Friday, December 17, 2010

Symphonic Stag Party - Henze's Symphony No. 4

Unsung Symphonies is thrilled to welcome Emily Richmond Pollock, a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is writing a dissertation on opera in West Germany from 1945-1965. We let her contribute even though she's never watched all of The Big Lebowski.

It’s fitting that a post about Hans Werner Henze’s Symphony No. 4 would appear on a blog called Unsung Symphonies, because this is a piece that has literally been “un-sung.” In 1962, six years after the disastrous premiere of his opera König Hirsch (a third of the piece was cut), Henze returned to the opera to create his own “authorized” shortened version, which threw out the original half-hour Finale of Act II.1 It was that cut material that became his Fourth Symphony, with the vocal parts submerged and incorporated into the orchestral texture.

The symphony’s single continuous movement camouflages a formal scheme that was unusually “instrumental” within the opera, where sections were named Introduzione e Sonata, Varizioni, Capriccio, and Ricercar. In the symphony, these section headings were standardized to Prelude and Sonata, Variations, Scherzo and Trio, and Rondo. These instrumental pretensions (paging Alban Berg!) result in a tidy relationship between musical structure and dramatic sense in the scene, which depicts a year in the life of the title character, the King Stag – bound to the forest as an animal, his human soul continues to make him yearn for the city. The connection between the cycle of seasons in a year (conveyed in the opera by changes of lighting) and the classical, four-movement, ostensibly “cyclical” symphony, becomes almost too programmatic and “on the nose” once it is transposed from the opera stage into the concert hall.

The orchestrational aspects of the transposition from one musical medium to another, however, are executed with subtlety and panache. For one thing, it’s appealing to be able to hear what the opera sounds like without voices – and it’s not just the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance that makes the texture feel all of a sudden more like an integrated contrapuntal whole.2 In an opera, orchestration often takes a back seat to vocalism, and it’s sometimes hard to remember that the people in the pit are more than “mere” accompanists. In the symphony, though, the vocal lines become part of a crowd, coming in and out of relief with much more flexibility than is usually possible within the standard hierarchy between orchestra and vocal soloists.

A short passage from near the beginning of both the scene and the symphony helps to illustrate Henze’s general approach.3 The King’s two angular interjections (“Wald, hör’ mich an!” and “Öffne dich und laß mich ein!”) become solo calls in the cellos and the trombone, respectively. Henze keeps the lines in the tenor range, but uses different instrumental colors, which blurs any fixed identity between the original character and the melodic lines in the symphony. Meanwhile, the ensemble of Forest Spirits that answers the King is subsumed into the string section, allowing the rustling woodwinds to come through in a way they never did in the original.



Henze had a different strategy in mind when he orchestrated one of the King’s virtuosic solo passages from the third section: the tenor solo is set exclusively for the trumpet, which of course stands out starkly from the rest of the orchestra – maybe even more so than the original singer’s voice.4 In addition, instead of the brass section’s entrance drowning out the vocalist (as it nearly does in the opera), it complements the sound of the trumpet, so the whole group can really go for it, instead of struggling to stay under the soloist. I would guess that that the firmer identity between the vocal solo and the single instrument in this section is related to the opera passage’s more “arioso” register and more closed form; by contrast, Example 1’s dialogic context meant that the King’s lines were less strongly “set off” from the surrounding material.



It’s probably apparent by now that Henze’s orchestration in the opera is generally quite lush; in some cases, the extensive doublings between the instruments and the voices mean that hardly anything changes between the opera and the symphony – the voices are merely strained out.5 But wow, the Berlin Philharmonic can really play (yes, yes, Captain Obvious) – what is pretty enough in the opera takes on shades of poignancy and even contrapuntal brilliance when it is slowed down a little, executed by amazing musicians, and allowed to breathe, the way a symphonic slow movement traditionally begs to be played.



