Hans Werner Henze –Sonata for Viola and Piano 1979 A personal view

Posted on May 28th, 2018 by

Hans Werner Henze –Sonata for Viola and Piano 1979

A personal view – Peter Sheppard Skærved 

Peter Sheppard Skaerved, aged 22, with Henze in Germany

I have been playing Hans Werner Henze’s Sonata (1979) for viola and piano for eighteen years. My exploration of this extraordinary piece began with a performance in Hanover in 2000, as part of a concert where I played all Henze’s works for solo violin, violin and piano, and viola in one day, at the composer’s invitation. This summer, I released my first recording of the sonata, with the violin sonatas, on Naxos (Naxos: 8573886). This follows two previous discs of the violin concerti, the first of which was nominated for a Grammy in 2007.

I make no apology for writing about Henze’s music from a very personal point of view. It is quite impossible for me to write about his music dispassionately. Every aspect of his art, from its searing expression through to its élan, is a reflection of the composer’s multi-faceted, complex personality I was fortunate to work very closely with him from a comparatively young age, and to witness, at close range, how he poured himself into his music. Henze, who was incapable of writing a note which did not reflect his emotional and psychological states, demanded that his collaborating performers respond with complimentary candour and commitment.

Now that time has passed, I can more comfortably observe that there was a significant difference between the way that Henze worked with musicians one-to-one, and in a larger, more professional circumstances. This observation holds true for many composers, and not just those who are or were active performers. Put simply, the more ‘professional’ the circumstances of creation, collaboration, rehearsal and performance, the less likely that something personal will be essayed, on both sides. This is a question of intimacy, and by its very definition, intimacy suffers when it is communicated in a public sphere.

Henze’s response to the players that he trusted was essentially private,  but was revealed, if one chose to look listen and carefully, in his approach to the colour, timbre, texture and rhetoric of the music written for his close collaborators.

The Sonata was inspired by the extraordinary sound and charisma of the violist Garth Knox. The work was premiered in the spring of 1980 at the ‘Wittenberg Tage für neue Kammermusik’ by Knox with the pianist/conductor, Jan-Latham Koenig. The ‘voice’ of the viola in this sonata, which ranges from cataclysmic tempest to terrifying purity, is a direct response to Knox’s vision of sound.

Henze began work on his Sonata for viola and piano over the winter 1978-9, shortly after the completion of his ballet Orpheus. It’s interesting what a flowering of string music there was around this work. He noted that his Violin sonata (1976) was one of the pieces written ‘en route to the Orpheus music’,[i] and emotionally shattering quality of the Viola Sonata is to my mind, the result of its composition in the immediate ‘aftershock’ of the completion of the Orpheus piece. Henze began work on the sonata, in the week after the party at his Knightsbridge home, which celebrated the completion of the stage work. He wrote:

‘I began work on a sonata for the Scottish viola player, Garth Knox. Saturn entered the Tropic of Cancer, which made me think that things would now get better.’[ii]

In addition to the influence of the young Garth Knox on the sound and drama of the sonata, I would like to suggest another, complex aspect to the vision of the instrument which this piece reveals.

The concertante work which most closely approximates Henze’s writing for and ‘framing’ of the viola in this sonata is to be found in the second movement of his 4th Quartet (1976). This quartet consists of four single movement-concerti for each quartet member in turn. The second movement of the quartet, ‘William Byrd Pavana’ reveals an approach to the viola which is, in its essentials, playing the same ‘role’ as in the later sonata.  The quartet was one of the set of three (nos 3, 4, 5), inspired by the artistry of the young American Concord Quartet. Henze had conceived of the idea of these quartets in November 1973, after hearing ‘these young performers playing Carter’[iii] (shortly Henze conducted his 1973 Viola Concerto with Walter Trampler at Town Hall, New York). Of course, the viola-player of the Concord Quartet was the visionary player John Kochanowski, Knowing Kochanowski’s artistry well, I have the distinct impression that his playing, the trigger for the William Byrd-inspired purity of the ‘viola movement’ in the quartet, later re-emerged in the Sonata, and perhaps again later, in the viola ‘consort music’ which appeared in his opera The English Cat. Interestingly, George Rochberg told me that this group of Quartets inspired his own ‘triptych’ Quartets 4, 5, 6, also for the Concord Quartet.

The nature of viola sound, as imagined by Henze, fascinated me from the very first time that I saw the score of this work. Again and again, I witnessed him reach for a certain purity in what he asked from viola players, and this is reflected in the writing. What has not been documented, for instance, was the later impact of the playing of young violist Mark Theaker, on his writing in 1989-1990. In 1989 he heard Theaker play Hindemith’s Trauermusik with my Parnassus Ensemble in Guterslöh; he told me that the solo viola part in the Agnus Dei  was written with Theaker’s sound in mind (we premiered this under his baton at the Barbican in January 1991). It struck me that what he heard in Theaker’s playing, is the ‘red line’ which runs through the Viola Sonata, a sort of keening innocence.

