Earlier today, in the unique bluish diffused light of a Milanese December morning, Opera Chic blasted some serious Henze on her vintage McIntosh sound system -- this time it was Undine, one of her many favorites in the greatest living composer's works.
How nice to notice a few minutes later in the British papers that, for the 50th anniversary of the work, the wonderful ballet has been gloriously brought back to life on the London stage:
Had it been set to the traditionally "pretty" ballet music, this strange and gently tragic fable of a fellow who fatally falls for a water-nymph could have seemed irredeemably twee. In the event, the German-born Hans Werner Henze delivered a score that not only has saltwater coursing through its veins, but one that's also packed with still-surprising darkness and discord.
writes the Telegraph. And the notion that, in a way, all of Henze's music is about dance, is indeed central to the understanding of the great man's work.
If you're not yet familiar with this work -- and you should, you should -- this great analysis of Undine from Ballet magazine contains everything you need to know:
The orchestration is vivid. In places, themes may sometimes not be easy to follow at first, but there is such a wealth of colour and variety in the music that greater familiarity with the score is amply rewarded. Henze remained an eclectic composer; there are various influences at work here, including the neo-classicism he absorbed early in his career as well as later experience. Henze assembles his musical ideas into an integrated whole that provides us with a rarity, a 20th century full-length ballet score that has the depth of a masterwork.
At the slow opening of the score there is immediately a romantic sense of mystery, but the music then launches into a quicker tempo, brass fanfares propelling the music along with a rhythmically incisive motif. Lyrical writing for strings (marked andante) follows in a very approachable idiom, using a straightforward lilting rhythm; the comparative simplicity of this section is in marked contrast to the next, a vivace in which ideas are thrown around with one section of the orchestra set off against another, but all with an underlying consistent rhythmic drive. Contrast is also vital to the next movement; at one instant there is the most luxuriant string texture, soon followed by a solo clarinet, which is then joined by a sparse accompaniment. High strings, harp (for the watery effect) and occasional percussion provide another contrasting orchestral sound, before the composer again re-assembles his palette of orchestral colours, using solo instruments in small groups, or alone, or high violins in long notes soaring above moving fragments of ideas below. These contrasts of texture, tempo, rhythmic idiom, and orchestral colour occur within the first few numbers, and such contrasts continue throughout the work. Sometimes the quicker movements exhibit a very consistent rhythmic pattern, whereas at other times (such as the Finale of Act 1) the rhythms are more uneven, with sudden accents darting about in Stravinskian fashion, the music being punctuated here and there by astringent wind chords.
There's a beautiful recording of this work out, conducted by Friend of HWH, the sweet bear of a man that is composer Oliver Knussen.
In Henze's own diary, the maestro writes a wonderful page on the genius of that 1958 world premiere's performer:
The crown of the creation, the radiant centre of the whole ballet, was Margot, the assoluta, the frail instrument, the master’s Stradivarius. She was the source of the most delicate movements. […] From her first appearance, Margot is the fragile vessel of Ashton’s fragile poetry. A movement of her body, an upward glance, a port des bras, a floating above a cantilena – already the portrait of the unearthly being that is Ondine is complete.