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8.557738 - HENZE: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 / 5 Night-Pieces
English  German 

Hans Werner Henze (b. 1926)
Violin Concerto No. 1
Violin Concerto No. 3 Fünf Nachtstücke

 

Hans Werner Henze's music occupies a provocative place in the music of the twentieth century. He has said of his life as a composer: "Each new piece is the first you have ever written," and, writing in 1963, "What I compose is basically one single work, which was begun fifteen years ago and which will end sometime. The beginnings and the endings of individual works are only illusion. Perhaps, more modestly, one might also say that the beginning lies five or six hundred years back… The self-confrontation that is composition — meaning something that could be glossed as communication, message and expression — in its strongest impulses also achieves the highest degree of self-revelation and surrender. (What should be kept secret can no longer remain silent)."

Henze's personal story of the closing years of the war and their immediate aftermath is well known: dragged out of music studies at the Brunswick State School of Music and drafted into the German army aged barely seventeen in 1944; mercifully captured and held as a British prisoner-of-war at a camp near the North Sea; resumption of composition studies with Wolfgang Fortner in Heidelberg, and later with René Leibowitz when the Darmstadt Summer Courses began. Then, following seven or eight years of solid career building and notable successes in post-war Germany — Musical Advisor to the German Theatre at Constance at 22, and Artistic Director and Conductor of the Hessische Ballet at Wiesbaden two years later in 1950 — the composer's flight to Italy, whence he would never return except for brief visits connected with performances of his music. In summer 1953 he loaded his little car with the few scores and books he had not been forced to sell to finance his venture, and crossed the Alps.

Why? Henze is disarmingly open about the fact that, in part it was because of a climate inimical to homosexuals in post-war Germany, replete with informer landladies and heavy-handed police and magistrates. But, the banning of the German Communist party; the seeming presence everywhere of apologists for the War; head-in-the-sand attitudes in place of contrition and reconstruction — a culture of denial often characterized as "inner migration" ; proponents of a new German militarism, even; memories of his father and his cronies drunkenly singing songs such as "When Jewish blood splashes off your knife"; all these things and more led Henze to feel he could no longer live in the country of his birth. Moreover, it led him to a politicised existence almost unique among composers.

A generation before Henze, Hanns Eisler had taken upon himself the task of musico-political propaganda; Paul Hindemith (a non-Jew) left Germany in 1934 having delivered in his opera about the mediaeval peasant revolt, Mathis der Maler, a protest message intolerable to Goebbels (though Richard Strauss was tolerated despite his own no less inflammatory Friedenstag). Dmitry Shostakovich left secret anti-Stalinist messages in his scores; Dallapiccola condemned capital punishment and tyranny generally; and — contemporary with Henze — Luigi Nono and Krzysztof Penderecki commemorated universal human suffering and abuses of power in numerous of their works. But Henze's condemnation (aided by Auden) of his country's Nazi past in The Bassarids; his communist stance that found such full expression in the "Cuban" works written after he encountered the great Cuban guitarist, composer and conductor Leo Brouwer — most rivetting among these El Cimarrón (The Runaway Slave) and La Cubana; works like Aufstand - a Jewish Chronicle, Der junge Törless and Novae de Infinito Laudes on texts of the Giordano Bruno burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600; and perhaps most of all, the opera We come to the River — all these works embody his fervent belief in "Music as a Form of Resistance", to cite the title of one of his best-known articles. Yet, these two violin concertos lie at the extreme of "absolute" or "pure" music on his aesthetic pendulum.

Astonishingly early in his output, the Violin Concerto No. 1 seems to spring fully-formed from the pen of a composer barely twenty-one years old. It is among the first fruits of a remarkable youthful mastery of a new-found practice, not quite systematically twelve-tone, but determinedly seeking out his own "path to the new music". It is disarming to read Henze's account of the difficult birth of this, his first large-scale piece ("a feverish struggle against my own inadequacies"); for his diffidence leads one to imagine a "student" work of uncertain aesthetic trajectory, testing the waters of a still immature technique.

Nothing could be further from the truth, for this is a beautifully conceived and executed work, whose music stays powerfully and long in the ear. The youthful composer shows an innate sense of the capacities of the orchestra, with a sure touch and fecundity of new colour-ideas (solo violin accompanied by snare drum, for instance, in the essentially monothematic first movement). The lilting, Brittenesque 9/8 of the third movement shows how a cultivation of beauty is compatible with the twelve-note row (and at this date, Henze surely did not yet know of Britten, much less had met him, nor heard the Four Sea Interludes, which were simultaneously being composed); while the shatteringly brief second movement, and parts of the fourth are testament to the so-recent terror of wartime. It is the rôle of the solo violin to contest this ugliness, to reign in the orchestra, to insist on the voice of beauty and peace. The "crisis point" of frequent cadenzas (even more in the Third Concerto) becomes almost the formal backbone of the work, making the orchestral passages sound like the interruptions, not the solo violin's musings and attempts at resolution. Peter Sheppard Skaerved has remarked, "Even the First Concerto seems to comment on the impossibility or pointlessness of the virtuoso concerto, by locking the soloist into a nightmarish Catherine wheel of self-immolatory figuration, which seems to sum up much of the personal tragedy of the work."

An uncanny continuity links the Violin Concerto No. 3, written fully fifty years later; a later instalment, indeed, of the "single work" emerging, over time, from the same pen. No less "beautiful" than the first, it is more dissonant, and more concentrated, distilled. Allusions to predecessors in musical history (Berg, Beethoven, Wagner, Corelli, Bach) may last only half-a-bar, but are unmistakable, eloquent, and point to the purpose of the work as an instalment in the single great violin concerto to which all composers are contributing.

