Hans Werner Henze’s
Ninth Symphony

The most significant event of this year’s Berliner Festwochen was the première of Hans Werner Henze’s Ninth Symphony, given by the Berliner Philharmoniker and Berliner Rundfunk-Chor under the baton of Ingo Metzmacher, who just took his new position as chief conductor of the Hamburg Opera. For a composer who regards himself as a symphonist, more or less belonging to a symphonic tradition, writing a ninth symphony still means an extraordinary challenge. Henze proclaimed that "my Ninth is an apotheosis of the terrible and the painful. It is the summa summarum of my life’s work, and it mirrors a world which is in principle arbitrary, dangerous and aggressive. The symphony expresses a German reality, and is dedicated to the heroes and martyrs of German anti-fascism." Henze’s Ninth is a choral symphony in seven movements, to a libretto by Hans-Ulrich Treichel, based on Anna Seghers’ touching Third Reich-escapees’ novel Das siebte Kreuz (The Seventh Cross). In the symphony, sometimes the orchestra explores its own, mostly lyrical refuges, but normally it serves as the heterogeneous framework, supporting or exaggerating the atmosphere of the words sung by the choir. The choir always sings in the first person, making for a very direct effect. The first movement, Die Flucht (The Escape), immediately opens on an angst-ridden situation, and articulates the restlessly changing states of the escapee’s fear of death. As he hides in the shadow of the night, the myrmidons of the ultimate terror with their hounds are on his track. Paralytic lamentation and shivering agony leave their mark on the second movement, Bei den Toten (Amongst the Dead), an adagio of withering beauty. The third movement, Bericht der Verfolger (Report of the persecutors), is a short, unfeeling, brutal march. Then follows another adagio, Die Platane spricht (The Plane-Tree Speaks), where the central conflict arises between the unequal forces of joy of life and of destruction of life, which irresistibly culminates in the fall of the plane-tree.

The innocent tree’s voice is sung by the female chorus, the annihilators with their saws and axes are personified by the men’s chorus. In this movement Henze is the inspired tone poet, as we know him in his best moments, putting all his polyvalent richness of invention into the tearingly contrasting sections. Der Sturz (The Fall) tells the story of the artist Belloni’s last act: he circumvents his fate by throwing himself off the top of a building. Musically he lives on. He spreads his wings and flies over his 'Heimatland' to the sound of the strings’ Gran canto. Die Nacht im Dom (The Night in the Cathedral), monumental in scale and twenty minutes in length, is an antiphonal liturgy of terror which ranges from stammering confusion to a primeval scream in the darkness. This movement is built up like a rite, and falls into six sections, each of which functions like a panel of an elaborate polyptych. In one of these panels the saints and martyrs glorify in song the joy of pain and suffering. The soloists, therefore, are deployed in another part of the hall. Finally there comes Die Rettung (The Rescue), which has a peaceful, resigned atmosphere, and one characterised by homophony. But the symphony’s biting final note slightly recalls the harassing experiences. Stylistically Henze’s Ninth offers a broad spectrum of his style in recent years. There are many things written in the score which one cannot distinguish with one’s ears in such a complex texture. But, despite the professionalism of the performers, it is certain that much more detail would be audible if a conductor were to concentrate more on structural transparency, and on realizing the pianissimo-dimension. Nevertheless the symphony was a great public success, and is now to be released by EMI on CD.
Christoph Schlüren

(Review for the music quarterly TEMPO, London 1997)