An Analysis of Hans Werner Henze’s "S. Biagio 9 Agosto ore 1207"

This work appeared on my recent senior recital, and I have experienced deeply how it feels and how it sounds; an ethereal and extremely expressive atonal work. Like most atonal music to me, it feels very cohesive and intuitive, though even through in depth analysis, I still can’t see completely why it works the way it does in listening or performing it. I believe this piece has a life of it’s own and can speak volumes not only through it’s perceived cohesiveness, but also it’s imperceptible musical content.

The existing literature regarding this piece, after extensive research is, is zero, so this piece will exist (for now) as the single most important, thorough, and well researched document regarding this piece of work. Seriously though, I hope that an analysis of this work will bring it more into full view of bass players and composers alike, as it shows not only a compelling solo double bass piece, but also a very great view of the strengths of the solo bass as a performing instrument. I hope this analysis can give those interested in performing this work something to catch their attention and possibly a reason to explore the music deeper.

In this analysis, we will be looking at how the different harmonic areas interact (particularly: chromatic, octatonic, diatonic, and whole-tone) and what different significant set-classes and chords can signify in the piece, specifically within the programmatic elements. We will also look at how many different elements may have influenced the composition through some history and detective work.


German composer Hans Werner Henze (1 July 1926 – 27 October 2012) evolved consistently and extremely throughout his lifetime. His output is vast and extremely varied, including but not limited to operas, musicals, symphonies, film scores, chamber works, ballets, and choral music. A very politically involved and principally-extroverted composer, he often faced struggle in the performances of his works and the expressing of his views; a member of the Communist party of Italy, a Marxist, and a homosexual in the middle of the 20th century accrued a lot of hardship for him.

Henze’s early life immersed him in many varying political and social experiences, as well. As a young man, he was part of the Hitler Youth; he began studying music at the state music school in Braunschweig 1942 before being conscripted to the German forces; after being captured and held in a British POW camp, and his father’s death on the Eastern front, he began studying music again at Heidelberg university.

After this, he embraced many different compositional styles and genres, including serialism, jazz, free-atonalism, and at one point even Parisian popular music. The sheer amount of work he produced and vastly different styles he created make his works almost unique unto themselves, drawing similarities to other works but to me, never obvious parallels.

His first composition for the solo double bass was a concerto commissioned by bassist Gary Karr in 1966. Gary Karr mentions it on his website, and I believe it gives definitive insight into how Henze thinks about the double bass:

“I fell in love with [Henze’s] music and asked him if he would consider writing me a concerto. ...He asked me to audition for him and show him the possibilities on the bass. As I was playing for him, the G-string became unraveled around the note F and every time my finger slid over that spot it cut into my skin. Henze noticed the blood dripping from the fingerboard and commented how much that appealed to him. ...[I] applied for a grant to commission him. It was approved and I gave Henze $8000 to write it. ...The writing was not as idiomatic as I would have liked...He had me playing seventh double stops in the bottom octave of the instrument which...is impossible. ...[H]e did not like the concept of solo tuning [F#BEA] and refused to write his subsequent bass pieces with scordatura tuning in mind. In fact, I got the distinct feeling that he didn't like me or my ideas. When he offered the solo part for publication by [Schott], he refused to allow me to edit the part[.] ...After these slaps in my face, I decided not to push for more performances of this work.” (5)

By this account, Henze sounded like a highly emotional and difficult person to work with who once bound by an idea, would simply not change his mind, especially regarding the instrument at hand. Like the above experience suggests, his second and last piece for solo double bass, he writes “the author begs [!] his colleagues bass players to play this piece in this normal tuning [EADG]”.

Hans Werner Henze composed S. Biagio 9 Agosto ore 1207: Ricordo per contrabbasso solo in 1977 for Dieter Lange, bassist of Zurich Opera House and Lucerne University in Switzerland, and is the second of two works written by him for double bass as soloist along with the concerto. The name represents the church of San Biagio in Montepulciano, Tuscany, Italy, which Henze would have seen during his first years organizing his new music festival, Cantiere Internazionale d'Arte (International Art Workshop). This festival happens during the end of the July and beginning of August, so the piece, a “memory for bass solo” from “San Biagio on August 9th at 12:07” (translated from Italian), likely represents an event that occurred there.