The key to Violin Concerto No. 3 lies in Thomas Mann's great novel, Dr Faustus, from which are drawn the movement titles: Esmeralda, Das Kind Echo, Rudi S.. Mann's Chapter XXXVIII opens with the words: "My readers are aware that Adrian [Leverkühn, the composer-"hero" of the book] in the end complied with Rudi Schwerdtfeger [sword-sweeper]'s long-cherished and expressed desire, and wrote him a violin concerto of his own. He dedicated to Rudi personally the brilliant composition, so extraordinarily suited to a violin technique, and even accompanied him to Vienna for the first performance." Later, Mann — no composer! — goes into the fine detail of this imaginary piece: "There is one strange thing about the piece: cast in three movements, it has no key signature, but, if I may so express myself, three tonalities are built into it: B flat major, C major, and D major. … Now between these keys the work plays most ingeniously, so that for most of the time none of them clearly comes into force but is only indicated by its proportional share in the general sound complex. … [The concerto] falls somewhat out of the frame of Leverkühn's ruthlessly radical and uncompromising work as a whole. And I suggested that this was due to a kind of concession to concert virtuosity as shown in the musical attitude of the piece."

Henze chooses only to follow the three-movement form alluded to by Mann, ignoring the novelist's too-precise (and impractical) attempts at analysis a priori of composition. But, if these three titled movements are "portraits" at all, they are merely stylized starting points, distillations of essences, not studies from life. Esmeralda, in Mann's novel, is not an individual, but a type; the whore once-encountered in the composer's youth, a nightmarish experience that decides him once and for all upon an ascetic existence dedicated solely to his work: "…in the hall is a dressed-up Madame coming towards me, with carmine cheeks, a string of wax coloured beads on her blubber, and greets me with most seemly gest, fluting and flirting, ecstatic as though she had been longing for me to come. … A brown wench puts herself nigh me, in a little Spanish jacket, with a big gam, snub nose, almond eyes, an Esmeralda, she brushed my cheek with her arm. I turn round, push the bench away with my knee, and fling myself back through the lust hell, across the carpets, past the mincing Madame, through the entry and down the steps without touching the brass railing." And the music of this first movement embodies a kind of alternation between two contrasting characters: eruptions of anger overwhelm the Wiener Lied at the movement's heart. Esmeralda, with her Spanish jacket and Spanish castanets, recedes into the distance at the close of the movement; not destroyed, just dismissed.

Das Kind Echo portrays the five-year-old nephew of Thomas Mann's composer-Faust-figure, Adrian; the tiny creature Nepomuk Schneidewein, called Nepo by his parents, who could not manage the first consonant of his name, so became known as "Epo", and in consequence "Echo". "Maidservants and menservants, in sheer delight, laughing for pure pleasure, stood about the little man and could not gaze enough at so much loveliness." The perfect and perfectly entrancing child was destined to be not long of this world, for Mann has him succumb, probably to measles, in that same fifth year: "…that strangely seraphic being was taken from this earth… "Thus, at the heart of this second movement, a Kinderlied almost Brahmsian in its affecting simplicity, followed by not one but two Große Klagen (Great Lamentations).

Finally, Rudi S., violinist, sometimes confidant, sometimes bane of the composer Adrian Leverkühn: "… Rudi came to speak of the violin concerto which he so greatly wished to have Adrian write for him, if possible with all rights of performance reserved … '… it would be between us like a child, a platonic child - yes, our concerto, that would be so exactly the fulfilment of everything that I understand by platonic.' " A finale that is not so much virtuosic, as ruminant; in which we think we hear, several times, Bach's (or is it Berg's?) chorale melody 'Es ist genug' ("It is enough"), and certainly the latter's open fifths that cast the mind back to the very opening of his Concerto written in 1925 "To the Memory of an Angel".

Thus does Henze, not for the first time nor the last, engage with one of the great monuments, and a multiplicity of the enduring great themes of German literature. Faust (Goethe, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler); sex and sexual guilt; the deaths of children; the "empty" virtuoso versus the tortured philosopher-composer. From his vantage-point in Italy, Henze sees more clearly, is perhaps more quintessentially "German" in his manner of musical speech than anyone who stayed, and got swept along with the inanities of the cultural moment.

Christopher Lyndon-Gee

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The Fünf Nachtstücke (Five Night-Pieces) were written over the winter of 1989-90, and were composed expressly for Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Aaron Shorr, who gave the work's première on 16th May, 1990, at London's Purcell Room. The composer had taken a holiday on what he had been promised was a deserted, quiet Caribbean island, and was looking forward to a peaceful break after the rigours of a busy year before. The hotel, however, turned out to be anything but peaceful, and the nights were riven with the sounds of motorcycles being revved up in the streets, and with loud blasts of disco music. In order to while away the consequently sleepless hours, Henze composed these five "Notturni", dedicating them to Peter Sheppard Skaerved. In many ways, the five pieces could be said to serve as an 'arcadian' pendant to the mammoth Viola Sonata, composed ten years earlier; their extraordinary concision and colour can be said to be a distant echo, or after-shock, of that work's epic drama. The present work also makes a sly allusion to the collaboration with this violinist, through the insertion of two Hirtenlieder, or Shepherd's Songs, at their heart.

Peter Sheppard Skaerved


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