Appreciation: The brilliant but bewildering Hans Werner Henze

Robert Ponsonby writes: I first met Hans Werner Henze in 1970, when he directed his opera Elegy for Young Lovers at the Edinburgh festival

I first met Hans Werner Henze in 1970, when he directed his opera Elegy for Young Lovers at the Edinburgh festival. The conductor was Alexander Gibson, who had already programmed a number of Henze's works with the then Scottish National Orchestra.

Moving from the management of that orchestra to the BBC in 1972, I was grateful to Henze for inaugurating, with two programmes, the studio series The Composer Conducts – and he was certainly one of those who could. Between 1975 and 1986, I scheduled several of his works at the Proms. Problematic, however, was The Raft of the Medusa, whose aborted premiere in Hamburg in 1968 had become notorious.

I had heard a tape of the final rehearsal and was bothered by the Ho Chi Minh chants that end the piece, so I wrote to ask if he had considered an alternative ending. His reply was characteristic: "For me, this finale represents a violent switch from past to present. I'm aware of the fact that it is crude and rude and I almost hate it. Yet it does something, at least for me..." In the event, David Atherton's moving performance at the 1978 Proms went off without incident, the finale no longer subversively topical.

Henze could not really understand the ridicule he encountered in Germany for voicing strongly leftwing views from a position of considerable personal comfort. But his move to Italy in 1953 – described in an unforgettably evocative radio broadcast that demonstrated not only his mastery of English but also his beguiling charm – was some sort of a liberation.

Italian warmth of climate and character released both the sensuality inherent in his music and the manifest sensuality of his own character. At their most heartfelt, as that with the admirable Michael Vyner, his gay relationships could be creative: the works Henze wrote for Michael's London Sinfonietta now seem to be among his best.

The move to Italy brought another bonus – friendship with another asylum-seeker, William Walton, who often welcomed him to Ischia and was genuinely interested in his development, if also envious of his gifts as self-promoter: "Hans really does know how to manage things," Walton wrote in 1976. "At his Montepulciano festival he managed to get it televised by the Italians, the Germans and BBC TV." And, sure enough, a letter from Henze soliciting BBC collaboration soon landed on my desk.

In another letter, written not long after Henze had suffered a heart attack, Walton accidentally touched on the question which is surely central to any assessment of Henze's music: "Hans is not too well … I tried to persuade him that it was quite unnecessary for him to write more music – he has done already enough for two lifetimes." And indeed Henze's facility was prodigious – as was his industry and the range of his achievement.

He belonged to no school, but he tentatively explored systems, including serialism, which were fundamentally alien to him. Aspiring to an idiom both radical and communicative, he evolved, initially, a postromantic lyricism of his own.

Later – particularly in the smaller-scale political works – he found a harder edge, though not the "con malizia" of Walton, whose orchestration he much admired. Still later, the big symphonies once again demonstrated an absolute technical mastery, but a tendency towards soft-centred prolixity which seemed to me to weaken them, however alluring their externals. Without doubt Henze was brilliantly gifted, but also bewilderingly so.

Contributor

Robert Ponsonby

The GuardianTramp

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