In my research on analyses of the work, I found a few models for what the piece might mean, but found one which piqued my interest. In John Rockwell’s New York Times article regarding a concert from Tanglewood Festival’s Contemporary Music concert, he says: “Mr. Henze's ''S. Biagio 9 Agosto ore 1207'' (1977) for solo bass is an elegy for a departed friend. It makes a mysterious, sad, elusive farewell...” There is a lot of support in looking at this piece as an elegy and not only through possible interpretations of the music, but also in the subject matter presented by the title.

The temple of San Biagio in Montepulciano, Tuscany, Italy is a Renaissance Greek church that was built around the year 1000 and reconstructed in the mid to late 1500’s. It was built on the site of an older pieve (a church from the middle-ages) that had been dedicated to St. Mary and later St. Blaise, which is where the name Biagio comes from. St. Blaise was a bishop from the 3rd and 4th century in historical Armenia with a unique story:

His holiness was manifest through many miracles: from all around, people came to him to find cures for their spirit and their body; even wild animals came in herds to receive his blessing. In 316, [the governor]...arrived...to kill the Christians [and] arrested the bishop. As he was being led to prison, a mother set her only son, choking to death of a fish-bone, at his feet, and the child was cured straight away. Regardless, the governor, unable to make Blaise renounce his faith, beat him with a stick, ripped his flesh with iron combs, and beheaded him.

Needless to say, his death was unexpected and heartbreaking, probably leaving many in his town grief-stricken. This temple, dedicated to him, may have evoked some of these feelings in the composer, consciously or subconsciously, and could have steered his work in a way that reflected the grieving process. Before we begin let’s establish a couple of ideas: that this work represents one person’s experience, and that this experience can be described using the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of the grieving process. Lets explore these ideas and how they fit in with our analysis.


I’ll start by talking about the dominant harmonic areas within the piece: chromatic, octatonic, diatonic, and whole-tone. When a group of notes is circled, this signifies a set-class or otherwise significant group of notes, and when a bracket surrounds a large passage, this signifies that there is a dominant harmonic force that drives this area. In the tonal analysis (Ex. A), chromatic sections are marked in black, octatonic in orange, diatonic in green, and whole-tone in red. Within each group (except the chromatic group) there are significant set-classes, which I’ll briefly describe before moving on:

  • 3-8 (026) – This whole-tone set opens the piece as a subset of 5-28, but often repeats exactly as first presented, if not some kind of transformation. When this set-class shows up by itself (not within 5-28), it usually represents transition or cadential motion.
  • 3-11 (037) – This diatonic set is exclusively presented as a chord, with the one exception being when it is a diad followed by a single note. I feel this represents a religious symbol within the piece.
  • 5-28 (02368) – This octatonic set includes the 3-8 set and begins the piece. It is a strange set that shows a lot of relevance to the piece, which I will get to later. 

The formal analysis (Ex. B) shows that the piece is comprised of five distinct sections, each with their own subsections (A1, A2, etc.) and phrase subdivisions (▽). Every time except for once these larger sections fall on a double bar, but always falling on some new event, I feel these represent well the composer’s intent.

We’ll start broad and move a little bit deeper. As mentioned before, I feel that the form of the analysis matches well the grieving process as described by Kubler-Ross. The grieving process can be described in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Each section of the piece reflects these emotions through use of thematic material, dynamics, harmonic content, and use of set-classes. The large form of the piece (A, B, C, D, E) can be directly attributed to each stage of the grieving process. Using the harmonic analysis and my visual representation of the piece’s dynamics (Ex. C), you can see it reflected in multiple ways:

 

A section; Denial: This section remains completely (excepting a couple of instances) in the octatonic area except for the last four bars. I believe that this represents a refusal to change from what always has been; “Saint Blaise has always been with us and can’t be gone, it’s impossible!” The beginning motive of 5-28 could represent the first news of the bishop’s passing or a realization that it may be true, as evidenced in later sections, but note that after this news comes, it is ignored or the rest of the section. The last four bars not only act as a transition to the next stage, but also as a shock to our subject that maybe the Saint has really gone. This 3-8 motive is presented at the beginning three times in succession as a rising question (CSEG [see below] 012), but when presented in the last four bars of A, as a question and an answer through transformation (CSEG 0121).

B section; Anger: First notice in the dynamic analysis (Ex. C) that the highest and longest peak is reached during this section; quadruple forte with crescendos (the loudest in the piece) for a total of seven whole bars. Every other section when reaching up towards a peak comes back down immediately afterward, within the same bar or in the proceeding one. This section is also the first where an extended series of chromatic pitches are introduced, in bars 19 through 20, that do not fit within any of the other groups, which could represent confusion or blind rage.

