Henze Symphony no. 2

performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under the composer’s baton, or below by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Marek Janowski

…music for a winter’s day, utterly grey and gloomy.

Henze, of his second symphony

(cover image by Cesare Burei)

What would your struggle sound like? I’ve asked this question both of grief and love, but struggle, or difficulty, is different. Struggle is a broad term, as is ‘love,’ and there are many kinds of each. In the Messiaen piece, the topic is romantic (lowercase r) love, but what of the struggle we’ll discuss today?

It’s both personal and political (as it seems can be said of much of Henze’s music). In 1949, the year of this work, Germany was struggling, and so was the composer. You may have heard of World War II; it was a thing that ended only a few years earlier, and Germany was not in a good state. The composer, however, was not recovering from anything, or even suffering, as much as working hard to get his footing as a ‘successful’ composer, which certainly would not have been easy at the time.

Wikipedia makes this portion of his life sound, well, exciting: in the end of this decade, he was visiting Darmstadt, taking up serialism, got his Ballett-Variationen performed in Düsseldorf, and more. Michael Cookson, writing for MusicWeb International, says that:

During this troubled period Henze struggled to build himself a career as a composer of note and thankfully he was commissioned by South German Radio to write the symphony.

David Anderson agrees, saying that “Henze was struggling to establish himself as a composer. Perhaps because of such circumstances, the music seems to depict a certain pessimism.”

And he certainly isn’t wrong about that. You’d be hard-pressed to find much of anything cheerful about this piece of music; Henze didn’t suffer any catastrophic failures or enormous setbacks in his career, but no great successes (yet), so perhaps the gloom of this work is just a reflection of the pall that hung over Germany at the time.

I also want to interject a little blurb about how I find something… downright cozy about the chilly, even harsh, bleakness of winter, and I did a questionable job trying to convey this sentiment to a dear friend in a letter last week. That being said, I find something so compelling in the ‘wintry’ or ‘cold’ nature of this symphony.

The symphony is in three movements, as follows, with a playing time of about 21 minutes:

  1. Lento/Allegro
  2. Allegro molto vivace
  3. Adagio

This piece, then, is a sort of inversion of the typical fast-slow-fast three-movement form; instead, it has the fast(est) movement in the center, beginning and ending with slow passages.

This was right about the time the composer was adopting serialism for himself, but I’ve read conflicting evidence about when exactly this happened. Anderson says that “Henze’s own turn to serialism came with his Piano Variations (1949), composed shortly after the Symphony No. 2.” However, and perhaps more excitingly, Cookson tells us that “Although strongly tonal it marks the first time that Henze employed twelve-tone serialism in a large score.” The program notes for this album at Records International says the following:

It uses tone rows for each of its three movements but tonal, and even melodic, elements are not avoided and the contrapuntal third movement climaxes with a quotation of the chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern.

Regardless of how much (or whether) Henze used any serialist techniques, what we do certainly hear is the brilliant orchestral color he presents, something really akin to Debussy or Strauss, while the tone, the spirit, of the music is obviously wildly different. Interesting, too, is that this work is marked as being ‘for large orchestra,’ but the composer uses these forces in much the way Mahler does in, say, Das Lied, that is to say only rarely is the whole orchestra sounding at once. Rather, it’s often quite sparse and transparent, but so vivid.

The first movement opens bleakly, like the distant call of a ship in a foggy, barren harbor. The immediate response to it, though, is a warm solo from English horn. This kind of transparent nature, of individual, the languid atmosphere, is so well portrayed by these sparse solos, and yet they themselves exhibit that pervasive delicacy that’s so compelling in Henze’s music.

Along with my perhaps incomprehensible adoration for the bleakness of winter, there’s a warmth to the sensation that this music, at least so far, isn’t really going anywhere. It’s close, closed, intimate, at least until low strings barge in on the scene. These two entities engage in a back-and-forth for most of the movement, with a few moments of cohesion that are nothing short of rapturously colorful. Think Debussy. Overall, with Henze’s use of percussion, and the texture afforded by piano, and his brilliant orchestration, the movement is a riveting first installment of this magical symphony.

There is finally, in the climax of the movement, this magnificent sense of having arrived at an awe-inspiring, even terrifying sight. It’s splendid and vibrant, and somehow, to me, so unique to Henze’s language, and I am in love with this recently.

Some sources say that the second movement is played without pause, and… there is at the very least a rest, but certainly not the page-flipping, throat-clearing, shuffle-shuffle break as between standard movements, at least not in a recording, before the menacing second movement arrives. It has the terrifying roar and intense vividness of some moments of Messiaen’s Turangalîla, but even here, there are glimpses of something bordering on playfulness, but only glimpses. It is driving, and chugs along almost mechanically for a while. Surprisingly, though, there are abrupt shifts to smaller textures, if only briefly. The happenings in this tumultuous movement make up for some of the unsettling stillness in the previous movement.

And as abruptly as we were thrown into that maelstrom, we’re in an even stiller, eerier landscape than the first movement. It hovers for a time in a space that prevents the reader from knowing whether the movement will turn out to be warm and expressive, or poignantly sorrowful. As the tension builds, though, it’s clear it’s the latter. There’s more of the thin, almost chamber-like textures, with solos from many different places in the ensemble. One of the beautiful, remarkable things about this piece (and maybe much of Henze’s music in general) is how these wild shifts in dynamic and mood all seem to fit together, actually, to be part of the same landscape.

Speaking of which, there’s something organic and absolute about this music, and as it swells and roars to its ultimate climax, I find myself thinking that it has a similar effect on me, or that I think about it the same way, as Sibelius’ symphonies in that it seems almost never to have a narrative that you follow like you would, say Mahler. It puts you in an environment, absolutely engulfs you. I can’t explain it except to say maybe that I get lost in it in an entirely different way as Mahler or Shostakovich, and apparently just can’t describe why.

While I find most of this symphony, even the more stirring climaxes, to have that stirring, compelling, wintry feeling, the ultimate conclusion of this symphony has any environment or landscape ultimately crumble and collapse. It’s quite a peroration for what seemed in so many places to be a soft, rather still work.

But I love it. It is so vivid and so arresting. This article is already too long, but I’m looking forward to more Henze eventually; that won’t happen now, though, because we’ll move on to someone else this weekend, actually his first appearance in the Editor’s Choice series, so stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading!


2 thoughts on “Henze Symphony no. 2

  1. The think I’ve always appreciated about Henze’s music (even back when I hadn’t yet learnt to like it all that much) is that he never swerved from writing to expressive (expressionist?) ends. Serialism, aleatory techniques, etc. are frequently all present and correct, but never just for their own sake. Any plans to cover the 9th Symphony?

    1. I will indeed make may way through all the symphonies eventually, but it’ll take some time. I do look very forward to getting more familiar with all his work, though! Truly a delight.

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