The link to the Elizabethan sound-world of William Byrd also points to Henze’s fascination with early music; it is difficult to hear his viola writing without hearing an echo of the sound of the Viola da Gamba. I kept this in mind when making my instrument choice for the Sonata; it was recorded on a Richard Meares gamba, cut down into a viola by Matthew Hardie. Like Henze’s viola writing, which, however contemporary, never lost sight or sound of the quality of Renaissance music, this instrument preserves the ghost of the viol in its drastically altered form.

The opening of Henze’s Sonata uses a gesture which appears throughout his music, a hesitating rise and fall, off the beat. You might argue that this is not so dissimilar to the first violin entry in Elgar’s Violin Concerto, and there’s something in that; I find more in common between sensibilities of the two composers than might be expected-this may be as much to do with Henze’s love of British art and culture as anything else. The rising-falling gesture can be also heard at the opening of the Sonatina which Henze wrote two years after the viola sonata. But, for me, the most powerful, or perhaps revealing, use of this trope, can be heard at the opening of the second movement of his 3rd Violin Concerto. This movement is based on the character ‘das Kind Echo’ in Thomas Mann’s Novel Doktor Faustus (1943). This novel was very important to Henze: it’s apparent that, the 3rd Violin Concerto (1997) is a late flowering of the impulses which had produced the Viola Sonata. The essentially enigmatic nature of Henze’s expressive writing reflects Mann’s own observations, discussing ‘Das Kind Echo’, on the nature of language:

‘Words are made for praise and tribute, they have been granted the power to admire, to marvel to bless and characterise a phenomenon by the emotion it arouses, but not to conjure it up, to reproduce it.’[iv]

Henze’s instrumental music is essentially vocal, pertaining to everything that the voice can do; it is vital to bear this in mind when shaping of lyrical material such as the opening statements of the sonata. Playing what is ‘on the page’ does not reveal the essentially human nature of this music; it needs to be, constantly moulded, sung, characterised, and dramatized. A merely respectful rendering of the text is not enough, and will not reveal the layers of narrative.

Before going any further, I feel obligated to call attention to the sense of ‘duty’ which underpinned all of Henze’s music-making. The circumstances in which he had become a composer imbued him with a lifelong sense of his obligations as an artist and human being. His A letter to young artists, written in 1981 clarifies this position:

‘There is a new task for your work, one that has never existed before, and has never been more urgent. Art must now take the side of the repressed, the humiliated, the offended. Art is to take the part of the weak and the poor, and to gain vigour and impulse from its need to be a voice for the oppressed.’[v]

Working with Henze, I was struck by his expectation that the broadest range of human emotion and experience should be rendered as directly by composer and performer as possible. This range of expression was evident from his earliest works, reflecting the difficult environment in which his adult life began. There is no conflict, to my way of thinking, between the enigmatic, allusive nature of Henze’s music, and his demand that it communicate directly. He best able to communicate this as a conductor. The magic of his conducting, was that he could shape silence, mould the air, it seemed; magic and passion poured from the spaces he found, and there were moments that I could imagine what it might have been like to be conducted by Richard Wagner.

The oppositions and contradictions in the Sonata are heard early on, when the piano ‘cuts loose’ by itself (Bar 22). This driving energy, suggestion of violence, is a quality to which the viola responds; sometimes in kind, sometimes with resignation, throughout the work.  This outburst introduces an element of desperation, which is heightened in the exchanges between the protagonists in the first section of the work When the opening theme ‘Tempo primo’ returns (Bar 77), it is marked ‘ma molto irrequieto’ (very restless); the music becomes increasingly impassioned, vertiginous,  even imperilled, as the players adopt apparently hostile positions. But their dispute is suddenly resolves (Bar 101) with rapidly repeating quintuplets, handed, like a relay baton, to from viola to piano; a notable moment, as it marks the only moment of mutual courtesy in the piece. For a moment the music hovers in a suspended world; spectral harmonics glisten on the viola, balanced by Messiaen-like  ‘crystal-chords’ in the piano left hand, whilst the ‘fives’ in the piano right hand cast ‘garlands across heaven’ (Note how these later return in different mien at bar 189). But this concordat leads to a parting of the ways, the viola falls silent, and the piano soliloquy becomes an instrumental ‘temper-tantrum’ (building on the first solo moment at Bar 22), which erupts from bar 115-130. In my mind, this a moment, recalls the Spartan virtuosity of Henze’s Piano Sonata (1959).

