Hans Werner Henze has described his Symphony No. 2 (1949) as "music for a winter's day, utterly grey and gloomy," and his description is strikingly accurate. The Symphony was composed in the bleak early years of the Cold War, when Germany was in ruins and dependent on other countries to keep its citizens alive, and Henze was struggling to establish himself as a composer. Perhaps because of such circumstances, the music seems to depict a certain pessimism.
It is interesting to note that, while the Symphony is strongly tonal, Henze had already experimented with twelve-tone techniques. Further, in the summer of 1948, he was strongly influenced by French serial composer Rene Leibowitz at the summer Darmstadt School. Henze's own turn to serialism came with his Piano Variations (1949), composed shortly after the Symphony No. 2.
Though listeners may form the impression that Henze structured the Symphony after a program, there is no such indication in the score. This impression, however, is created by a number of passages in the work: the concluding Andante of the second movement, with its brief outburst by the brass and strings; the massive side-slipping structure that connects the two parts of the third movement; and the contrast between the final string passage and the unexpected outburst by the entire orchestra in the last four measures, as though crying out in pain. Still, Henze has often used programs, both private or published, in his purely instrumental works, so the presence of one here is entirely possible.
Henze hints at his future mastery of orchestral color in this early work. The Symphony is scored for a standard orchestra, though Henze augments the percussion section with piano, vibraphone, and xylophone. Henze uses the full orchestra only sparingly; such instrumental economy adds to the "winter's day" grayness of the last two movements. Particularly striking are the dialogue between the winds and strings that opens the first movement, with its discreet use of brass and percussion, and the divided strings with solo viola at the beginning of the third movement.
The first movement, marked Lento, alternates between large blocks of material in triple and 4/4 meter. The spirit of Sibelius seems to hover over this movement, especially in the desolate woodwinds at the beginning and in their lockstep, parallel triads that appear throughout the movement. The second movement, marked Allegro molto vivace, could be called "jaunty," but one senses a certain darkness beneath the surface. Throughout, Henze uses a repeated pattern of changing meters, one per measure: 5/4, 4/4, 3/4, 2/4, 3/8, 3/4. A central slower section, in a steady 3/4, is followed by a return to the opening material and metrical patterns. The movement builds to a climax with a triple-meter Andante in the spirit of the first movement. A massive Adagio dominates the first two-thirds of the third movement, with a striking six-measure transition of shifting triads reminiscent of the neoclassical Stravinsky or Hindemith leading into the concluding Allegro. Here, Henze builds up to the quotation of a chorale snippet in the trumpets. The Symphony ends with a slightly slower passage for the strings alone, which builds up to the anguished final chords scored for the entire orchestra.