And what of the sections that in the original had separated out the orchestra from the voices? A slow, unapologetically consonant passage toward the end of the scene features the Forest Spirits in a breathtaking a cappella hush, alternating with equally “choral” answers from the strings or woodwinds.6 The idea of alternating orchestrations of chorale textures gets taken one level higher in the symphonic version, which casts the voices sometimes as groups of solo woodwinds, sometimes as solo strings, sometimes (when unison in the original) as celesta or harp. In both versions, it’s a beautiful passage that stops time and positively shimmers.



Aside from these “devocalizations,” Henze didn’t do much to transform the piece from its operatic context to its symphonic form. This might seem like cheating – how symphonic can a symphony be if it comes right out of one of the most blatantly operatic operas of the post-war period? But this generic fuzziness is exactly the issue that this piece can illuminate so usefully. We use words like “operatic” and “symphonic” as if those words have stable meanings, but how often do we think about what those labels really stand for? Henze has commented ironically on the “division of labor” between him and the composers of the Darmstadt school, where “they got the electronic studios and the late-night programmes, I got the symphony concerts and opera houses.”7 Perhaps for Henze, then, these two monumental genres were actually close kin.

So is Henze’s Fourth an operatic symphony, or is König Hirsch a symphonic opera?

— Emily Richmond Pollock

1. The major secondary work on the opera, and on the Symphony by extension, is the monograph by Klaus Oehl, Die Oper König Hirsch (1953–55) von Hans Werner Henze (Saarbrücken: Pfau-Verlag, 2003). See in particular p. 245-277 and 304-313.
2. The sound examples in this post come from a radio broadcast of the full version of König Hirsch at the Staatstheater Stuttgart in May 1985, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, and from a live performance by the Berlin Philharmonic in April 1964, conducted by the composer (Deutsche Grammophon 449 861-2).
3. Opera: Act II Scene 6, m. 13-20 (from “Introduzione” section); Symphony: m. 13-20
4. Opera: Act II Scene 6, m. 27-45 (from “Capriccio” section); Symphony: m. 232-251.
5. Opera: Act II Scene 6, m. 1-19 (from “Variazioni” section); Symphony: m. 155-173.
6. Opera: Act II Scene 6, m. 162-193 (from “Ricercar” section); Symphony: m. 426-459.
7. Henze, “German Music in the 1940s and 1950s” in Music and Politics, tr. Peter Labanyi (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 47.


  1. Thanks to Frank for the awesome Photoshop graphic!

  2. Thanks to Emily for this fascinating post! That's an interesting issue you raise, about how composers recast vocal lines as instrumental parts in works derived from the stage. It came up a little in the Rautavaara symphony we did earlier, but I think the Henze shows it much more vividly. I wonder if it forms a "tradition" in any way -- all I can think of now is the orchestral version of the Liebestod from Tristan. I suppose part of exposing (or in Henze's case, recovering!) operatic music to the public would seem to require voice-to-orchestration in some of these cases.

  3. The clips are awesome! I wish more composers created symphonies out of operas and gave the vocal lead to the trombones! How about Dr. Atomic?!

  4. To add to Frank's comment, another example that comes to mind is Mahler 2 -- the whole fifth movement is essentially done with instruments first, then repeated with voices.

  5. Hi Emily, very interesting post!
    Im just wondering about your dissertation - has Bernd Alois Zimmermann and his opera 'Die Soldaten' come up at all?

  6. @Emiel - Yes, one of my dissertation's six chapters is about Die Soldaten! It's a piece I have studied for many years and for which I have a great deal of admiration.

    @Frank and Matt, I feel like Ryan would have a lot to contribute to this, because it seems like there are a lot of parallels between this specific situation and the more general issue of different arrangements or versions of the same piece. You'd run into discourses about bastardization pretty quickly, but veering around those, you can get to interesting ideas about the different uses for music and the differences between, for example, concert and stage performance contexts/ audiences/ expectations.

    One interesting "lowbrow" example I have noticed is the practice on commercial classical radio of versions of operatic arias with the vocal part taken up instead by a solo violin or cello ("opera without voices"!)- many of these stations being biased against the heaviness of operatic voices.

    You could also expand this discussion to include an inquiry into the practice of concert performances of operas and opera arias WITH vocal soloists, which have the benefit of sometimes bringing unstageable operas to public ears.