31 October 2012
Hans Werner Henze, Europe's Leading Opera Composer for More than Fifty Years, Has Died
HANS WERNER HENZE
Gütersloh, Germany, July 1, 1926 — Dresden, Germany, October 27, 2012
A prodigiously gifted and highly prolific artist, Hans Werner Henze was Europe's leading opera composer for more than fifty years. Henze's stage works are marked with radiant musical imagination, disciplined elegance and — especially during the 1960s and '70s — explicit socialist politics. He was a man of profound charm, restless intellect and unfailing professional and personal generosity.
Henze began his career as a repetiteur and conductor in his native Germany, marking his first important successes as a composer with his Symphony No. 1 (1947), Violin Concerto No. 1 (1947) and the choreographic poem Ballett-Variationen (1949). The first Henze opera to achieve widespread acclaim was Boulevard Solitude, a modern re-working of the Manon Lescaut story that had its premiere in Hanover, in 1952. Henze emigrated from Germany to Italy in the early 1950s for political and cultural reasons, although he continued to compose works for German theaters. His biggest opera-house success was Elegy for Young Lovers, composed to a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman and first presented in Schwetzingen, in German translation, in May 1961. (The world premiere of the original English-language libretto was given at Glyndebourne the same year.) Henze's next collaboration with Auden and Kallman, The Bassarids, had its world premiere at the 1966 Salzburg Festival. Another important collaborator for Henze was the controversial British playwright Edward Bond, his librettist for the anti-war drama We Come to the River — first presented in 1976 at Covent Garden — and The English Cat (1983). Henze served as his own librettist for L'Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe (Salzburg, 2003).
Although Henze's career was centered in Europe, his eminence as a composer was unquestioned in the U.S., where had successful symphonic commissions from the New York Philharmonic and the BSO, among other orchestras, and was Tanglewood's composer-in-residence in 1988. Despite his international celebrity, Henze's operas did not feature in the repertory of most U. S. opera houses. Henze's longest-standing relationship with a North American company was with Santa Fe Opera, which presented the U.S. stage premieres of The Stag King (1965), Boulevard Solitude (1967), The Bassarids (1968), We Come to the River (1984), The English Cat (1985) and Venus and Adonis (2000). Other important U.S. presenters of Henze operas were Juilliard Opera Theater, which offered the U.S. stage premiere of Elegy for Young Lovers in 1965, with Henze conducting; New York City Opera, which mounted The Young Lord in a production by Sarah Caldwell (1973); San Francisco Opera, which presented Elegy for Young Lovers (1978) and the U.S. stage premiere of Das Verratene Meer (1991); Manhattan School of Music (The English Cat, 1986); and The Opera Company of Philadelphia, which offered the U. S. premiere Henze's 2007 “concert-opera” Phaedra in 2011 and co-presented Elegy for Young Lovers with the Curtis Institute in 2012.
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