Das Floß der Medusa

Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa) is an oratorio by the German composer Hans Werner Henze. It is regarded as a seminal work in the composer's political alignment with left-wing politics.

Das Floß der Medusa
Oratorio by Hans Werner Henze
The composer in 1960
EnglishThe Raft of the Medusa
Textby Ernst Schnabel, including passages from Dante's Divina Comedia
  • German
  • Italian
Based onMeduse
DedicationRequiem for Che Guevara
Performed29 January 1971 (1971-01-29): Vienna
  • soprano
  • baritone
  • choirs
  • large orchestra

Henze wrote it as a Requiem for Che Guevara, and set it to a text by Ernst Schnabel. It tells the story of the French frigate Meduse, which ran aground off the west coast of Africa in 1816, an ignominious episode in French political and maritime history, immortalised by the painting of the same name by Théodore Géricault. The work employs a large orchestra, a speaker, a soprano, a baritone, and choruses. In the course of a performance, the chorus members move from left side of the stage, "the Side of the Living", to the right side, "the Side of the Dead". The text is principally in German, with the addition of passages in Italian drawn from Dante's Divina Comedia sung by some of the dead.[1][2] Aside from the dedication, and one possible musical reference to a popular leftist slogan chant of the 1960s, "there's very little else in the text or music arouse political emotions", wrote one critic. She thought the work "expertly put together, scintillating in its scoring and at [its] best moments ... a superheated, expressionist narrative."[1]

Performance history

The first performance was scheduled for 9 December 1968 at the Planten un Blomen Hall in Hamburg. Just before it was due to begin, a student hung a large poster of Che Guevara on the rostrum rail, which was torn down by an official from NDR radio. Some students then hoisted the Red Flag and another Che portrait; some anarchists raised the Black Flag. At this point, although Henze and soloists had arrived onstage, the RIAS choir started chanting "Under the Red Flag we sing not" and left the stage. After some scuffles, the police arrived and began removing the students, taking Schnabel with them. Henze reappeared, stating that the police intervention had made a performance impossible, and led part of the audience in a chant of "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!" before they dispersed, the premiere cancelled.[3]

However, prior to the aborted performance a recording was made, with soloists Edda Moser, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Charles Régnier, several choirs and the Sinfonieorchester des Norddeutschen Rundfunks, conducted by the composer.

It was finally premiered at a concert performance in Vienna on 29 January 1971, and its first stage production was given in Nuremberg on 15 April 1972. Henze revised the work in 1990, and it has been performed on several occasions since, notably by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle in 2006.


  1. Strongin, Throdore (16 November 1969). "Hans Werner Henze's Raft was a Riot" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved 26 January 2016.
  2. CD liner notes, Das Floß der Medusa, DG CD 449871 (1996 reissue of DGG LP 139428-9).
  3. Ernst Schnabel, "Zum Untergang einer Uraufführung" and "Postscriptum nach dreiunddreissig Tagen", in Hans Werner Henze and Ernst Schnabel, Das Floss der Medusa: Text zum Oratorium, 47–61 & 65–79 (Munich: Piper-Verlag, 1969);
    Andrew Porter, "Henze: The Raft of the Frigate 'Medusa' – Oratorio" [record review of DGG 139428-9], Gramophone 47, no. 563 (April 1970): 1625;
    Anon. "Affären/Henze: Sie bleibt", Der Spiegel 22, no. 51 (16 December 1968): 152. (in German)

Further reading

  • Hamel, Peter Michael. 2000. "Politisches Komponieren damals und heute: Persönliche Rückblicke und Einsichten". In Kultur, Bildung, Politik: Festschrift für Hermann Rauhe zum 70. Geburtstag, edited by Wolfgang Hochstein and Hanns-Werner Heiser, 735–51. Hamburg: Bockel. ISBN 3-932696-34-4
  • Traber, Habakuk. 2000. "Musik ergreift die Fahnen: Die Skandale um Henzes Floß der Medusa und Nonos Intolleranza 1960". Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 161, no. 3 (May–June): 34–41.
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