One of Germany’s most celebrated avent-garde composers, Hans Werner Henze, passed away this past Saturday at the age of 86. To most Americans, Henze did not have the same name recognition of past German composers such as Beethoven, Bach, or Wagner, but his contributions to music could be considered to be just as great as that from those former composers.
Hans Werner Henze was seen as one of the 20th and 21st centuries most prolific and versatile composers, with his name attached to roughly 40 operas and stage performances, along with a vast amount of symphonies, ballets, chamber music and more. He got his start at an early age, and by the time he had turned 25, he had already written several ballets, three symphonies, and his first opera.
What made Henze’s music special was his mixed, yet passionate feelings towards his German heritage. Not only did he grow up under a Nazi ruled Germany with a father committed to following the policies of Hitler, he also struggled with the acceptance of his homosexuality at a young age. In his autobiography, written at age 70, Hans Werner Henze described the day he left Germany for Italy as being the happiest day of his life. He made frequent returns to his homeland, but called Italy home for many years.
Later in his life, Henze became an avid supporter of the student and socialist movement where he later described the experience as giving him a sense of belonging. However, those feeling quickly faded and he moved on to focus on bringing together art and music by launching festivals and working with a new generation of young and talented children.
His newfound passion came with a drawback though. Hans Werner Henze found little time to compose new pieces of music, and as the years went on, he found the temptation to create new works of art harder to resist. With every bit of energy he had left, he continued to work into his final years and released his last opera, Gisela! in 2010. In fact, on the eve of his death, Henze was set to make an appearance at a ballet set to one of his scores in Dresden, Germany.