In our conversations, Henze and I often spoke of Alban Berg. At the same time that I was beginning my working relationship with Henze, I had initiated a correspondence with the great violinist Louis Krasner, who had commissioned Berg to write his Violin Concerto in 1935. Our initial work together coincided with my study of Berg and Schoenberg with Krasner in Boston, and the chorale used by Alban Berg in his Violin Concerto, ‘Es ist genug’. Berg’s concerto (‘Dem Amdenken eines Engels’/‘To the memory of an angel’) was never far from Henze’s mind when he wrote for string instruments. But it was the emotional drama of Berg’s one Sonata Op 1 for solo piano, which was clearly in his mind when he wrote the viola sonata, both in its one-movement form and its drama, which provides a model both for the piano sound, and arching lyricism.

The pianistic outburst ends with a furious collapse down the keyboard, marked ‘martelando’ (‘hammering’ – Henze was always very careful over his use of present and past participles in Italian). The storm subsides, and the violist, now ‘con sordino’, offers consolation with a drawn-out, two-part solo version of the opening gestures. Comfort, and comfort it is, is brought with a beautiful rocking, to and from a sweetly ‘beating’ dissonance, ‘B natural/C’. This is the closest that the writing comes to the viola of the 4th Quartet; the loving use of dissonance evokes the the spirit of the ‘English Cadence’ with which the early homage to William Byrd is liberally drenched.

We now come to the mute heart of the sonata. . The form is tripartite, with more than a hint of the palindromic. The section begins and ends with ‘un poco piu mosso’ segments, which are marked out by a device which Henze loved, an obsessively rotating ‘machine’. Such machines can be found in many of his works, used for moments of enormous tension or drama, such as the end of the 7th Symphony or the 3rd Violin Concerto. They also make more mysterious appearances, such as the fleet-foot circling in the ‘Capriccio’ movement of Fünf Nachtstücke, which he wrote for me in 1990. But here, in the viola sonata, an obsessively rotating 10 note piano figure ushers in a twilight, even nocturnal world. Whenever we rehearse this section, I find, conversation turns to Gustav Mahler, most particularly ‘In der Nacht’-‘Scherzo-Schattenhaft’-‘In der Nacht’ sequence at the heart of his 7th Symphony. But here, Henze’s ‘Nachtmusik’ seems highly ambiguous, as if Giuseppe Ungaretti’s famous – ‘Dopo tanta/nebbia/a una/a una/si svelano/le stelle’[vi] -was crystallising into something, darker, colder, frozen. And so it proves: after a momentary rhapsodising, the music reaches its centre, ‘molto lento’.

Working with Henze, he demanded I take the stillness of his music very seriously. Like many composers of his generation, he had a tendency to mark slow tempos, much faster than he really hoped to hear them. At the most frozen moment of the ‘molto lento’ section the piano holds a nine-part chord over four staves, and we are, it seems at T S Eliot’s:

‘At the still point of the turning World/Neither flesh nor fleshless’[vii]

Henze gave a hint of where this might have come from; a reminder that, for him, the metaphysical drama of all his work reflected how he felt, his psychological state, his personal drama and dreaming. While Henze was writing this sonata, Europe was in in the grip of a hard winter, from which it seemed, he could not escape in any country:

‘It was twenty degrees below zero […] during a raging gale I went for a walk in Hyde Park with Michael Vyner […] Deep Snow in London. I did not feel so good.’[viii]

But the ice thaws, and with a ‘movendo’, then ‘avanti’ the music finds its way to the balancing ‘rotating machine’, and, it seems, the sun might come out again. ‘Saturn entering the Tropic of Cancer’ it seemed, had come to the rescue.

The peroration of this middle ‘night-music’ section comes as a shock Bar 189). After a Luftpause, the piano reintroduces the quintuplet figures which initiated the central interleaving movements, but this time, with thunderous rumbling in the bass, before roaring their way up six octaves to hurl the viola into an unwilling cadenza. If anything, the change in colour in the viola is more abrupt; going from the warm ‘forte’ (played ‘con sordino’) of the previous ‘rotating’ passage, to, initially, the very same semitone figures played ‘senza sordino’. The effect is emotionally and colouristically a ‘rip-the-Band-Aid-off’ moment. Ironically, and this may be serendipity, this is pure Schumann, evoking the opening of In der Nacht from Fantasiestucke Op. 12.  In my experience, Henze was ambivalent about Schumann, so I would be careful, even now, about suggesting this! Henze loved beauty in all forms, including the beauty of unpleasant realisation. ‘Wake up’ he seems to be saying. ‘That before, that was a dream…which is over. This is real life.’ In many ways this aesthetic is close to W H Auden; the poet with whom he had collaborated, spectacularly on The Bassarids (1964). In 1939, Auden had written:

‘Yes, we are going to suffer, now; the sky /Throbs like a feverish forehead; pain is real; /The groping searchlights suddenly reveal T/he little natures that will make us cry.’[ix]

Henze suffered very much, with what Auden warned of in 1939. This sonata is part of his lifelong attempt to deal with that suffering.

