sneaks in under the soloist, with plucked strings. The thematic material that results may not be the showtune-like crowd-pleasing melody of Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn, but it’s absolutely, fantastically engaging. There are biting exclamations from the orchestra at a few points, but overall, even in this turbulent setting, the overriding quality that is so charming about this music, is its delicacy. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of dissonance and all the rest, but the colors, textures and expressiveness are undeniably effective. You’ll also notice that there seems barely to be a single bar where the soloist isn’t playing.

Can you hear the Hindemith? He wasn’t (at least not in his early work) so aggressive or radical as this, but I can’t get over how enjoyable and approachable this concerto is, especially in the softer, more intimately written moments of the first movement, one of which calls the Berg violin concerto to mind, with its open fifths. There’s almost none of this serenity in the second, though, as we shall see.

The second movement is barely two minutes long, and functions as the scherzo, or at least the inner fast movement. It’s aggressive and wild, unrelenting, in such contrast with the lullaby-like way the first movement closed. Whether you like how he says it or not, there’s no denying the (very) young Henze has lots to say. The second movement roars, but then at times also bounces along. The orchestra is much more vocal here, working, at times it seems for, and others against, the soloist. In any case, it’s a frenetic, sort of maniacal bounce/march toward the third movement, a glorious, Shostakovich-like little passage of irony, with an incessant line from the violin, punctuated by the orchestra, and then… despite all that, it ends quietly.

The third movement sounds much like the general spirit of the second symphony, which (spoiler alert) we’ll be talking about in a few days. Henze’s music has this absolutely captivating quality of being soft and tender, but at the exact same time bleak and cold. It’s almost contradictory, but that bittersweet sentiment, perhaps of being comfortable with tragedy, or stubborn optimism, is such an effective emotion. He uses this warmth amid tragedy and desperation the same way Shostakovich uses sarcasm or irony. I can’t quite pinpoint the feeling it conveys, but we’ll leave that for the second symphony. Again, the melodies presented in the third movement are poignant, not the kind of thing most people would find themselves humming throughout their day, but it is undeniably expressive. Only in the climax of this movement does the orchestra make any real appearance as a team. That aside, it’s largely diaphanous, quiet, a backdrop for the soloist’s mournful song.

The finale is only seconds longer than the third movement, but obviously much more lively. The orchestra is able to launch this final movement, all hands on deck, with explosive percussion and angular rhythms, before the violin makes its appearance. The chaos and wildness has a focus and drive that the other movements did not. There are scintillating moments with the piano and brass section, a remarkable, exciting sense of urgency. In some senses, it sounds like a race between the ensemble and soloist. Thematic material stands out a little bit more here, but then suddenly, surprisingly, we get hints of the Berg concerto, that sort of delicacy, from the first movement. The expert writing for violin continues, though, and if the 21-year-old Henze didn’t have a close associate giving him fantastic advice on the writing, he must have been himself a fantastic fiddler, as evidenced by the closing pages of this work.

I am just so enamored with this piece, its intensity and vibrancy and how it so perfectly balances the modern and traditional. I just love it. It’s exciting. We’ll see more of him and his fascinating language later this week in a much bleaker work. Stay tuned and thanks so much for reading.

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