Hans Werner Henze (1926 - 2012) on Elegy for Young Lovers

ENO's Elegy for Young Lovers

The following extract is taken from the programme for ENO’s production of Elegy for Young Lovers, by Hans Werner Henze who died on October 27 2012. 

Edited by Philip Reed, from the composer’s autobiography

In December 1958 I wrote to Auden in New York, asking him in all humility whether he might possibly be prepared, with or without Chester Kallman, to work for me. He replied as follows

            New York, 6 January 1959

           Dear Hans: Delighted to get your letter. Chester& I would love to   collaborate with you on an opera, provided we can earn some money thereby. – What would you say to this idea? A reincarnation of the Daphnis–Chloe story, set in an imaginary Forio in about 1910. One of them would have been brought up by grape-growing contadini, the other by pescatori. Gnatho, the rich queen, would be a version of Norman Douglas, the anti-Christian romantic ‘Pagan’. L (our copy of the novel is in Kirchstetten, and I have forgotten her name), who teaches Daphnis the arts of love, a German Baronin from San Angelo, etc, etc. Though one wouldn’t need a proper chorus, we think we should need a quartette of Forian Gossips at the side of the stage throughout, who would amorally comment upon the action and invariably get everything wrong […] A straight romantic love story with a buffo background […] Let us know your reaction, and please come to see us in Niederösterreich. –

Love –   Wystan

With Auden’s letter came the fulfilment of a great dream, one that I had scarcely even dared think possible. Over the years I had read everything that Auden had written, studying each new work and unreservedly admiring and worshipping this incredible man, both as a private individual and as a poet: although he had already turned fifty, he still looked like an Oxford undergraduate, a giant with huge hands, the face of a tortoise, a beer gut, carpet slippers and wonderfully sad and gentle eyes that reminded me of a dog’s […] We had become friends during our years together on Ischia, when I had been able to gain a certain insight into the way in which he and Kallman functioned as librettists. In writing their librettos, they would discuss everything as intellectual equals, a discussion that lasted all day, in the course of which they would jot down odd words and phrases. It was fascinating to be present on such occasions and listen to them at work […]

For Auden and Kallman, writing the libretto for Elegy for Young Lovers was like some playful competition: which of the two was the wittier, which was better at striking the note they were aiming for? Who could offer a quicker or better solution to the question of how the story should continue? Who could find the most suitable rhyme? Auden had moved to Austria with the help of an Italian literary prize and had bought a small farmhouse at Kirchstetten near St Pölten […] here in the depths of the Lower Austrian countryside, surrounded by wheat fields and vegetables, at the edge foxgloves glinted, we met in the summer of 1959 so that I could give them both an idea of what I imagined this chamber opera would be like. I told them I wanted a small group of singers, rather like the one in [Mozart’s]  Così fan tutte, and a small instrumental ensemble comprising no more than twenty players. These instruments might perhaps play a role within the piece’s dramaturgical structure by being identified with particular characters. I told them that I would like the work to be a psychological drama, a chamber drama that would deal in the most general terms with questions of guilt and atonement, in other words, with subtle and complex issues, and not with the all too pastoral and affected bucolicisms with which they had tried to fob me off in their letter of acceptance.

Our work in Kirchstetten began with endless discussions that resembled nothing so much as the verbal equivalent of an extended game of ping-pong for three, but which were interrupted by far too many extravagances such as the meals that Chesterwould lovingly prepare, closeted in the kitchen for hours on end, and that always turned out a disaster. Each, moreover, would be prefaced by far too many aperitifs that were always the same Beefeater Martini on the rocks (three drops of Martini in neat gin). We made only slow progress, but by the end of the week during which I was pleased to see how seriously they took my requirements and the description of the music that I could hear in my own mind’s ear, we had a basic outline. This now had to be slowly filled in by the two poets […] I was delighted with the draft [synopsis] and even while reading it could already hear the artificial air of the Hammerhorn buzzing in my ears and could make out the voice of the mad and visionary old woman who for forty years has sung in metres from Lucia di Lammermoor, a modern Penelope who sits on the mountainside throughout the whole of the piece with her obbligato flute. I could already hear the first notes of the music for the two lovers, delicate flowers, meadow saffron and violets, and the grotesque, Wotanesque huffing and puffing of Gregor Mittenhofer, the cold-hearted poet who offers up human sacrifices to his Muse, the tragic, exhausted, Munch-like figure of the pitiful Countess Kirchstetten, who is associated with the sound of the English horn and whom we know one day will come to a sorry end – and at whom we can still poke fun, just as we can at the other characters, at least until such time as the laughter dies on our lips, a sensation that we are meant to feel time and time again in this piece. These people are real people, modern men and women, with their weaknesses and strengths, mortals, not gods or heroes or any other kind of supernatural being.

I did not have long to wait: within a matter of weeks the finished libretto had plopped through my Partenopean letter box. Rarely had I received so generous a gift, and I started work on the music straightaway.

While working on the opera, Henze temporarily abandoned his Naples flat and moved to Berlin, where ‘there were assistants, creature comforts, a fast and reliable postal service, where people were punctual and I could abandon myself undisturbed to the folly of this commission and to the race against time that it entailed.’

I drove from Naples to Berlin, breaking my journey in Kirchstetten, where I regaled my poets with all that I had written so far, croaking out the vocal parts and accompanying myself at the piano. It seemed that they liked what they heard. They had imagined that there would be spoken dialogue, as is normal in Singspiels, but I preferred to set virtually all the spoken passages, specifying rhythms and notating approximate pitches, since, almost without exception, singers are prevented by their foreign or regional accents from pronouncing a poet’s words correctly if those words are unaccompanied. Minor adjustments and a number of cuts were made to the libretto, but otherwise there was nothing that need to be changed any longer.

Click here to watch the original video trailer from ENO’s 2009 production of Elegy for Young Lovers

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