German composer. One of the most prolific of contemporary composers, he has a worldwide reputation as a conductor of his own works.
Parental opposition to music as a career and to the arts in general made Henze's early days difficult and frustrating, but eventually he was allowed to study at the local music school in Brunswick (mainly piano and percussion). From 1944 to 1945 he was in the army, for a time a prisoner-of-war in England. After repatriation he went to study with the composer Wolfgang Fortner (1907–87) at the Heidelberg Institute of Church Music, where he received a concentrated grounding in contrapuntal techniques; later he studied with René Leibowitz (1913–72) in Paris. For several years he worked in various provincial opera houses, including two years as musical adviser for ballet at the Wiesbaden Opera. In 1951 his piano concerto won the Robert Schumann Prize at Düsseldorf. In 1953 Henze moved to Italy, first living on the island of Ischia, then in Naples, and later near Rome. He was artistic director of the Philharmonic Academy, Rome (1982–91) and held the chair of composition at both the Hochschule für Musik, Cologne (1980–81) and the Royal Academy of Music, London (1987). He also made frequent international conducting tours.
Henze's music derives from the serial techniques of the second Viennese School (see Schoenberg, Arnold Franz Walter), particularly those of Berg. His deep love and respect for Mozart and other classical composers is manifest in his use of classical structures, such as sonata and passacaglia, in many of his works. The influence of Stravinsky is apparent in his use of rhythm, and Henze's wide knowledge and love of Italian opera is apparent from the beauty and lyricism of much of his writing. Increasingly, in the late 1960s, Henze's left-wing Marxist ideals influenced his music: Das Floss der ‘Medusa’, a requiem for Che Guevara based on the same story as Gericault's painting, caused an uproar at its first abortive Hamburg performance (1968). Henze's operas include the early Boulevard Solitude (1951), an updating of the Manon Lescaut story, Elegy for Young Lovers (1959–61) and The Bassarids (1965), both with libretti by W. H. Auden, and We Come to the River (1974–76) and The English Cat (1982), both with libretti by Edward Bond, the former an indictment of social injustice in which several episodes are portrayed simultaneously, the music of one counterpointing the music of another. Other works include seven symphonies, concertos, chamber music, and ballet music, including Undine (1959), a work that helped to establish Henze's reputation in both Britain and the USA.