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First edition of vocal score. Berlin & Paris, [1917].

First edition of vocal score. Berlin & Paris, [1917].

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Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina : 'musikalische Legende' in three acts.  The Centenary of the first performance, Prinzregententheater, Munich, 12 June 1917.

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Hans Pfitzer. Photograph by Johann Hülsen, Berlin. Reproduced in Monographien Moderner Musiker, Band II (Leipzig, 1907). Hans Pfitzner composing Palestrina. Postcard of a photograph by Wanda von Debschitz-Kunowski, c.1910. The Brendan G Carroll Collection.

Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949) is regarded as the last of Germany's conservative traditionalists, yet ironically, he was actually born in Moscow on May 5 1869, where his father was violinist in a theatre orchestra. The family moved to Germany in 1872 and he grew up in Frankfurt.  Pfitzner always regarded himself as wholly German, almost fanatically so, and he never spoke a word of Russian. 

In fact, his pride and devotion to his adopted land was to develop to such an extent that, when National Socialism began its inexorable rise under Hitler, he embraced its ideals with a fervent enthusiasm that eventually led to his reputation (and his music) being forever tarnished with Nazi sympathies, even to the present day.

His story is somewhat more complicated than that however and - his unfortunate political associations aside - there is much to enjoy in his finely crafted music, particularly a large collection of very beautiful songs, (some of which were recorded by Gerhard Hüsch with Pfitzner at the piano in the late 1930s), a tunefully romantic Violin Concerto, an impressive body of chamber works and, his magnum opus, the opera Palestrina which is still considered to be his masterpiece.

Pfitzner showed early musical talent and had already begun to compose small pieces by the age of 11. His teachers gave him a good grounding in the classical tradition - Iwan Knorr in composition and James Kwast in piano, at the Hoch Konservatorium in Frankfurt. Pfitzner later married Kwast's daughter Mimi, after she had rejected the proposal of Percy Grainger.

Pfitzner taught at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin (among his pupils were Otto Klemperer, Charles Münch and Carl Orff), and also became a conductor in small theatres in Mainz and Berlin, before finally being appointed opera director and head of the conservatory in Strasbourg in 1908, his first major position at the age of 39. Throughout this slow but steady rise to prominence, Pfitzner had continued to compose and had even impressed Mahler, who conducted his second opera Die Rose vom Liebesgarten in Vienna in 1905, chiefly at the urging of both the conductor Bruno Walter and his wife Alma, the latter having become strangely infatuated with the composer, who also adored her in return.

His music was always firmly rooted in the late romantic tradition of the 19th century and he viewed the extreme developments of the early 20th century with alarm and disdain. He had succumbed to the influence of Wagner early on in life, and this influence was increased through the task (while still a student) of copying out the parts of Humperdinck's Wagnerian fairy-tale opera Hansel and Gretel.  However he managed to expunge his own style of its more extravagant excesses. 

His reputation as an ultra-conservative stems entirely from a very public anti-modernist stance, which he vehemently proclaimed in a number of prominent publications and pamphlets, especially Futuristengefahr: bei Gelegenheit von Busonis Ästhetik (The Danger of the Futurists: the position taken by Busoni's Aesthetics) which he wrote in 1917, the year of the world premiere of Palestrina and in reply to Busoni's Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music (Leipzig, 1916). Prior to this, Pfitzner and Busoni had been good friends, Busoni including various works by Pfitzner in his Berlin concerts and Pfitzner even conducting Busoni's grandiose Piano Concerto (with the composer as soloist) in Strasbourg (January 1913).  They were never reconciled.

He also waged public battles with the influential music critic Paul Bekker and made no secret of his opposition to the New Viennese School and all things Schoenbergian, especially with a very public argument (in print) with Alban Berg.  Pfitzner's distaste for his contemporaries was not confined to the serialists; he also privately disliked Richard Strauss (especially his operas Salome and  Elektra and the tone poems, which he regarded as an aberration of classical form) but this antipathy was probably fuelled by professional jealousy. In fact, Pfitzner seems to have had a particular gift for making powerful enemies everywhere he went and he was renowned for a total absence of tact and a social ineptitude that bordered on the comic. The witty conductor Egon Pollak once described him to Erich Wolfgang Korngold as "the bane of German music".

