Spring Symphonies: 56/60 - Henze: Symphony No 6

Hans Werner Henze’s Sixth symphony dates from 1969 and takes as you might expect from such an alert and sensitive mind, much of the musical scene of that time - a time of change, challenge to established norms and revolution.  It is written for two chamber orchestras - but is on a big scale.

Henze’s output was prodigious. He was born in 1926 and saw at first hand some of the best and worst of the 20th century and wrote in numerous genres to express many of his political and social concerns.  When he died in 2012 I expected a resurgence of interest in his music but that hasn’t yet come.  It may need a little while for a full appreciation of his talent.  His politics and his political stands can’t really be separated from his music.  And reading about his life it seems to have been full of rather grand gestures. 

This symphony departs from his early symphonic works in a departure from lyricism.  It was written when the composer was living and working Cuba and is suffused with songs that political activists of the time would have recognised.  Those politics (and his Politics) were the result of exposure in his family during the War to Nazi indoctrination and it’s consequences in a way we can scarcely believe possible then.  After the war Henze reacted against German art music: he didn’t stop there.  His music was frequently performed at the influential Darmstadt summer schools concerts of avant grade music, nonetheless Henze railed against the way young composers were forced to conform by the likes of Pierre Boulez. Later he rejected the way Germany was heading and found a home and musical favour in Italy.  Later he travelled extensively 

The first movement starts with a conglomeration of sounds which sounds typical of so called art music of it’s day.  Random on first hearing, tuneless, a mixture of music and sound - extravagant percussion and yet it has a feeling of forward movement. Rather like Varese;s Tuning Up without the humour.  What’s perhaps more significant is the arresting sense of exoticism and vehemence.  Perhaps this is because this is music is closely associated with protest - which in 1969 was happening across the world for a variety of causes.  Comparison with Shostakovich’s work by that time had collapsed into introspection and morbidity. Boulez’s was concerned with the senses and Cage with notions of sound itself.  Henze worked in these spheres more so than he had ever done, but also in a context of political expression which slipped out in literal form in quotations of songs of revolution.  The music moves in a great agitated arch to a loud and visceral climax and then a more vigorous and animated coda.

The Lento slow movement is more ethereal - punctuated by what sound like the noises of guerrilla warfare.  This is a troubled Nocturne in my book.  Wracked at times with tension - flitting between the descriptive and the war of ideas.  It breathes heavily and without much release or rest or sleep.  It could easily be Shakespearean in it’s grasp of the fraught power struggle.  It has many episodes and the sounds Henze draws from the two chamber orchestras (assisted by electronics I suspect) are in themselves dizzying but fascinating.  When two thirds of the way through a bassoon solo leads off a passage for winds, I’m reminded of Beethoven and quickly drawn back into Henze as the one carrying that mantle forward - albeit reluctantly and sub-consciously at best.  But that boldness is there.  The material to carry it through into something accessible is not.

The last four minutes or so of this movement are faster and remind me of a scherzo, though I’m not sure on which side of the Atlantic it might be from.  The music scampers around - doing little except occupying the page and the ear.  When it does break out if is terse.  An section of pointillist writing draws proceeding to a close.

All these movements run together and only the CD tracks and the score separate them - though the score has the movement’s split into sections.  The fast movement picks up the pointed expression at the end of the middle movement and adds a piquancy of impatient scoring across the orchestra. It’s as though no one settled means of expression will do for the demands of change herein.  Traditional side drum figures mix with Caribbean percussion and brass, it does give the impression of the spirit of a place ripe for revolutionary transformation not the evolutionary form of sonata structure music.

As this symphony draws to a conclusion one gets the feeling of a dramatic gesture, if not a sense of showboating, by a composer very keen to get over his fury.  Much can be made of his body of ten symphonies all of which - to my ear - require some work to resolve in our heads.  This is not a warm work of revolutionary zeal comforting freedom fires around a camp fire.  This is tough, hard borne conflicted ideals where every interaction with the status quo requires a battle (probably from first principles).  It is by no means an easy work or a rewarding one in the sense of the intellectual resolution of a serial composers music or something from the Second Viennese School.  But it is highly coloured and kaleidoscopic.  There is I think only one recording - by the composer himself conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (not a band one associates with revolution), but they acquit themselves very well.

I think it’s worth noting that the revolutionary ardour of the composer did not last forever and indeed in 1994 he rewrote the symphony’s improvised passages in full: in one step crushing the liberation of the instrumentalist’s ability to escape the tyranny of the composer and his scored.  Ironic isn’t it?

There’s no full version of the symphony on YouTube either so you’ll have to make do with this from the final movement which is not untypical.



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