Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012)

Composing great dies at the age of 86

Hans Werner Henze

Hans Werner Henze, one of the outstanding composers of the late-20th and early-21st centuries, has died.


The composer of ten symphonies and a large amount of vocal and chamber music, Henze will, however, probably be best remembered for operas such as Boulevard Solitude (1951), The Raft of the Medusa (1968) and We Come To The River (1976) and the 1958 ballet Undine. His style, meanwhile, defied categorisation – ‘As much a French or Italian composer as German, he can adopt at will Schoenbergian, Starvinskyan or aleatory styles’ is the description given in The Oxford Dictionary of Music.

Henze himself saw music in general as a force for good in an otherwise fairly dismal world. ‘If music were a part of man’s everyday life, as it should be, there would certainly be less aggression and much more equality and love on Earth,’ he wrote; ‘for music is a means of communication and understanding, a means of reconciliation.’

Born in Germany, and brought up in a family that was firmly supportive of the Nazi regime, Henze found his early musical studies interrupted by the Second World War, where he served at the front before being taken prisoner of war. Although he pursued his career in Germany immediately after the War, completing his First Symphony and Violin Concerto while working at the Bielefeld Stadttheater, he moved to Italy in 1953, pointedly turning his back on both his homeland and its contemporary music scene.

Over the course of his 60 year career, Henze rarely strayed far from controversy. For instance, the planned premiere of Raft of the Medusa, which was intended as a requiem of Che Guevara, caused a riot in Hamburg and further alienated him from German society. In musical circles, meanwhile, he was the recipient of acidic comments from Stockhausen and Boulez, who compared his operas unfavourably with songs by the Rolling Stones.

However, he also enjoyed significant successes and won himself a legion of devoted fans. Undine, which was first performed at Covent Garden with Margot Fonteyn in the title role, has become established in the repertoire; and Sir Simon Rattle, who says he was bowled over by the beauty of Henze’s music as a 19 year old, has continued to champion his work.


Henze continued to compose right until the end of his life. In 2010, his short opera Immolazione received its world premiere from the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, the first commission he’d ever received from an Italian institution. Conducting the work, Antonio Pappano described the commission as ‘the rectification of a scandalous injustice’.