Hans Werner Henze was born in Götersloh, Germany on July 1, 1926.
He was interested in music from an early age and began composing at the age of 12 before he had any formal training. While he was a high school student in Bielefeld, Henze was able to convince his parents to allow him to study piano and percussion at a school for orchestral musicians in Brunswick. He was recruited into the German army in 1944 but continued to compose covertly. After World War II ended and Henze returned to civilian life, he resumed his musical studies at the Evangelische Kirchenmusikalische Institut in Heidelberg, where he learned harmony and counterpoint with Wolfgang Fortner.
In 1947 he began study at the Darmstadt Summer Schools for New Music, where he met René Leibowitz, and embraced his 12-tone technique. During this time, Henze integrated a variety of musical styles and produced his earliest acknowledged works including the Kammerkonzert for piano, flute and strings, the sonata for violin and piano, and the first string quartet, violin concerto and symphony. Henze produced his first opera, the one-act Das Wundertheater, in 1949 and followed it with his first ballet in 1949, Ballett-Variationen. His first full-scale opera, Boulevard Solitude, an updated version of the story of Manon Lescaut, premiered in Hanover in 1952 and received considerable success. In the following years, Henze produced a great deal of work to critical acclaim, including six ballets, the opera Das Wundertheater, and two radio operas, Ein Landarzt and Das Ende einer Welt.
But by 1953, Henze felt separated from his contemporaries, not only musically for his willingness to blend different musical genres, but also in his mistrust of postwar German society. In the spring of that year he moved to Italy, to the Forio d’Ischia in the Bay of Naples. His next full length opera, König Hirsch, celebrated these Italian influences and abandoned the strict serialism of most of his European peers. Over the next decade, Henze’s productivity was dominated by operatic works, with occasional smaller vocal, instrumental, and orchestral works. His operas Der Prinz von Homburg premiered in 1960, Elegy for Young Lovers in 1961, and Der junge Lord in 1965. One of his greatest successes came with The Bassarids, a two-hour single-act opera conceived as a four-movement symphony. Henze left Naples and moved near Rome in 1961 and began to teach at the Salzburg Mozarteum a short time later. The Bassarids premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 1966, and after its success the composer began an intense scrutiny of his work, stripping away inessential elements, typified by the 1968 oratorio Das Floss der Medusa. The early 1970s saw a focus on smaller-scale works such as El Cimarron in 1970 based on Esteban Montejo’s The Biography of a Runaway Slave, Der langierige Weg in die Wohnung Natascha Ungeheuer in 1971, and the vaudeville La cubana in 1974.
Henze returned to the operatic stage in 1976 with a commission by Covent Garden, We Come to the River, with a libretto by Edward Bond. Two other Bond libretti followed and gave text to the comic The English Cat and the ballet Orpheus. In 1990, Henze produced two operas with libretti by Hans-Ulrich Treichel that focused on personal and psychological experience, Das verratene Meer and Venus und Adonis. After the completion of his tenth symphony, Henze began work on the opera L’Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe, which premiered at the 2003 Salzburg Festival to great international critical acclaim. Shortly after that, Henze began working on his next opera Phaedra, based on the tragedy of Phaedra and her stepson Hippolyt. But his work was interrupted when he was struck by a mysterious illness in 2005 that left him in a two-month-long coma. When he awoke, he wrote the second half of the opera, which expands on the original myth, with Hippolyt coming back from the dead. Phaedra premiered at Staatsoper Berlin in September 2007 with later performances in Brussels, Frankfurt, Vienna and Cologne. Most recently he completed Opfergang – Immolatione, which is based on a dramatic poem by Franz Werfel. It premiered in January 2010 in Rome, near the home which has continued to live in after more than 40 years.