The Kennedy Center

Adagio, Fugue, and Maenads' Dance from The Bassarids

About the Work

Hans Henze Composer: Hans Werner Henze
© Peter Laki

When Christoph von Dohnányi programmed the orchestral suite from Hans Werner Henze's opera The Bassarids-a work he has been associated with for over forty years-he couldn't have known that these performances with the NSO would turn into memorial tributes.  Henze's death last October ended one of the most spectacular compositional careers in recent times.  For more than half a century, the German composer's music has been performed all over the world, and for more than half a century, he never ceased to be controversial-a most unusual combination.  In the years after World War II, Henze refused to accept the radical break with tradition that characterized his contemporaries of the Darmstadt School (Boulez, Nono, Stockhausen); but he also repeatedly clashed with the conservative establishment because of his strong Communist sympathies.  Henze left Germany in 1953 and made his home in Italy for the rest of his life. 

Immensely prolific, he composed more than fifty stage works, ten symphonies, and a very large number of compositions in all genres, instrumental and vocal.  The Bassarids, premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 1966, was an important landmark:  a powerful, driving score calling for enormous forces, exploring paroxysms of passion.  The libretto was written by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, who had earlier created The Rake's Progress with Stravinsky; it was their second and last collaboration with Henze, after Elegy for Young Lovers (1961).  Based on Euripides' tragedy The Bacchae, the opera was about the conflict between unbridled sensuality and attempts to exercise rational control over it.  (The same conflict had also been at the center of Karol Szymanowski's 1926 opera King Roger, although the Polish composer placed the emphasis on seduction instead of violence.)

The Bacchae, also known as the Bassarids or the Maenads, are female followers of Bacchus (Dionysus), performing frenetic acts of worship in honor of the god of wine.  King Pentheus of Thebes tries to resist their savagery but is eventually torn to pieces by the angry crowd.

When Henze extracted his three-movement suite from the opera in 2005, he assigned some of the vocal parts to instruments (most notably, the lines of the dying Pentheus to a solo cello).  Yet he didn't want his audience to think about the opera and its plot when listening to the self-standing orchestral work.  Henze's boundless rhythmic and coloristic imagination guarantees that the music succeeds even without any overt literary and mythological references.