Hans Werner Henze’s König Hirsch
In König Hirsch, Henze imagined operatic tradition primarily as an Italian inheritance consisting of vocal beauty, formal artificiality, and emotional expression. König Hirsch mediated Henze’s experiences living and listening in Italy through the musical modernism in which he had been trained immediately following the war. Tributes to conventional operaticism included stylized incantations, moments of hysterical coloratura, a villainous Credo, and several instances of folk-music pastiche. A close reading of Henze’s characterization of the musician figure Checco, who expresses himself partly through diegetic “Neapolitan” song, shows the collision between Henze’s modernism and his newfound italianità. The opera’s arias later became emblems of the opera’s expressive excesses; the conductor of the premiere, Hermann Scherchen, subjected them to severe cuts, setting off a fight over the artistic status of traditions of vocalism and emotion that ensured Henze’s definitive break with the avant-garde.
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