In this morning’s newspaper I read the obituary of Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012). I fear I’d never heard of him, but despite my ignorance, he was one of the leading composers in post-war Germany.
As a young man starting his music career in a country devastated by war, Henze had many strikes against him. The article called him a Paradiesvogel (bird of paradise), an outsider, who was politically a Leftist and, for the times probably his most difficult gig, a homosexual. In the eyes – and ears – of a conservative audience who was struggling in the war’s aftermath to regain some semblance of moral normality, Henze was far too colorful, his music far too ambiguous. Thus in the fifties he fled to Italy, to the freedom of the South, so the article states. His new neighborhood near Rome offered him the liberty his native land could not.
This set me thinking: Why did, for Henze, Italy equal freedom? I know a bit about the place and freedom is not the first notion that pops up. I think more of (claustrophobic?) family ties binding individuals, an almighty Church that whistles the moral tune (at least on the surface) and a politically fractured society.
But perhaps what Henze found there has nothing to do with the actual consistency of Italian society and his place in it. As an outsider, he would have operated beyond those constraints. They would not have applied to him. Italy was only the place he chose to live: good weather, good food, good musical heritage with which to connect. Although considering the above constrictions, why had Italy been a place so well-endowed with musicians and artists? Material for another essay, perhaps? Here I will restrict my thoughts to one rite of passage: Leaving Home.
Leaving home is a natural consequence of growing up. Or at least it should be. Most kids – not just those who are at sword’s points with their parents – are chewing at the bit, counting the days till they can move out, whether they are off to university or they have enough cash to afford their own place. In this new millennium most parents are looking forward to having the house to themselves. Less laundry, less cooking, more cash for travel and other postponed pastimes. To me it sounds like a win-win situation.
But: Some of us really left home, like Henze. Left homelands for foreign ones, initially temporarily. Until temporary somehow, gradually, sneaked up on you, and you suddenly realized you’d emigrated.
Does leaving your homeland work as liberation? It did for me. But it wasn’t until I discovered Garrison Keillor’s book, appropriately titled Leaving Home, that I found someone who had already articulated my incoherent thoughts on the subject. In the introduction to his book he writes:
“The beauty of a foreign land is that foreign places help your mind float free and reduce you to such simplicity, you can almost be a child, mon ami. You only know the words for good night and good day and please. You don’t know how to say ‘My life is torn between immutable existential uncertainties.’”
“Leaving home is a kind of forgiveness, and when you get among strangers, you’re amazed at how decent they seem. Nobody smirks at you or gossips about you, nobody resents your successes or relishes your defeats. You get to start over, a sort of redemption.”
Nothing left to add but: Amen. And thanks to Garrison Keillor!