Prolific and often controversial composer died in Munich on 27 October
Hans Werner Henze, one of the leading German composers of his generation, has died at the age of 86. Henze’s long career was characterised by repeated changes of direction and by controversies caused by both his artistic outlook and his radical politics.
Henze grew up in Germany during the Third Reich and his first experience of politics was his father’s commitment to the Nazi cause. After serving in the war (the last months of which he spent in a British internment camp) Henze became one of the leading lights Germany’s avant-garde scene in the late 1940s. He was a key figure at the first Darmstadt summer courses, and a pioneer of the radical new serial techniques that were developing there.
But Henze soon moved away from this Modernist orthodoxy and began introducing other styles into his works. His early operas A Country Doctor and Boulevard Solitude brought him some popular success when they were premiered in Germany, but also brought to an end his friendship and collaboration with Modernists Boulez and Stockhausen.
In 1953, Henze left Germany, which he felt was becoming increasingly hostile to his developing left-wing political conscience and his homosexuality. He moved to Italy, which would be his main home for the rest of his life.
By the late 1950s, Henze was dividing opinion, with leading musicians such as Hermann Scherchen and Fischer-Dieskau championing his works, while the public opinion began to move against his radical political views. The political dimension of his work was most explicit and most extreme in the late 1960s, and in 1968, his oratorio, Das Floß der Medusa, dedicated to the memory of Che Guevara, led to protests and a rear riot, causing the planned Hamburg premiere to be cancelled, and the West German music establishment to decisively turn against the composer.
Later in life, Henze returned to favour in Germany. In 1988 he became artistic director of the Munich Biennial Festival, and in 1995 he was awarded the Westphalian Music Prize, which was renamed in his honour in 2001.
But in the last decades of his career, Henze enjoyed a global reputation as one of the senior figures of new music. He received many commissions from US orchestras, and continued to write operas from leading houses around the world.
Henze’s relationship with the United Kingdom was particularly close. Benjamin Britten championed and performed much of Henze’s music, also inviting him several times to the Aldeburgh Festival. Henze was one of the most important ballet composers of recent times. His passion for the medium began when he saw the Sadler’s Wells company perform on tour in Hamburg, and his most significant contribution to the genre was Undine, which was first performed at Covent Garden in 1958 with choreography by Frederick Ashton. Although resident in Italy, Henze also owned a flat in South Kensington, and was a regular visitor to London.