German composer Hans-Werner Henze died in Dresden suddenly today, just hours before the opening night of a youthful work of his. The Canadian Opera Company presented Venus and Adonis in 2001.

One of the world’s most admired contemporary opera and symphonic composers, German Hans-Werner Henze died suddenly today in Dresden, aged 86.

One of the most remarkable aspects of his long life and prolific (by modern standards) output was how he always tried to reach beyond music itself to connect it with the art, words and politics of his day.

Former Canadian Opera Company general director Richard Bradshaw was a big fan, giving a Henze piece a mainstage production at the Sony Centre in early 2001, in a bill that paired Henze’s Venus and Adonis with John Blow’s much-loved Baroque original.

Henze’s music has also featured on Toronto concert programmes for two generations.

The composer’s most creative decades were the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, but he continued to work at his villa outside Rome until recently, despite serious health problems during the last 8 years.

Although Henze was inspired by the work of Arnold Schoenberg, he found his own voice — one too free to be accepted by the serialists — that he nurtured by bringing in a variety of stylistic influences. He completed his last of his 14 operas, Phaedra, five years ago, the work having been interrupted by two months spent in a coma.

As was the case for every European of his generation, Henze’s life was deeply marked by World War II. Like every able-bodied German teenager in the closing years of the war, he had been conscripted, and ended up spending time in a prisoner-of-war camp.

He had already worked as an opera repetiteur when he was introduced to the postwar new music festival in Darmstadt, Ground Zero for much of Europe’s new music activity. Theatre remained central to his life’s work.

Henze spent much of the last 60 years in Italy writing music that celebrated the human spirit. He was an unrepentant communist and founded and ran several festivals putting young artists at their centre. His many projects outside his studio included working with young musicians and composers at Tanglewood in the 1980s and early ’90s.

Henze’s aesthetic softened with age and experience, and he became one of Europe’s most loved contemporary composers. He wrote a 10th symphony to prove that a German could break the proverbial nine-symphony limit — it was premiered by Sir Simon Rattle at the Lucerne Festival 10 years ago.

He also wrote quite a lot of music for film.

Born in the darkest times of the 20th century, the composer used his craft as a vehicle to bring light to the world. As he once put it, music “is the opposite of Sin – it is redemption, the Promised Land.”

Henze was in Dresden for tonight’s Semperoper opening performance of one of his early pieces, Das Vokaltuch der Kammersängerin Rosa Silber, a 1950 ballet score inspired by Igor Stravinsky that had its premiere in 1951. He was the famed opera company’s composer-in-residence this season.

His lifelong parntner, Fausto Moroni, died in 2007.

Here is his haunting “song for viola” An Brenton, from 1993, played by Barbara Maurer, followed by a piano piece from the sountrack of the 1984 film, Un amour de Swann. I’ll finish with contralto Anna Reynolds, harpsichordist John Constable and the London Sinfonietta under the baton of the composer, interpreting Apollo and Hyazinthus, written when Henze was 22:

John Terauds

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2 Responses to Leading German composer Hans-Werner Henze dies in Dresden, aged 86

  1. I had the good fortune of understudying the role of the Prima Donna for the North American premiere of Henze’s Venus und Adonis in 2000 with the Santa Fe Opera – the same production that Bradshaw brought to the COC for 2001 (and brought me with it). I can say honestly that as a young singer coming through the ranks, this was one of the most satisfying operas to sing! Henze understood the voice and really allowed it to shine while still expecting you to jump through some seriously difficult musical hoops. Henze taught me as much about my singing as Mozart did and I will always be grateful!

  2. I am sorry to hear of his passing. Working with him in his villa just outside Rome was always inspiring. Ann Summers Dossena