While he was always a proud German nationalist, this pride became almost an obsession during WW1. When the formerly Imperial region of Alsace  was annexed by France after the Armistice - and with it, Strasbourg - Pfitzner lost all of his possessions, his job and his home almost immediately, and he was left destitute, just as he turned 50. His German patriotism thereafter deepened and all of the most unpleasant aspects of his difficult, egocentric personality became more pronounced. It was against this strained background that the opera Palestrina came to be written.

This was actually Pfitzner's fourth opera. It seems that he began to compose it as early as 1909, possibly as a reaction to Strauss's Elektra which received its premiere in January that year and horrified him. Pfitzner's musical aesthetic embraced the narrow viewpoint that the seeds of the greatest music were to be found in the works of Schumann and Weber and reached the zenith of expression in those of Richard Wagner.

Palestrina (which, tellingly, is the only opera for which Pfitzner wrote his own libretto) is, in effect, a grandiose defence for the music of the past set against a re-imagined and entirely fictional historical scenario that bears hardly any relation to the true facts of Palestrina's life. That possibly explains the reason for his calling the work a 'musical legend'.

In the opera (set in 1563, the year of the Council of Trent), the great Italian master is depicted as a burnt-out, elderly and widowed man who is suffering a lonely old age. In truth he was only 38 in 1563, his wife would not die until 1580 and he would eventually remarry.

The central argument of the work is that Palestrina composes his famous Missa Papae Marcelli in order to "rescue" polyphonic music from Papal banishment, in favour of a return to the purer, more Godly style of Gregorian Chant for the liturgy. This is also nonsense, as the Mass was not written during the Council of Trent but about 20 years earlier and Palestrina certainly had no impact, creatively or otherwise, on musico-political developments in the 16th century.

What can be perceived in this work therefore is a deliberate self portrait. Pfitzner clearly identifies himself with the composer Palestrina, and we are meant to see this opera as an heroic attempt by him to rescue 20th century music from all the modernistic developments that had gathered strength as both the German and Austro-Hungarian empires began to crumble towards the end of WW1.

Pfitzner artfully blends genuine characters from the Counter-Reformation (e.g. Cardinal Borromeo) within this legend, and the dramatic centrepiece of the work comes in Act 2 with the final day of the Council of Trent, at which all of the religious factions argue and bicker to great musical effect.

The outer acts take place in Palestrina's house and concern themselves with philosophy and ideas rather than genuine dramatic action.  As New Grove states: " Palestrina... presents the ideal realisation of the artist's freedom, both in self-determination and in responsibility to humanity".  It is also curious how each act is shorter than the preceding one, which makes the overall structure seem somewhat uneven. The work is through-composed.

The essentials of the plot are as follows:-

Act One
The opera opens with a sparsely scored Prelude in D minor that signifies Palestrina's nostalgia for the past, its chamber scoring evoking an impression of 16th century-style rather than attempting to mimic it. It is similar in function to the preludes to Lohengrin and Parsifal in that it presents a distillation of the main ideas of the work that follows. 
The first scene introduces Palestrina’s son Ighino and the pupil Silla as they argue the merits of secular solo song versus ensemble music and they bemoan the fact that the aged Palestrina has not written any music since the death of his wife Lukrezia.  The composer arrives with his friend Cardinal Borromeo who (in an impressive monologue that lasts almost a quarter of an hour) is urging him to write a Mass in order to persuade the Pope not to proceed with his plan to abandon polyphony and destroy all of the great music of the past.  Palestrina refuses, claiming he is too old and that, in any case, God no longer speaks through him. Borromeo is furious and storms out with veiled threats of what will happen if he fails to comply.
The mood changes, his son and pupil leave and the stage darkens, as a series of visions occur. Palestrina endures the pleadings of a ghostly chorus of famous dead composers, all entreating Palestrina to once more take up his pen. A chorus of angels then appear and serenely introduces the actual opening motif that is eventually used by Palestrina throughout the Missa Papae Marcelli.  He then receives a visitation by the ghost of his late wife, who brings a message of peace and reconciliation.
The walls of the room vanish, replaced by a representation of Heaven, before dissolving again, as the Gloria from the Mass ends and the stage returns to being the music room, with Palestrina asleep, surrounded by the many pages of his now finished Mass. Ighino and Silla return and leaf through the scattered manuscript. The son is impressed but the pupil Silla says that a Mass written in a single night by an old man surely cannot be very inspired. Pfitzner answers this musically, as the orchestra swells in a huge and triumphant peroration with tolling bells, all indicating the opposite.
  
