Hans Werner Henze

Memoirs of an Outsider: Hans Werner Henze at 75

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Happy is the composer who does not fit into any critically assigned pigeon holes. Defying categorization for more than half a century, the music of Hans Werner Henze simultaneously taps into so many realms that it's often necessary for the listener to surrender completely and think of nothing else but the music at hand. Memoirs of an Outsider, directed by Barrie Gavin, is the perfect companion to Henze's autobiography, Bohemian Fifths. The book, itself, was a turning point in the gradual understanding of this rather mysterious artist. But with the release of an entire DVD devoted to his life, real progress can now be made toward building an informed awareness of who he is and why he's created such an unusual catalogue of works. Beautifully scripted and edited with remarkable sensitivity, this documentary film was shot in the Italian countryside on the grounds of the elegant estate where Henze, born in Westphalia, chose to live in mid-'50s. Certain visual tropes occur periodically throughout: ancient ruins, beautiful trees, and flowers from the Mediterranean landscape, sun-drenched gardens, and the interior of his lovely, elegant old house. These are perpetually interrupted by historical footage of the most sobering variety: Nazi rallies, stark crucifixes in a snow-covered cemetery, and a youth in fascist uniform blowing a trumpet. This last image recurs periodically in slow motion. As he pushes air through the horn, the Nazi boy gradually moves his eyes to stare directly into the camera. It is most disturbing.

As a boy, Henze was forced to join the Hitlerjugend. "Those who are in the minority," he says, "must always be on their guard." Sir Simon Rattle explains that Henze always was and will forever be an outsider: "...as a gay man, as a liberal growing up in the Third Reich, as a person who seems to be somehow...not a refugee, but always somewhere else." Henze slowly walks out onto the veranda. Seated comfortably, sipping wine, he softly articulates. "All the spirits you invoke in the course of a lifetime, they're all still here! Clearly visible, distant or close up. And it would be terrible if it were any different." The composer smiles and purses his lips. "I have evolved a concept of beauty nurtured by experiences both terrible and wonderful." Henze explains his music: "In the course of my development, my works have become more and more multi-layered. There are almost always several things going on at once. A kind of anti-doctrinal democracy." The camera has found its way into the house, which is beautifully decorated with paintings and sculpture. Here is the actual room where he composes his music. Henze is seated at a large drafting table, carefully examining a score. "I spend most of my life in [my] upstairs studio, armed with the electric pencil sharpeners, metronomes, stopwatches, suffering agonies of uncertainty, and prey to the monsters that lie in wait for the moment of greatest weakness or inattentiveness to attack me and tear me apart." Given the charged and busy nature of certain passages, this does not seem like an exaggeration.

More footage from World War II: a wounded soldier being walked by two others, his arms over their shoulders, his head hanging. In the background, prisoners behind barbed wire. A child walks wearing an adult-sized overcoat. The arms of the coat are much too long and drag on the ground. The image is oddly unsettling. Photographs: Henze and his brother as little boys, wearing flower wreaths on their heads. Henze in uniform, looking nervous. Henze as a young man, grinning slightly in a gentle and wistful manner. The music is turbulent. In order to attain exactly the right level of turbulence, the players are fortunate to receive coaching directly from the composer. Visiting a rehearsal, Henze speaks to the orchestra, providing context for the movement they're trying to perfect: "During a bombing raid, the zoo was hit. And while Berlin was burning, tigers and elephants were in the streets!"

It is interesting to note that this composer regards all of his instrumental (non-theatrical) works as "preludes, studies for the next theatrical work." Henze says he's come to enjoy the theater "as a place where it's okay to go crazy." One exciting aspect of this documentary is the constant use of original performance film footage, including a segment of El Cimarrón, composed during Henze's visit to Cuba in 1969 and 1970. This piece is unusual enough when heard as a sound recording, but to be able to see the vocalist grinning and pacing about while two percussionists dash around the room striking every instrument within reach -- this is a gift. The only thing missing is the suite for chamber orchestra, brass ensemble, and vocal contortionist entitled Versuch über Schweine (Essay on Pigs). But you can't have everything, and what is included here is precious, indeed. Historical film clips are powerfully employed, including European anti-war demonstrations from the '60s, complete with police riots. In Henze's long life, one suspects, all struggle appears to be relative.

Henze carefully explains a movement from his Requiem: "The Tuba Mirum is intended as a concentrate of vulgar music in which the sounds of childhood terrors are juxtaposed and superimposed on memories of marching songs and hymns, together with popular hits and moments of meanness and drunkenness." This is anti-Fascist music without the usual trimmings. All that it needs to express is clearly detectable in its persona and the currents of its temperament, lest we fail to remember that he writes from personal memory and reflection, drawing upon all that has happened to him on this earth.

Henze has long been operating in ways that cause his music to be scorned. Its links with earlier traditions caused established figures in the so-called European avant garde to turn up their noses, while his profound willingness to experiment alienated those unwilling to accept freedom made tangible in this way. The greatest irony lies in the behavior of members of the Darmstadt School; Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez (both brilliant artists of enormous merit) ostentatiously objected to Henze's non-adherence to the strictures of post-Webern serialism. But it is Henze who probably comes closest to creating a genuine continuum of Anton Webern's entire artistic development -- not only serialism, but everything that preceded it. There is certainly something of Webern in most of his music, sort of Webern without the restraints and attendant dogma of post-Webernity. Conductor Markus Stenz observes, "If [Henze] has to decide between dogma and creativity, he always chooses creativity." Henze has explained how, having survived living in a police state, he wasn't at all interested in adopting a lot of rules and regulations. "What I was trying to escape was not so much postwar Germany as the musical avant garde in Germany -- or avant garde music, in general. I needed to be on my own in order to live like a hermit, and discover what music meant to me as an individual, how it is bound up with our lives, what it must mean to us. What is the cultural role that the composer fills within human society?"

Later, Henze seems to answer his own question: "I've realized that we artists must act as teachers. We have to pass on our skills, our goals, and achievements...and create creativity. That's a very important responsibility for a composer." His philosophy and its axioms are refreshingly sensible: "Art is concerned first and foremost with truth. Truth, which is even more important and beautiful than beauty. Truth is beauty." He has long since reconciled being an artistic recluse with his political beliefs. "When word got out that I stand on the left, people held it against me, a lot of people took great offense. Some even broke off contact with me...which is not always a bad thing." Henze pointedly admires young people who rebel against and struggle to change ossified social systems, and some of his music ruthlessly addresses these issues. One's own private truth, he believes, might need to include civil disobedience. His ethics are always cogently stated: "If existence, work, and our efforts, in general, are to have any meaning today, we have to go a stage further and not forget, or feel, despair. We must share our gifts with everyone."

A complete concert performance of Henze's Requiem is wonderfully documented on this DVD. The cameras seem to move meticulously through the ensemble, anticipating which instruments will be played at what moment. It is almost as if the person cuing the cameras has a copy of the score and is following it closely. In some ways, the piece resembles a piano concerto, or a concerto for piano and orchestra, or a tone poem for human beings confronted with their own collective memory, searching for a collective conscience.