Background Notes on ELEGY FOR YOUNG LOVERS

Written by Peter Burwasser, provided courtesy of Curtis Opera Theatre

As much as any other composer working in the past 75 years, Hans Werner Henze is an artist of his times and environment. The influences on his output have ranged from the monstrosity of Nazism he encountered in his youth in Germany, to the beautiful rhythms and mores of his adopted home, Italy, in the hills of Tuscany.

Elegy Sketches  
Preliminary costume sketches for the new production of Elegy by Costume Designer Jacob A. Climer  

Henze began his career in the smoldering wasteland of postwar Europe. Ardent young composers of the time rejected tonality as epitomized by the bloated pomposity of Wagner and other high Romantics, hearing in it the very soundtrack of fascism. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, which had gone dormant during the war years, was suddenly the only way to make music. Pierre Boulez famously declared that “anyone who hasn’t experienced the necessity of the serial language is useless!”

Yet it was precisely such strident politicization of art that, ironically, evoked fascism for Henze, and it ultimately drove the composer away from doctrinaire serialism by the mid-1950s. He never rejected the often dissonant, polytonal harmonic style that is the lingua franca of the Modern era. But he suffused it with an affectionate homage to German expressionism, in the manner of Berg and some of the extravagantly textured early works of Richard Strauss, and even a broader historicism that hearkens back to Monteverdi and the very origins of opera. Henze is also known to greatly revere Mozart; according to a profile by the music critic Joan Peyser, he has said that he had the score of The Marriage of Figaro open while writing Elegy for Young Lovers.

Henze completed Elegy for Young Lovers in 1961, at the height of this new phase of his career. Later the composer would become politically active, embracing the socialist fervor of the 1960s protest movements and incorporating advocacy into his music; but this opera follows a more traditional narrative, vividly exploring human relationships with the kind of subtlety and quiet anguish that we associate with Ibsen and Chekhov. This strong literary sensibility is greatly enhanced by Henze’s choice of librettists, W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, the same team that collaborated with Stravinsky for The Rake’s Progress. If it is true, as Henze has stated, that his work in this period of his life was largely autobiographical, then Elegy for Young Lovers presents us with a conundrum, because the opera’s protagonist, the poet Gregor Mittenhofer, is something of a monster. It is an unusual portrait of a poet, emphasizing the egoism and manipulative tendencies in interpersonal affairs that come naturally to the solitary artist. In contrast, Henze is deeply admired among contemporary composers as a generous and gentle soul. If there is anything of his own personality in the character of Mittenhofer, it is perhaps the realization that evil lurks in the hearts of all of us—an insight that Henze would have acquired by firsthand observation at any number of points in his long and rich life.

Read more about Elegy for Young Lovers.