In tempo and note speed, we are now “un poco piú mosso” (a little faster) and a new quickest note group is reached, sextuplet sixteenth notes, specifically when reciting back 5-28, the first notes of the piece. The harmonic centers are almost careless in that it never stays in one place for too long, unlike other sections, and strays into all other harmonic sections. The 3-11 motive is first introduced here, representing a religious symbol of some kind. A religious symbol used in anger I would say is not uncommon, and the loudest section in the piece is on the lowest notes of the bass in 3-11, a robust grunting sound on the double bass. There are lots of ways to interpret what that could be, but I will leave that there. This stage closes again with one whole-tone 3-8 pattern (CSEG 120) followed by the most commonly occurring formation (CSEG 012).

C section; Bargaining: Starting at “meno mosso” (less motion), everything within this section is diatonic until the very final bar. Bars 38 through 45 are within the key of C# minor and are full of instances of 3-11. One can picture our subject in a church or kneeling by their bedside praying for their dear friend and bishop to come back. Such a prolonged area of diatonicism is unique to this piece and has a calm serenity to it; a respite from the anger our subject just had.

In bar 45, we begin with “un poco meno mosso ancora” (even less motion) with the diatonic language and finish out in the next bar with a direct transposition of the original theme at the beginning of the piece up an octave, very clearly leaving the safe comforting diatonic language. Firstly, the part-whole-tone and part-octatonic phrase 5-28 not only recalls what could be the first news of St. Blaise’s death or the realization of his passing and impermanence, but also represents a transition into the next stage of grieving. Bringing even more drama to this section is a rallentando in the last three beats of the transition material.

Section D; Depression: This whole section is a bit random in it’s harmonic areas, like the B (Anger) section, but I believe it represents this stage well. That there are almost no patterns or regularly recurring ideas shows the helplessness that must be felt and the overwhelming feelings that are taking over. However beyond this hysteria and powerlessness, there is an intense internal struggle going on in our subject about their unwillingness to accept St. Blaise’s death, represented through complete and incomplete iterations of the 5-28 motive, which is symbolic of the news of his death. I will be using unordered pitch interval sets to describe these motives, and the UPI set for the first iteration of 5-28 is <2423>.

In bar 47, we have five notes whose UPI set is <2524> and the last four notes, set-class 4-z15, are a subset of 5-28. This is followed by bar 48, who uses UPI set <2423> like the original, but with an octave-transposed first note. Bars 49 to 51 are chromatic and unlike anything around it, followed by the familiar holy 3-11, finding solace from the unknown. The second half of 51 and the first beat of 52 is another 4-z15, subset of 5-28. The 5-28 in the second half of bar 52 has a UPI set of <1242>, which is just changing the original tones’ order.

After another 3-11, in bars 54 and 55, we have not only our cadential/transition motive (3-8), but we also have an unfinished 5-28 motive as presented in bar 48; <242>, missing the last <3> we need to finish it out. This is also set-class 4-25 (0268), a subset of and very much related to 5-28 (02368).

Once this unfinished 5-28 occurs, there is a subito piano and a frantic crescendo up to a triple forte in bar 58, which for this section is very much unprecedented and unexpected. This dynamic shift is driven at first by two different 5-28 motives in bar 56: first, one with a UPI set of <1242> like bar 52, and the other with a UPI set of <2423>, exactly as it was first presented in the piece. It is followed by two unrelated sets, one chromatic and one octatonic, as we reach our triple forte peak.

After this angst and frustration, these accented triple forte notes, we settle down again into a recurrence of a diatonic theme from bar 43 in section C. Maybe this is a last effort to pray to get their bishop back? This desire is quickly dismissed, finishing this section with the cadential 3-8.

Section E; Acceptance: Though this sounds like an easy part of the process for our subject, Kubler-Ross describes it: “In this last stage, the individual begins to come to terms with their mortality or that of their loved one.” (2) Though it may be finally one of solace, knowing that their beloved St. Blaise is really gone and there is nothing they can do, a feeling of mortality and impermanence remains, and this somber feeling is represented here.

Beginning “piú mosso” (more motion) to signify moving on, with a 3-11, an acknowledgement that the Lord is in control of all these things regarding life, we see a saturation of whole-tone figures, either 3-8 or 5-33 (02468); this cadential/transitional figure being presented so abundantly represents the final transition out of grief. Between bars 62 and 65, whatever is not one of these whole-tone sets is either extremely chromatic (confusion) and another 3-11 set. Following this, we have two almost whole-tone sets, 6-34 (013579), a superset of 5-33, followed by two totally whole-tone 5-33 iterations. This is some serious transitional material!

