Der Prinz von Homburg

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Thursday 12th November 2009, 7.30 pm

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Only a few years following the publication in 1811 of Heinrich von Kleist’s play Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, first efforts were made to set it to music. Some 150 years later, Hans Werner Henze, one of the foremost German opera composers of the present day, was looking for suitable material for an opera and chose this story of the legendary officer and dreamer. “I was looking for a language that would force my music to perform new things when combined with it, a language that my music was aiming at,” says Henze, “and what I found was the Prinz.”

On the eve of the Battle of Fehrbellin, the Prince of Homburg wanders dreamily in the garden, watched by the electoral prince, his wife and Princess Natalie. The sleepwalking prince takes hold of Natalie’s hand, removes the glove from it and keeps it. Next morning, while the officers are discussing the strategy for the impending battle, his thoughts turn longingly to Natalie and he pays no attention to the orders given. As a result, he breaks ranks too soon on the battlefield, but nevertheless leads his troops to victory. But the electoral prince decrees that this unauthorised initiative is punishable by death. The prince is disarmed and arrested. Although Natalie protests, he declares that he finds his punishment fitting and will face the consequences. It is not until the corps of soldiers comes out in support of the prince that the death sentence is rescinded. The prince is led blindfold into the garden he once sleepwalked in. When Natalie removes the blindfold, what began as a dream becomes reality.

Whereas for Kleist the battle, obedience and punishment are the central themes, Henze focuses on the dream, love, the garden and the playful characters in his opera. He has created a moving musical drama of love, liberty and responsibility that was premiered in Hamburg in 1960. “What play is that that is accused in equal measure of possessing the spirit of servitude and the spirit of liberty?” wonders Henze’s librettist and friend, Ingeborg Bachmann. This dramatic ambivalence is also reflected in the music: Henze brilliantly combines serial elements, twelve-note technique and tonality and by so doing creates a balance between lyrical and dramatic moments.