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Masterpiece Theatre: Part Five - Henze's Undine




The score for this three-act ballet became one of the early triumphs of the thirty-year-old Hans Werner Henze. Written soon after the composer moved permanently from Germany to Italy, it has a warmth and sensuousness that comes from the Mediterranean air, a quality he had promised the choreographer, Frederick Ashton, when they first hatched the project at an outdoor café on the island of Ischia, off Naples. The music is influenced by the between-the-war-years German composers and the colorful orchestral sense of Parisian composers of the twentieth century (including the Russian emigré Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). The ballet became the favorite role of the great British dancer Dame Margot Fonteyn. The main role became indelibly associated with this great ballerina, perhaps to the detriment of the long-term chances of the project. Fonteyn was at her best in the role when the music was fresh and not readily assimilated by the ballet audience. Critics ascribed all the success of the ballet to Fonteyn and all the perceived problems with it to the young composer. By the time the music's style became more familiar, Fonteyn had retired and later interpreters of the title role were always unfavorably compared to her.

The ballet is based on De La Motte Fouqué's classic tale of the love of a mortal for a water spirit. The choreographer and composer modeled their work on mid-nineteenth century Romantic ballets (intending an evocation rather than a pastiche of that genre). When Henze brought each day's new pages of piano score to Ashton and played them, the choreographer would often jab him with his finger and demand, "Give me a tune!" Therefore the score also has a Romantic, melodic quality that is not common to much of his other work.

Henze always retained a special affection for this score, and has prepared at least five different orchestral arrangements from it. After forty years the score received its first full commercial recording, by Olivier Knussen on Deutsche Grammophon.

[Article taken from All Music Guide]

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Henze's Undine, for me, is one of the last great masterpieces of the ballet genre. It's so mercurial in its musical language, but subsequent listens reveals a whole world of beauty that's well beyond the surface. For those that don't know this work, do give it a listen.
 

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I've really neglected my Henze collection in recent years. I do have the Oliver Knussen recording. If I can find it I'll give it a fresh spin.
 
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I've really neglected my Henze collection in recent years. I do have the Oliver Knussen recording. If I can find it I'll give it a fresh spin.
Same here. I own the Henze Collection on DG, but I need to get back to exploring his music. I do know Undine and it's an exquisite work.
 
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