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DETAILS:

Timing:
c. 21:00

Orchestration: piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, 2 cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, 2 tom-toms, triangle, vibraphone), guitar, 2 harps, celesta, piano, and strings.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: May, 2001.

The idea for Undine as the basis of a ballet came from Frederick Ashton, choreographer of London’s Royal Ballet. Ashton’s passion was for the story of a water nymph in love with a mortal man, a tale written by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (1777-1843). He would adapt the story and of course choreograph it. Ashton was not the first to be attracted to the Fouqué fairytale, it had already been the source material of ballets in the 19th century; Tchaikovsky composed an opera on the subject in 1869 but he destroyed the score and only fragments remain. Famously, it was the basis of a play by Jean Giraudoux that was produced in Paris in 1939 (and in New York in 1954, starring Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer). And both Debussy and Ravel composed piano pieces depicting the watery sprite with irresistible watery pianistics.

Ashton’s obsession with Undine ultimately involved Hans Werner Henze (b. 1926). Ashton knew that the German composer had already composed the music for several ballets, and to make his case, he visited Henze in 1956 when the composer was living in Italy, where he resided from 1953 to 1965, on the island of Ischia. In his zeal to confirm his choice, Ashton had even gone to Berlin to see Henze’s opera König Hirsch, a retelling of the Gozzi fairytale about magical transformation, and the work convinced him that Henze was a man of the theater and indeed the one for the job he envisioned. The commission was made and accepted, and Henze and Ashton proceeded to work very closely together, much as Tchaikovsky had collaborated with choreographer Marius Petipa on The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.

The task was not an easy one for the composer, inasmuch as Ashton wanted a score that was essentially lyrical and Henze was no Tchaikovsky. An eclectic of extremely wide-ranging musical involvements, Henze had been influenced by most of this century’s important composers and styles, e.g, Stravinsky (for his harmony and his rhythmic urgency), Schoenberg (for his 12-tone method), Berg (for his lyrical deployment of that method), and Webern (for his total adherence to and distillation of it). Henze’s probing musical mind has manifested itself in nearly every corner of a huge and diverse catalog. As early as 1956, the year of Undine, in a ballet Maratona di danza, the 12-tone music in the orchestra was combined with an onstage Cuban rhythm band and a jazz combo.

Henze’s musical identities were formed in a Germany where contemporary music was virtually unknown and only by way of the radio did he become acquainted with the masters, first Mozart and then Bach. In 1942 at age 16 he entered the Brunswick State Music School for orchestral musicians, where he improved his piano technique and studied percussion, theory, and harmony. But the political situation conspired against further musical education; the times were clearly unstable. His schoolteacher father, who had fully embraced the Nazi ideology and imposed it upon his sons against their will, was sent to the Eastern front and never returned. In 1944 young Hans Werner was conscripted into military service, assigned to an armored tank division. Fortunately he found enough free time to try his hand at composing, and he had even more free time, for which he did not apply, when he became a war prisoner in a British camp. His internment proved something of a blessing, for he was able to improve his English and listen to all sorts of music on the BBC. In prison, his hatred for the Nazis intensified and became a lifelong emotion.

After the war, Henze held a number of jobs in order to help support his mother and siblings, but was still able to do some composing. After a period he had the good fortune to be able to go to Heidelberg, where he became a student of Wolfgang Fortner, who gave him a solid grounding in counterpoint, score reading, instrumentation, and music history. In addition, Fortner introduced him to the new music of such composers as Bartók, Hindemith, and Stravinsky. A major step forward in his career was attendance in 1946 at the Darmstadt summer courses for new music, for which he composed a neo-Baroque piece, the Kammerkonzert. It wasn’t long after that that he began on the 12-tone road, only to forsake the dogmatism of that method, preferring instead a tonally flexible approach to the system.

A statement that Henze made about his stylistic procedures sheds light on his score for Undine. “In my works for the theatre,” he said, “I have never completely left tonality, not even in the earliest ones. My music is nourished by just this state of tension: the abandonment of traditional tonality and the return to it. Rather like tensing a bow, it is here a kind of ‘tensing the ear.’”

The simple argument of the complex tale of Undine goes this way: “This is the story of Palemon and Undine telling how Palemon wedded with a water sprite and what chanced therefrom and how Undine returned to her native element beneath the Mediterranean Sea.”

That, of course, is the bare bones of the story; there are many characters and a fairytale story. Here is a reader’s digest version.

Out of a fountain in a palace garden, the water nymph Undine appears as a mortal girl. Palemon, alone in the garden, is entranced. They dance (naturally), become lovers and, defying Tirrenio, lord of the Mediterranean, they marry. On a ship, Berta, whom Palemon had been wooing, berates the pair; to assuage her Undine magically produces a beautiful necklace for her. Tirrenio creates a storm, seizes Undine, and drags her to the bottom of the sea. With Undine gone, Palemon marries Berta. At the wedding festivities, Tirrenio brings Undine back; Palemon realizes she is his true love. Undine warns him that, owing to his lack of faith, her kiss can only mean death to him. Unafraid, he accepts Undine’s kiss and he dies. Undine takes his body back to the sea, where they will remain together in eternity.

The ballet was premiered by the Royal Ballet at London’s Covent Garden on October 27, 1958, with Margot Fonteyn in the title role and Michael Somes as Palemon. The production was not a dreamed-for success, but the critics agreed that Fonteyn, then at the height of her phenomenal powers, triumphed. One critic called the ballet a Fonteyn concerto. Henze said that the ballerina was “the crown of our creation, the radiant center of the whole ballet, the master’s Stradivarius.”

Reporting on the ballet’s music and its composer, critic Everett Helm wrote: “The choice of the old-fashioned romantic story of Undine by this young composer will not surprise anyone who has followed Henze’s development in recent years. He started out his compositional career immediately after the war as an enfant terrible of the most radical, post Webern tendencies, and for several years he terrorized German audiences with his atonal stridencies. Some years ago he moved to Italy, and since that time his music has gradually become Mediterraneanized: By degrees he withdrew from the serially-minded avant-garde and has long since been excommunicated and consigned to Hades by the musical left wing.

“Henze’s ‘retrograde’ development reaches its most extreme point to date in Undine. Although dissonance is used freely when an expressive point is to be achieved, the score also contains many technical devices that could (with no deprecation) be called conventional: ostinatos, sequences, modulations, tonality, triads, regular rhythms and periods, and the like. The emancipated Henze, who now finds the shackles of serial technique too restricting, mixes his techniques with an expert hand and thereby achieves a broad spectrum of expressive and dramatic colors.”

Henze arranged several suites from the score; the one on this program is the second, and the sections do not conform to the action of the ballet.

-- Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to
contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.