The composer Elliott Carter died Monday afternoon, a month before his 104th birthday, peacefully, of natural causes, at home, after winning increasing recognition, approval and love in the last decades of his life. His death is poignant, but his life was long and full. I wrote his Washington Post obituary, which appears in Tuesday’s paper, and which gives most of my thoughts on an important career; so that I have nothing left to add to it here, beyond suggesting you read it.
I didn’t, however, yet have my say about the composer Hans Werner Henze, who died last weekend, elderly and frail at 86, after a considerably more fraught life. When I heard he had died; oe of my first reactions was, ”He was only 86?” — in part because he had been in fragile health for some time. Certainly both he and Carter were voices of the 20th century, more than the 21st, although both did complete some large-scale works in the last years of their lives (Carter celebrated his 100th birthday with a Boston Symphony commission; Henze’s last opera, “Gisela,” had its premiere in 2010).
But where Carter exuded a kind of serenity — if not optimism, then at least fatalism — there has long been a sense of the elegiac about Henze’s work. Indeed, his whole life was permeated with a kind of bittersweet wistfulness (captured in his compelling memoir, “Bohemian Fifths”). He was a German composer who tried to reject Germany, leaving the country in 1953 as a gesture against its politics during the war years and afterwards, its attitudes toward homosexuality, and its musical climate at a time when a composer was either with the Darmstadt school or persona non grata. Henze was at Darmstadt early on, and embraced 12-tone techniques, but he was also a fundamentally lyrical composer and gradually distanced himself from the orthodoxy of Serialism. His music was contemporary, yet never avant-garde: it was sometimes tonal, sometimes lush, often direct, and embraced all of the traditional musical genres -- more than 20 operas, 10 symphonies, a dozen ballets, and a raft of oratorios, choral and vocal works, and instrumental music. This alone was reason enough for a lot of Europe’s musical lions -- like Boulez and Stockhausen -- to look askance at him.
Yet Henze could never quite leave Germany, or it him. Germany continued to commission and perform his operas and other works, even after the long period of estrangement following his embrace of the left-wing youth movement of the late 1960s, when the premiere of his “Raft of the Medusa” in Hamburg, conceived as a requiem for Che Guevara, was disrupted by student protests and prevented from actually taking place. Henze pulled away still farther from Germany in the wake of this. But Germany kept bringing him back: for new commissions, prizes, festivals, premieres. He died in Dresden, where he had gone to see a performance of his 1976 opera “We Come to the River.”
Henze’s brand of idealism was evident in the founding of the Münchner Biennale, a festival of contemporary opera, in 1988 — something that rated no more than a sentence in most of the Henze obits, but represented a more ambitious vision for the genre than has been seen before or since. The Biennale was conceived as a hothouse for new music theater — not workshops, but complete productions of world premieres. Indeed, the challenges of rehearsing multiple world premieres at the same time meant the festival had to be reconceived somewhat as time went on, but a lot of interesting new work was created by composers from a wide range of backgrounds and ages — Mark-Anthony Turnage, Adriana Holsky, Joerg Widmann, and literally dozens more who have gone on to more or less notable careers. Henze was free of dogmas or schools, open to lots of different new work, and convinced that contemporary opera was an area rich with potential, and worth exploring. The Biennale, for all its flaws, was conceived by a generous if slightly impractical mentor, who actually believed in contemporary opera’s ability to interest the public. I lived in Germany at the time, and somewhat took the Biennale for granted; it was only over time that I came to appreciate that it was an unusual manifestation, created by an unusual artist who could have spent the time and energy he invested in it on composing himself.