Yesterday brought the very sad news that the composer Hans Werner Henze has died. It’s not for me to attempt an obituary—i only know a little of Henze’s life, and have only really scratched the surface of his considerable output—but by way of a small tribute, here’s a performance of his Symphony No. 5. Henze’s ten symphonies vary greatly in their scope, scale and instrumentation, and the Fifth is one of his most concise, lasting around 15 minutes. Henze composed the symphony in 1962, a year after he had relocated to the Marino region of Italy (Henze left Germany for good in the early 1950s, revolted by its politics and homophobia). The nearby city of Rome was his primary inspiration; Henze described the symphony as dealing with “dramatic portrayals of sensual conflicts and joys prompted by the sensuous happiness of 20th century Rome, its people, its countryside and surroundings, and even by its somewhat harder dialect in comparison to that of Naples where I previously lived”.
The first movement (Movimentato) instils the Symphony with a muscular sense of push and pull, Henze forcing the orchestra (and sonata form) into an aggressive struggle for supremacy. On one side, surly fanfarish material driven by the brass; countering this is a leaning towards lyricism, a melodic sensibility at first only heard in glimpses, proffered most by the woodwind (and drawing on material from Henze’s well-known opera, Elegy for Young Lovers). i use the word ‘struggle’, but this is not a conventional musical conflict; Henze has created something more argumentative, a sequence of semi-formalised lunges and parries, thrusts and ripostes, rather than an anything-goes assault. The contrast between these ideas feels increasingly polarised as the movement progresses, the first thread becoming vicious and rebarbative, the other moody and ethereal, but by the movement’s end—more a burn-out than a conclusion—things feel far from resolved.
The rest of the symphony presents what amounts to a restatement and development of these opposing theses. The second movement (Adagio – apparently composed in just one morning) consists of a broad melodic shape that slowly emerges from heavy, ponderous string chords. The tone is fragile and intimate, featuring a number of lengthy solos for alto flute, cor anglais and muted viola. The brass opt out, while the strings move from glacial stillness to a spacious deep drone; overhead, the solos become more plangent and slow until Henze closes the movement in mysterious fashion with an unexpected, seemingly obscure chord. The final movement (Moto perpetuo) rekindles something of the fire heard in the opening; from the outset, the material—actually a series of 33 variations on the opening seven-bar cell, but not perceptible as such—moves along rapidly, quiet at first but soon riled up following harsh chords from the brass. There’s more of the fanfare-like gestures that occupied them earlier, and some hints of the second movement in the woodwind, but eventually it settles into a spritely texture in which nothing seems inclined to predominate. The brass continue to harbour a possible fanfare-in-waiting, the strings gather force but stop—a clear sense of direction by now seems lost, and just as everyone unites into a vigorous, strong entity, Henze abruptly ends the symphony, the orchestra sounding as though it’s crashed into a wall.
What to make of the Fifth Symphony? Henze’s stated aim of “dramatic portrayals of sensual conflicts” permeates every movement, and while the music’s inherent ambiguities perhaps prevent a meaningful sense of “joy” to come across, they nonetheless make the work all the more compelling. If Rome in the 1960s really was like this, it’s no wonder Henze was so fascinated by it.
This performance, broadcast last year as part of BBC Radio 3’s ‘Symphony’ series, was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen. As one would expect, the broadsheets have been churning out their (largely identical) obituaries, but for a particularly thoughtful and heartfelt tribute to Henze, visit the Schott Music website.
Rest in peace, Hans; you will be much missed.
The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.