Drawing on his experiences in Nazi Germany, Henze became one of the most influential composers of the 20th century.

“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; for music is a means of communication and understanding, a means of reconciliation.”

(Hans Werner Henze, 1 July 1926, Gütersloh, – 27 October 2012, Dresden)

Hans Werner Herze was born in Güetersloh, Germany, the eldest of six children. His love of music and poetry developed early on, even as the great works of his time were being proscribed under the Nazi regime. He was forcibly enrolled in the Hitler Youth at the age of 12. His father, a teacher by trade, was killed on the Eastern Front. In 1944, the teenage Henze was conscripted and, not long after, sent to a British prisoner-of-war camp. 

It was only after the war that Henze first encountered the music of Berg, Bartók and Stravinsky and began to attend the Darmstadt summer school for new music. The radio version of his early opera Ein Landarzt, based on Franz Kafka’s story of the same name, garnered the Prix Italia in 1953. The award enabled him to move to Naples, where he found attitudes to his homosexuality less conservative. There, in 1956, he composed Fünf neapolitanische Lieder for baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. 

Theatre and orchestral compositions became an important part of Henze’s oeuvre: he composed a dozen ballets, including Ondine for choreographer Frederick Ashton and Covent Garden. In 1961 he collaborated with W H Auden and Chester Kallmann on Elegy for Young Lovers. Three years later, his first five symphonies (of ten) were played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, alongside the premiere of the opera Being Beauteous. He was appointed composer-in-residence at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood/USA in 1983 and 1988-1996, and resident with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1991. 

Henze’s experiences of wartime and fascism never left him. A committed Communist, his political convictions coloured most of his works. His oratorio Judische Chronik, was followed by a fugue, In memoriam: Die Weisse Rose (the White Rose), dedicated to the young anti-Nazi activists Hans and Sophie Scholl. He was controversially against performing Wagner in Israel, and premiered his Sixth Symphony in Havana, Cuba. His musical politics were at their most potent in Voices (1973), a collection of 22 German, English, Italian and Spanish songs of protest, Socialism and Communism for mezzo-soprano and tenor. 

Henze’s distinctive voice combined neoclassical themes with a modern, expressionistic aesthetic, all with a mastery of orchestral and vocal textures. Blending German fastidiousness with Italian lyricism, the prolific composer penned 40 stage works, 10 symphonies, concertos, chamber works, oratorios, song cycles, and a Requiem created out of nine Sacred Concertos. He continued working on ambitious, large-scale projects until the last, including the operas Phaedra (2007) and Gisela! (2010).