Ian Bostridge on Hans Werner Henze's Sechs Gesänge

Few singers can boast of having a song cycle written for them. Ian Bostridge remembers how cats, a Kenyan island and a faulty metronome contributed to Hans Werner Henze's Sechs Gesänge

I first met Hans Werner Henze in 1996. We were celebrating his 70th birthday at the Aldeburgh festival and I had been asked to sing, with Julius Drake at the piano, his three song settings of WH Auden written in the 1970s: a simple elegy for a cat (in Italian rather than English, I think); a jagged evocation of Rimbaud; and a wonderful, sublime love song, a setting of one of the poet's most famous lyrics, "Lay your sleeping head, my love, faithless on my human arm."

Until then my views of Henze had been based on total ignorance - a glimpse of an atypically austere photograph, a notion that contemporary music was somehow forbidding. What I found in Henze's music, I found in him as a person, as well - warmth and charm, a wit and a human sympathy he has shared with me and my family.

The other gift he was to give me was a song cycle which, having heard me sing in Snape, he promised to write. Later that year he came to hear me sing Schumann's Dichterliebe at the Wigmore Hall (saying he didn't know the piece - mischievously perhaps?), and he listened to records of mine to familiarise himself with what I could do. I'd been a full-time singer for only a year, inspired to sing by one of the early performers of Henze's music, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and immersed in the work of Benjamin Britten, who had also been an early Henze champion.

The idea of this canonical figure writing for me could have been intimidating, but Henze's laughter and flexibility, his lack of pomposity or grandeur about his own music-making, all quickly dispelled any such notions. His original intention was to set some poems by his friend the late Ingeborg Bachmann, the Anrufung des Grossen Bären, returning to an idea he'd had for a cycle for Fischer-Dieskau in the 1950s. Instead, he turned to writing the poems himself, creating a mythic landscape based on his own trips to the Kenyan island of Lamu. Some of the characters in the poems are based on real people.

I particularly remember Henze's story of the boat that Fausto, his partner, gave him for his birthday, captained by the reckless Selim. The first song in the cycle Sechs Gesänge aus dem Arabischen is Selim's poetic and musical comeuppance. The last song is a setting of an invocation to the moon by Hafis, translated by Rückert - the only poem in the cycle not by Henze. I see in that a sort of letting-go, and the song itself has an extraordinary air of transcendence.

The cycle, although small-scale in terms of forces, feels monumental. Planned at 35 minutes, it actually lasts 50 minutes: Henze said he had a defective metronome in hospital where he was finishing it.

Performing Sechs Gesänge (Six Songs) at Hans and Fausto's home in Marino, outside Rome, will always stick in my mind. As we reached the song about the moon, there indeed was the full moon, shining above the Roman countryside. A few years later at a birthday party in London, we performed the cycle again, alongside some Schubert and some English folk songs. Afterwards, many people with no special interest in classical music, or any experience of so-called contemporary music, came up to say how much they had loved that particular song.

The cultural references in the Sechs Gesänge are various - a quotation from Goethe (the witch scene on the Brocken from Faust, a sort of in-joke on my academic research as a historian on witchcraft); a dedication to Giacometti for the praying mantis song; a song set in a cave where the Ebola virus has its mythic origin; echoes of Kavafy in Cäsarion. So are the musical textures, from the transparent flute music of Cäsarion to the quasi-orchestral grandeur and thickness of Ein Sonnenaufgang.

My overwhelming feeling on performing the cycle - and Julius Drake and I must have given it some 20 times - is how it works on an audience. It's theatrical in the best sense; despite the moments of complexity and unfamiliarity, a non-specialist audience can be moved and challenged by the work, and see its transparent beauties and more resistant passages as part of a dramatic structure. This, for me, is Henze's great achievement: to write music that is modern, but acknowledges and is rooted in the past, that can be taken on board by an audience without resorting to mere superficial texture, simplification or kitsch.

For Henze, music is drama, and what matters is the overall effect, not the realisation of every pitch or rhythm on the page. Fidelity to the text is always important in the classical tradition, but living performance is an even more urgent necessity. In rehearsal he often asked for less voice, more speaking, not worrying about the notes.

He referred to some of the piano writing (much of it furiously difficult) as the representation of natural phenomena rather than written music. At one point, he said that the notes were not interesting enough to be heard properly. By this he meant, I think, that the effect of the music on its listeners, and indeed performers, has precedence over its literal construction.

Like Brahms, Britten or Schubert before him, Henze is prepared to let go of the music once it has been composed. In fact, he demands that the performer take hold of it and run. Despite the radicalism of much of his output, he is a Romantic, writing emotionally laden music - even though he is writing in an era when the Romantic creative impulse is deeply problematic, too often seen as insufficiently rigorous or in thrall to sentimentality. Much as he admired and learnt from Stravinsky, Henze could never have pretended that music did not express or crystallise feelings.

An early participant in the radical musical workshops held at Darmstadt in the 1950s, with other iconic figures such as Boulez and Stockhausen, he soon rebelled against their forbidding strictures. When future generations come to write the history of postwar music, I've no doubt they will see Henze's divorce from Darmstadt shibboleths, his forthright rejection of the pronunciamentos of the avant garde, as a watershed. I like to think that the Sechs Gesänge marked a new phase for the composer. His next opera, L'Upupa, was on an Arabian theme to a libretto of his own. His literary gift has often been remarked upon, his intelligent, critical mind; he speaks, and writes, a most beautiful and graceful English.

At the moment my mind is full of Henze's music because I've performed - in Berlin and Aldeburgh - a piece he wrote for Peter Pears: Kammermusik 1958, settings of Hölderlin for voice, guitar and chamber ensemble. I have cursed him (lightheartedly) because some of it is so difficult to learn; and blessed him for its manifold and extraordinary beauties. One of the movements asks "Gibt es auf Erden ein Maß?" ("Is there a measure on earth?") There is none, the poet answers. When Pears first received the rather terrifying score, he wrote Henze a not-so-cryptic postcard. "Gibt es auf Erden ein Tenor ... ?"

As I painfully drummed it into my skull (I'm a very slow learner and no master at reading pitch), it was quite clear to me that this is music that will endure to summon up new worlds and show us new horizons.

· Hans Werner Henze's Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba has its London premiere at the Proms on August 29. Box office: 020-7589 8212. Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake perform Sechs Gesänge aus dem Arabischen in the Philharmonie, Berlin on November 6

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Ian Bostridge

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