At bar 68, we are now “molto meno mosso” (much less movement) and “dolcissimo” (sweetly). The 3-11 is stronger at the outset now, being only disturbed by a chromatic pitch (G), but is followed by first a 5-33, and then a series of highly ornamented and chromatic sets. Iterations of 3-8 pop up, but only within the beginning of a larger chromatic area.

Starting at bar 75, I believe we now transition away from the story of our subject and their grief and to a less focused musical epilogue. Timbrally when you listen to this section played as written, “flautando dolcemente” (bow over the fingerboard, sweetly), the timbre is reminiscent of organ pipes or a flute, as “flautando” suggests. He even writes “ad lib. tutto in armonici” (optional: all in harmonics) which would pull that organ sound out even further, though it’s extremely difficult to execute (Except for Diana Gannett’s amazing recording of it from her record “Lady Bass”; she’s a monster). I feel that from bar 75 to the end is about the temple itself. What about the temple can be speculated, but I think it is simply a culmination of all the things surrounding this story; Saint Blaise, the temple, the composer, the festival, the music, etc.

Bars 75 through 81 and their chromatic sets and movement show that this confusion and grief is still there. The soft tones of the end really carry a somber sound with a strange set of overtones on the bass. It is really a unique sound, difficult as it is to execute; when done well it really is spectacular. Note also that the last two note diad of 81 and the first note of 82 make up a 3-11.

Bar 82, a senza misura bar comprised entirely of harmonics (which described above, sound ery organ-like), is made up of two gestures. The first, written with “molto adagio” (very slowly), has two different 3-8 iterations in it, a 5-33 set, and one can also extrapolate a 4-z29 from the last notes (Ex. A), a subset of 5-28. The second, “tempo primo” (original tempo), is all at a quadruple piano dynamic, the quietest of the entire piece, and ends with a diminuendo from there! He obviously is looking for an intimate color and wants everyone to know that this moment is extremely important. The last four notes are a 4-25: strong subset of 5-28 through inversion and transposition; an exact transposition two octaves above the beginning motive without the last note; and also whole-tone representing the final cadence of the piece, the final transition. The last note is also a whole note with a fermata and a diminuendo, as if it could really last forever once it disappears.


This analysis of the piece will hopefully take listeners through a relatable story, gain more interest in the piece from other bass players, and draw more people into the music of Hans Werner Henze. In the field of analysis regarding his piece, I don’t see this as any kind of landmark, but his body of work is amazing and I hope you look at some more of his larger or solo works. I also hope it will give reason for other instrumentalists to look more deeply at the music they play to gain a fuller understanding then they had before. I really enjoy this piece and hope I was able to impart this excitement through this analysis.


GLOSSARY

Example A, Example B, Example C

CSEG: A contour segment (CSEG), is a numeric representation of the relative heights of the notes in any melody, melodic fragment, or set-class. It is an ordered collection, with as many elements as there are notes (n), numbered from lowest to highest (beginning with 0) according to the height of the note within the segment. (4)

BIBLOIGRAPHY

  1. Duffle, B. (1981, January 1). Hans Werner Henze Interview with Bruce Duffie. Retrieved June 10, 2014, from http://www.bruceduffie.com/henze.html 
  2. Retrieved June 12, 2014, from https://www.hdsa.org/images/content/1/3/13080.pdf 
  3. Rockwell, J. (1984, August 1). CONCERT: TANGLEWOOD. The New York Times. Retrieved June 10, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/1984/08/02/arts/concert-tanglewood.html 
  4. What Is "The Matrix"?. (n.d.). What Is "The Matrix"?. Retrieved June 12, 2014, from http://www.robertkelleyphd.com/12-tone.htm 
  5. Hans Werner Hanze. (n.d.). TalkBass.com. Retrieved June 10, 2014, from http://www.talkbass.com/threads/hans-werner-hanze.259779/ 
  6. Chiesa di San Biagio (Montepulciano). (n.d.). - Wikipedia. Retrieved June 10, 2014, from http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiesa_di_San_Biagio_(Montepulciano) 
  7. Hans Werner Henze. (2014, June 10). Wikipedia. Retrieved June 10, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Werner_Henze 
  8. Saint Blaise. (2014, June 14). Wikipedia. Retrieved June 10, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Blaise