Hans Werner Henze, Symphony No. 3 (1949–50)

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert Apollo and Dionysus, performed on May 9, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

An Apollonian concept of “beauty” has always been an essential part of Han Werner Henze’s aesthetics. Henze’s espousal of the beautiful in music is far from simplistic, however no composer has returned more often to the dichotomy between Apollo and Dionysus. As if compelled to rehearse obsessively Nietzsche’s observations in Die Geburt der Tragödie (“The Birth of Tragedy,” 1872) about the interaction between the Dionysian and Apollonian kunsttrieben (“artistic compulsions”), Henze has repeatedly found inspiration in the landscape and myths of ancient Greece, most famously in his stunning opera, The Bassarids (1965), a modern reinterpretation by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman of Euripides’ terrifying play.

By the time that he composed The Bassarids, Henze had followed in Goethe’s footsteps and sought the blazing sunlight of antiquity in Italy, living on the island of Ischia; his neighbors there included both Auden and William Walton. Even in his turbulent Dionysian opera there are moments of extraordinary beauty. As Henze has written, “The sight of . . . beauty moves us, we feel a sacred awe, it plucks a string within us which vibrates and reverberates. It causes something to happen inside us, perhaps it’s a kind of conversion.” But, as Henze observed, the contemplation of beauty cannot be divorced from darker, chthonic powers: “We cannot prevent our thoughts from turning from the sight of a handsome human face to pictures of its destruction. And we cannot prevent mourning and regret sounding like an incessant dissonance, distracting us from the contemplation of beauty, a steadily dripping poison which clouds our sight and makes our eyes smart.”

Henze’s keen apprehension of the adulteration of Apollonian beauty by Dionysian chaos may have had a partial origin in his own turbulent youth. The teenaged Henze witnessed to the full the degradation of Germany during the Second World War. His father, serving willingly in the German army, disappeared forever at the Eastern Front; at 17, Henze himself was an unwilling conscript in the final days of the war. Both his love of music and his homosexuality provided a blessed sense of “otherness” that saved Henze from being seduced by the blandishments of fascist ideology, just as he would later reject the totalitarian aesthetics of post-Webernian serialism preached by the ideologues of Darmstadt. Despite an early flirtation with the twelve-tone technique, Henze was unable to eschew the sensuously beautiful, for, as he remembered, “the discovery of melody brought about an enrichment of my expressive means. . . in place of serial melody which outwardly guaranteed a certain ‘contemporaneity,’ came the most simple sequence of notes—the basic intervals that were naturally related to song.”

But Henze did not cross over the Italian border and transform his style change overnight, for several of his earlier works anticipate his Italianate allegiance to melody. One of his first characteristic works, Apollo et Hyazinthus (1949), a concerto for harpsichord and eight solo instruments, anticipates his later refulgent style. Completed in 1950, just after Apollo et Hyazinthus, Henze’s Third Symphony opens with a glistening Anrufung Apolls (“Invocation to Apollo”), music that evokes an uncanny sensation of sun-dappled voluptuousness. This opening invocation, which is cast as a prologue, passacaglia, and epilogue, is succeeded by a multi-layered hymn to Dionysus, “Dithyrambe.” The finale, entitled Beschwörungstanz (“Incantation Dance”), is a tour de force of brilliant orchestration influenced by early Stravinsky and American jazz. One of the most alluring features of the Third Symphony, which is surely the finest of Henze’s first five works in this genre, is a prominent part for saxophone; in this final bacchanal, the saxophone and trumpet play wild, jazzy riffs that conjure up a vision of a sweaty, sexy Dionysus improvising bebop in a smoky basement club in New York, circa 1950.