Hans Werner Henze

Hans Werner Henze

By Tim Reynish

Some time ago I wrote as follows to invite Hans Werner Henze to compose a work for the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Ensemble:

For nearly two decades I have tackled composers nationally and internationally about the possibility of writing a work specifically for wind. Many fail to answer, some unfortunately die, a few respond often with apologies, sometimes with other ideas. I still have hopes that you will write a work for the wind orchestra at the Royal Northern College of Music. Of all of the leading composers of the second half of the century, your musical instincts suit the wind ensemble; un-sullied by the grey wash of orchestral string background, the wind ensemble has a rich palette of primary colours allied to the virtuosic possibilities of the contemporary percussion section, which you as a percussionist fully understand. I feel sure that if you had time the stimulus of the medium would result in a masterpiece, because you, like Mozart, write with lyricism and with passion, both essentials for the wind ensemble medium.

He declined, but suggested various of his works which exist already for the medium and are neglected by most of us; I am still hopeful, because his political and social views, together with his incredible ear for orchestral sonorities would lead us to a major work, but why should he write another wind work when we ignore the ones in existence.


In the eighties researching at Northwestern University, I came across a tape of Muses of Sicily in Chicago, an extraordinary Concerto for choir, two pianos and wind instruments and timpani. In an interview of 1971 entitled The Task of Revolutionary Music, Henze said that this work is an attempt at "pop"; about unburdening, about beauty. And it is Gebrauchsmusik (utilitarian music): amateur choirs can learn it easily and have fun with it.

Shortly after that, the RNCM mounted a significant performance of Voices, simply staged and lit. Not strictly a wind band piece, it is scored for mezzo soprano and tenor, with an ensemble of solo wind, brass and percussion with string quintet who play a bewildering variety of instruments, both old and new - what a fantasy and what an ear for colour.


Henze himself writes about his music with a passion and expression worthy of Percy Grainger. Writing about Apollo Trionfante, the suite drawn from Orpheus, he described the sound world wonderfully in a letter to Josef Rufer, saying that he uses the wind, brass and percussion for thesound of authority, the magnificence and gloria of Olympus. Courtly elements, Baroque music which played on modern brass instruments, is here revealed as something murderously hostile, as a threat, as an expression of violence. This alternates with nimble little pastoral pieces, which are meant to recall the world of the ballet Russe.... These Apollo pieces are all written for wind instruments, which are joined by a sort of continuo of percussion, bells, crotales, metallophones, and also piano and celeste: this makes the atmosphere of the Apollonian harmony glitter, giving it the dangerous oriental and archaic qualities I had in mind.


I find the Concertino tough; dating from 1947, scored for classical wind with a pair of trombones, tuba, timpani and percussion, I admire its clarity, its energy, its classical conciseness, but at present, only hearing it in my mind and on my piano, it seems a trifle dry and academic - as always I am sure that a live performance will disabuse me of this impression.


Ragtimes and Habaneras is perhaps the most successful commission by Elgar Howarth for the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Premiered in 1975, a wind band transcription was later made by the Luxembourg composer and Henze student, Marcel Wengler, and on Henze's suggestion I have played Wengler's Versuche uber einem Marsche, a set of variations on a very funny version of a traditional German march, which I have now managed to get published by Maecenas, available in Spring 2005.


In his preface to Don Chisciotte, a work based on music by Paisiello, Henze writes: In the sound of the banda there lives a quixotic spirit, where impotence, suffering and dreaming are brewed together to form a spectacular pathos, a strange kind of theatrical thunder. In every production the banda should be made up of amateur wind players rather than well-schooled professionals, to prevent the intonation from becoming exact, and thereby softening the overwhelming impact of thirty to sixty out-of-tune wind instruments. Professionals would also bring into play their magisterial composure (or the illusion of it) and thereby rob the piece of its quixotic dignity.

The original scoring must have been wonderfully acerbic, with its two piccolos, 2 Eb clarinets and soprano saxophone, though the re-scoring by Studnitzky is more practical for the contemporary band....why do we not play it?


In the seventies, Henze established the Montepulciano Cantieri, using local performers. His description of the local banda strikes a familiar note ...it was instantly clear that they would never be able to learn such music in eight months, let alone play their wind and brass instruments (on which they never practice) throughout an entire opera. What could I do? I didn't want to lose the band, the most musically committed body we had in Montepulciano.

I wrote to Henze that it is this commitment by amateur bandsmen which I am trying to foster - the wind band has a great tradition going back to Mozart, a greater range of colour than the brass band and correspondingly more difficulties with tuning, voicing, balance. His own appreciation of the problems of writing for amateurs is clear from an article on the Cantieri where you describe music for Orfeo by Henning Brauel - everything was in slow tempi. He'd thought that would make it easier, but the speed showed up the faulty intonation of the amateur musicians in a most unfortunate fashion.

I hate contemporary music which uses instruments for effects which you cannot then hear. I suspect that it is Henze's love of the Mediterranean and his early dismissal of pseudo-modernism, which gives him a fastidious taste in employment of instrumental colour. Mozart had this same love of colour, sense of drama, passion and emotion which so much music of today lacks, and so his love of Mozart is no surprise....and what wind music he wrote! In my opinion, it is the emotional, lyrical and theatrical quality of his music is what many of contemporaries miss out on. Would any other great composer of our times write that his music strives to involve the listener, to make him imagine that he could do it too?


There are other "lost" works which may still see modern performance, early pieces from his experiences as a prisoner of war, written for Willy Meyer a whole series of pieces for oboe and wind ensembles (they still exist).... Would it be possible to re-create I Muti di Portici where he contrived to have four bands on the sides of the square at Montepulciano playing selections from their popular Italian opera repertoire. I wonder whether this was the basis for Berio's Accordo in which the same happens. There are other pieces which may be worth exploring. The Tedious Way to the Place of Natasha Ungeheuer, a great title, scored as far as I can see for brass quintet, jazz group, baritone and percussion, seems to have disappeared from the catalogues and listings. I found a listing for the Visconti ballet Maratona for jazz ensemble, but like the arrangement of Telemanniana which is quoted, it does not appear in the catalogue.

Hans Werner Henze pages at Schott