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Scandal of the 60s: The Raft of the Medusa

Hans Werner Henze’s revolutionary oratorio will be performed at the Elbphilharmonie on 17 November.

Chanting demonstrators and incensed musicians, angry protests and police brutality: the first performance of Hans Werner Henze’s oratorio »The Raft of the Medusa« on 9 December 1968 in Hamburg was drowned in the tumult: a full-blown music scandal in a time of political turbulence, with the librettist Ernst Schnabel even getting injured and then arrested. Henze’s oratorio is now being performed again at the Elbphilharmonie with the SWR Symphonieorchester under the baton of Peter Eötvös.

Hans Werner Henze
Hans Werner Henze © NDR / Susanne Schapowalow

9 December 1968: Everyone is ready for the performance at the Ernst-Merck-Halle in Hamburg’s Planten un Blomen park. The NDR Choir, the RIAS Chamber Choir, the St. Nikolai Boys’ Choir, the NDR Symphony Orchestra and a top-flight ensemble of soloists, including Edda Moser and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, are waiting for the premiere to begin, likewise an audience numbering 1,200. Henze himself will be on the conductor’s rostrum, and the performance is to be broadcast live on the NDR radio station, northern Germany's public radio (and television) broadcaster.

The rehearsals for the premiere in the Ernst-Merck-Halle.
The rehearsals for the premiere in the Ernst-Merck-Halle. © NDR / Hans-Ernst Müller

It is imperative that only the rich are saved from the shipwreck. And almost 200 sailors and soldiers are forced to improvise and build a raft – that is the raft of the Medusa.

Hans Werner Henze

The Misfortune of the Medusa

The NDR had commissioned Hans Werner Henze, one of the leading composers of the day, to write the music, with author Ernst Schnabel contributing the libretto. »The Raft of the Medusa« tells the story of the frigate Medusa, which ran aground on a voyage to Senegal in 1816. Despite good visibility and calm seas, the completely inexperienced captain sailed the ship on to a sandbank off the coast of West Africa. There was only space in the lifeboats for the officers, priests and wealthy merchants; regular passengers and the rest of the crew were left to fend for themselves on a raft that had been hastily knocked together.


Thus 150 people drifted across the water for days under the scorching sun. There were killings, cannibalism and rape amongst the shipwrecked, showing that Man is capable of anything in the brutal struggle to survive. When the raft of the Medusa was finally sighted by chance 13 days later, there were only 15 survivors. The reports on the accident and the inhuman behaviour of captain and officers alike fuelled the flames of the revolutionary mood that was spreading across Europe in the early 19th century.

Hans Werner Henze on »The Raft of the Medusa« (German only)


In the year when the student protests came to a head, when an anti-communist tried to kill student leader Rudi Dutschke and the government passed emergency legislation, people everywhere felt helpless in the face of the escalating violence. With their version of the Medusa story, Hans Werner Henze and Ernst Schnabel were aiming to make a statement.


For Henze and Schnabel, the passengers and sailors abandoned to their fate on the raft symbolised the oppressed and starving people of the Third World. Henze described them as »victims of the heartlessness of selfish individuals from the world of power and wealth«. He exposed himself to criticism with his announcement that he would be dedicating the oratorio to the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. »Der Spiegel« decried Henze as a »drawing-room lefty« and a »cultivated opportunist« who was just applying political whitewash to the bourgeois musical ideal. His raft, the magazine said, was floating »in the wake of the counterrevolution«. The conservative press for their part got all excited about the NDR, a public broadcasting station, commissioning a composition from the »Communist« Henze in the first place. The Springer Verlag’s TV magazine »Hörzu« smugly advertised the radio broadcast as »Music for Che«.

Victims of the heartlessness of selfish individuals from the world of power and wealth.

Hans Werner Henze


The directors of the NDR just managed to dissuade Henze from printing the dedication to Che Guevara in the concert programme. After his execution in Bolivia in 1967, the guerrilla had become an icon of the left-wing protests in Europe. The public controversy surrounding Henze’s and Schnabel’s work turned the Hamburg premiere into a political issue once and for all.

No red flag!

Musiker des Abends / Musician on the evening


Socialist students from the Musikhochschule in Hamburg assembled in the concert hall to protest against the ritualised, bourgeois music business. The students demanded that models for performing music be developed that couldn’t be subject to manipulation through government subsidies. The Berlin-based project group »Kultur und Revolution« run by the German Students’ Association was also present, and their handbills criticised the »organised witch-hunt« against Hans Werner Henze.

On the original recording of the 1968 live broadcast we hear whistling and chanting, scuffles. After a total of 20 minutes, the NDR stopped the live transmission of the disastrous first performance and broadcast a recording of the final rehearsal instead.

The red flag and the anarchists’ black flag were hoisted on the stage, and revolutionary Che Guevara looked down at the audience from a banner. The members of the West Berlin RIAS Chamber Choir – the radio choir of Berlin’s American sector – refused to perform beneath the red flag. They had the support of some of the audience, and chanting broke out. Hans Werner Henze stood helplessly next to the rostrum while the deputy director of the NDR, Ludwig Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord, tore down the offending flag on the stage.

The point is, the composer Hans Werner Henze said that he wouldn’t perform tonight if the red flag is torn down.

Protestierender Student / Protesting Student

Post-war radio pioneer Ernst Schnabel reminisces on the events that ocurred during the failed world premiere of the oratorio in an interview from 1978. (German only)

Following the failed premiere: Hans Werner Henze hastily leaves Planten un Blomen park.
Following the failed premiere: Hans Werner Henze hastily leaves Planten un Blomen park. © NDR / Hans-Ernst Müller

Years later, Ernst Schnabel was still upset by the memory of the events of 9 December 1968. In the course of the police action he was pushed through a glass door, injured and later charged at a tedious trial with »resisting state authority« and »setting prisoners free«. Henze can be heard on the radio declaring, »I distance myself from the police brutality!« before the live broadcast was stopped. It took another 33 years for Hans Werner Henze’s oratorio »Das Floß der Medusa« to be put on in Hamburg: in June 2001, Ingo Metzmacher conducted the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra in the first Hamburg performance at the Laeiszhalle.

And then they arrived. A task force. 40-50 men. The Financial Times reported: And then something horrible happened. Germany is a hateful country now.

Ernst Schnabel

Text: Mischa Kreiskott / NDR Kultur
Translation: Clive Williams
Thank you to NDR Kultur for the original recordings from 1968.