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Hans Werner Henze

Publisher: Chester Music

Fünf Botschaften für die Königin von Saba (2004)
commissioned by Radio France
Work Notes
à René Koering, affectueusement
Chester Music Ltd
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
17 Minutes
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Programme Note
Hans Werner Henze Fünf Botschaften für die Königin von Saba (2004)
Hans Werner Henze calls the opera that he says will be his last, L’Upupa and the Triumph of Filial Love, premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2003, ‘a German comedy after the Arabian’. The libretto, which he wrote himself, is like an abstraction of all fairy tales, a digest of the 1001 Nights. The story involves ‘a flying Demon, three Sons, three venerable Rulers, three fabulous treasures (the Upupa with golden feathers, a Jewish princess, and a musical Box of Miracles) and the happy return of a prodigal son’. At the centre is an old man, Al Radshi, Grand Vizier of Manda, the Island of the Black Baboons, who is depressed because he has lost his upupa or hoopoe, the golden bird that brings luck and was his great joy. His sons are sent out on different paths – of self-discovery, of course - to recover it, and ... much happens ... but happy endings are the order of the day ...

It is a fascinating opera, cast in eleven tableaux and full of set-pieces (aria, duet, quartet, cabaletta, and there is dialogue too), a far cry in its sharp-witted, burlesque sensibility from that archetypal ‘German comedy’, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, mischievously alluded to in the subtitle. Henze is closer in spirit to the Stravinsky of those enchanting avian masterpieces, the ballet The Firebird and the opera The Nightingale. For Radio France (and the Orchestre National de France) in 2004 he devised the 18-minute operatic paraphrase that receives its British premiere tonight. The title is somewhat deceptive. The Queen of Sheba is not a character in the opera, but, according to Arabian mythology, it was a talking hoopoe that revealed her existence to King Solomon, who then communicated with her by attaching messages to the bird’s wing.

The ‘messages’ in the concert work bring news to us of this late and colourful flowering of Henze’s prodigious operatic career. They are scored for a richly percussive, often exotic-sounding orchestra that includes three saxophones. Each short movement is linked to a tableau, though this is not indicated in the score. The first presents material from Tableau 5, ‘Conflict’, in which Al Kasim, the Grand Vizier’s youngest son – the work’s hero - argues with his personal Demon on a country road. They have the missing hoopoe in a cage and the Demon is happy to return with it to the Grand Vizier, but, no, Al Kasim must go and rescue a captive Jewish girl, Badi’at. The music is hectic and strident with an assertive trombone part.

The second message derives from Tableau 2, ‘The Sons’, in which those individuals are seen setting out on their respective paths, or rather – in the case of the good-for-nothing Adshib and untrustworthy Gharib - not setting out, but preferring to play cards. This movement is a brash scherzo dominated by the sly, sinuous sound of a pair of saxophones. In the next movement, excerpted from Tableau 9, ‘A Reunion’, and beginning with a slow, intense string passage, the two wicked brothers, still at cards, affect a happy reunion with Al Kasim but trap him down a well (Badi’at leaps in to join him). Trumpet flourishes herald the return of saxophone sonority.

The fourth message comes from Tableau 10, ‘The Magic Chest’, in which the wicked brothers bring back the golden hoopoe to Al Radshi but devastate him by saying Al Kasim is dead. Drummers, pipers and trumpeters emerge from the chest, and in the sonic rout the brothers are beaten, trampled on and nearly killed. In the nick of time Al Kasim, alive and well, appears with Badi’at, and they are able to stop the music.The brothers are condemned to spending the rest of their lives working in the municipal sewers of ‘some provincial backwater’. This movement is in the favoured Henze form of a fandango, one that is coruscating (note the early section for harp, piano, tuned percussion and three bright piccolos) and ever more strenuous.

It leads to the strange tremolo for gongs, tubular bells and tom-toms that opens the fifth message, a brief but touching Adagio based on Tableau 11, ‘The Twilight Hour’. This is purely orchestral in the opera, and depicts the old Vizier and Badi’at, with a golden hoopoe feather in her hand, ‘sitting quietly high on their tower’ and watching as Al Kasim rides off on his camel (he has just one more task to perform before he marries her), growing smaller and smaller until he vanishes in the evening light.

© Paul Driver

  • Ensemble
    SWR Radio-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
    André de Ridder
    Edition See-Igel:
Henze’s Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba. A short, five-movement spin-off from the composer’s latest opera, The Hoopoe, it shows Henze at his usual business in his 80th-birthday year: colourful, energetic, lyrical…
Keith Potter, Independent,04/09/2006
Masur and his French orchestra brought Henze’s exquisite set of miniatures, Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba (extracted from his most recent, and probably last, opera, L’Upupa – still, shamefully, unperformed in the UK), … It was a joy to encounter Henze still revelling in fresh, ear-tickling sounds: the harp, tuned percussion and three piccolos of the fandango brilliantly evoke the Arabian origin of the opera’s subject matter and display his undimmed wizardry as an orchestrator. Now we urgently need to hear the whole opera.
Hugh Canning, Sunday Times,03/09/2006
Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba is Henze’s title for his sequence of extracts from The Hoopoe. Though the scoring is often dense, it always remains lucid, and the colours of the brass and strings came up vividly in this assured performance, lightly flecked by sudden glints from the percussion.
George Hall, The Guardian,31/08/2006
‘…there was absolutely nothing to frighten in Henze’s Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba, and much to enchant. This suite, drawn from Henze’s recent gorgeous Eastern fantasy opera The Hoopoe, or the Triumph of Filial Love, had just the combination of tender warmth and magic that the title would suggest. In all Henxe’s 60-year career as a composer I doubt whether he has penned a score with so many mysteriously evocative sonorities […] And how affectionately and delicately all this was rendered by the orchestra. It was just as well we had this rich feast to begin with…
Ivan Hewett, The Daily Telegraph,30/08/2006
There could be no better a conductor than André de Ridder to convey the five cryptic and colourful messages Henze has compiled from his last opera, L'Upupa and the Triumph of Filial Love. De Ridder worked closely with the octogenarian composer at the work's premiere in 2003 in Salzburg and since then his career, like the Upupa epops, or hoopoe, of the opera's title, has taken flight. He succeeded Edward Gardner as assistant conductor at the Hallé and though that 18-month relationship has come to an end, the orchestra wants to see more of him with a series of guest appearances lined up. In arranging the 20-minute orchestral suite Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba, here receiving its British premiere, Henze has woven fragments of vocal lines into the instrumental fabric. A talking hoopoe bears messages from the Queen in this exotic bird's eye view of themes from 1001 Nights. The messages deal with the attempts of the Grand Vizier's sons to recover the golden-feathered hoopoe, which has flown the royal nest. In suitably dazzling orchestral colours, and with Henze's characteristic clarity, their personalities and encounters are strikingly illustrated. In true Arabian-fairy-tale fashion, there's a wicked lie, a musical battle and a surprise appearance by the hero. De Ridder's technical control of the instrumental forces and dynamic range was subtle, with as many pastel shades and glowing, silky sounds as there was spiky plumage in the orchestra's scintillating account of these messages. I hope they have another airing soon, at the BBC Proms perhaps, with the broadcast they deserve.
Lynne Walker, Independent,22/03/2006
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