Henze now pushes the viola player to the brink of unplayability, and over. Virtuosity and danger were something that fascinated him. He told me:

‘Why shouldn’t instrumentalists get exhausted too – the composer did! The ‘almost impossible’ is always interesting in music. It’s a bit like a circus act – will she, or will she not, fall from the rope?’[x]

One sphere inhabited by the Sonata inhabits, is the psychologically fraught, ‘orphic’ one. Henze wrote:

‘It is the experience of despair, madness and self-destruction on which the new tonal relationships are based, but on which now the full light of joy and happiness can now fall.’[xi]

In some ways the extended cadenza-like section that follows(Bar 203) is where the suffering is lessened, where reason returns, albeit temporarily. This is entirely unmeasured, marked ‘com impeto e velocità’. This is the closest that the Viola Sonata comes to the virtuosic ‘instrumental theatre’ of the 2nd Violin Concerto (1972) A tragedy of today’s hegemony computer-written scores, is that composers are less likely to write such beautiful ‘semi-space-time’ notated sections like this, where the timing and drama is held in ‘creatively uneasy’ balance between the graphic layout of material on the stave and the ambiguity of the shards of rhythmic notation which find their way into the music. Henze’s use of this technique can best be described as a dramatic/emotional museum. All the gestures used, refer backwards and forwards to similar or related tropes in the piece; each of them must be played with character, which either chooses, or does not choose, to allude to the material or context from where they have been culled. In recent years, I have come to think of this as functioning most like one of the Cornelius Gijs Brechts’s(1630-1670) ‘trompe-l’oeil’ bulletin boards, where apparently unrelated material is tacked up, devoid of hierarchy and either fraught with, or shorn of its meaning.

After the ‘cadenza’ section the two protagonists find what seems to be a moment of peace, although that I am not sure that can say that they are reconciled (Bar 211).  Whilst the viola sings away to itself, the piano plays what might be described a ‘sort of chorale’ in four parts in a strangely haunting symmetrical counterpoint (another Berg-ian allusion). This finds its way to the only notated silent whole measure in the whole work. Then follows a sequence of three ‘lyrical stutterings’ (236-243) as the piece collapses towards its coda. Each of these might be read, or played, as ‘attempts’ to reanimate the hopeful lyricism of the opening,  as both players try and  rediscover that spirit. Their attempts fail.

The coda (244-end) of the sonata is begins with a Schoenberg-like ‘motto’ outburst from the viola alone, marked ‘Allegro Marziale’, with measures alternating between three and five quarter-notes in length. The ‘Marziale’ gives more of a clue as to the attack which Henze imagined for these opening notes (C, F, F sharp, B) than anything else, and the listener certainly will not hear an ‘allegro’ as the shortest notes in this rising signal, are half-notes. The viola resolves onto a dramatically re-articulated ‘mesa-da-voce’ ‘A’, while the piano returns to the threatening material which it had introduced near the opening of the piece, with freezing ferocity, setting up a final, unmeasured series of desperate statements which are, utterly bereft of hope. Ironically, here we find the only gestures that the two instruments make together in the whole piece,  the three curlew-like ‘wailings’,  the last quiet statements of the work. And then the peace is obliterated by final ‘pile-driving’ piano chords, leaving viola in awful isolation on a top ‘D’, as the piano diminuendos, using a ‘pedal glissando’, which Henze marks (somewhat obscurely) with a dashed line curling upwards.

A few years after completing the Sonata Henze was thinking about using the solo viola again, this time in his Barcarola for orchestra. He noted:

‘Recall the final lines of Ingeborg Bachmann’s Lieder von einer Insel:  ‘A great fire will come/ A flood which come over the earth. /We shall all be witnesses’[xii]

It is no exaggeration to say that this is the landscape, the cataclysm, which the Viola Sonata reveals.

The sincerity and emotion of these works takes me back to Henze’s Letter to young Artists. It’s as resonant today as the day that it was written:

‘Every verse you write, every painting you paint, every lesson you give, every bar of music you write or play, can be a move against those who want to reverse the wheel of history to use the power of the police and of blackmail to drag you back into their sullenness […] Don’t lose heart!’[xiii]