Act Two
A thrilling, driving, prelude scored for a large orchestra including six horns, four trumpets, and four trombones dispel the elegiac mood of the first act. It is now a few weeks later, at the great hall of Cardinal Madruscht's palace in Trent. The considerable political bickering that occurs during the council meeting is coloured by highly effective portraits of some of the cardinals and archbishops, while humour is well observed too, as the Spanish delegation mocks and insults the Italians.  Throughout this very busy act the orchestration is colourful and highly original. The action builds to a major confrontation between the Cardinals of various nationalities, a partisan rabble that wanders in from the street outside and the soldiers called in to restore order. Some of the rabble are shot dead, the rest are taken away to face torture on the rack. Ultimately however agreement is reached and the Pope has agreed to suspend plans to consign polyphonic music to the flames, as he now awaits the new Mass.
 
Act Three
Following this debacle, the action (such as it is) returns to the calmer atmosphere of the Palestrina household some two weeks later. After another wistful prelude, the scene opens with Palestrina, now frail following his release from prison, his Mass having been seized, seated with his son.
His pupil Silla has run away to Florence to study the new musical styles.  Following an impressive fanfare, Pope Pius IV himself comes to the house, borne on a litter and flanked by Cardinal Borromeo with eight others, to thank Palestrina for his Mass, which he adores. The Pope offers him a lifetime post to lead the choir of the Sistine Chapel.  Off-stage street singers, accompanied by mandolins, praise Palestrina as the saviour of music.
After the Pope leaves, Cardinal Borromeo dismisses the others and then begs forgiveness for all that as gone before, particularly the need to imprison his old friend, in a highly emotional final scene, before leaving Palestrina alone, sitting at the organ, as dusk falls and the cries of "Evviva Palestrina" echo from the streets below. They too die away and the opera concludes quietly on a final held D minor chord with a single, softly-sounding D from the organ.
 

The world premiere of Palestrina took place on 12 June 1917 at the Prinzregententheater in Munich, under the baton of Bruno Walter, who retained a lifelong admiration for the work. This theatre had attained something of a reputation for presenting contemporary operas in spite of the war, and the production was particularly well-cast, with the great tenor Karl Erb singing the title role, Luise Willer as the ghost of his recently deceased wife Lukrezia, Maria Ivogün as his son Ighino, two star baritones Emil Schipper and Fritz Feinhals sharing the demanding role of Cardinal Borromeo during the first run and the role of Silla, Palestrina's pupil, sung by the fine house soprano, Emmy Krüger.

The Prinzregententheater, Munich circa 1920, and much as it must have looked for the premiere of Palestrina. The Brendan G Carroll Collection.

The work was much admired by Thomas Mann who, in his Reflections on an Unpolitical Man, written in 1917 as a partial response to the  work's premiere, commented at length on the opera's all-pervading atmosphere of weltschmerz (world-weariness) and the deep impression given of a composer's 'final, late utterance'. "Pfitzner" he went on, "anticipated the march of the new with an intellectual melancholy and his opera Palestrina is a work that, as the last stone in the edifice of romantic opera, was truly in love with death"

Many critics admired the luxuriant orchestration, effective choral writing and well-written libretto, though some disliked the continual sermonising and (the second act aside) the general lack of dramatic action.

Poster for the Swiss propaganda tour of the first production of Palestrina in November 1917.

The opera was successful enough however, for this initial production to transfer on tour to Switzerland as a guest staging in Basel, Bern and Zurich, in November 1917, mounted as a propaganda exercise by the German Foreign Ministry to promote high German culture in the face of the likely, coming defeat. It must have been quite a difficult undertaking under wartime conditions. In addition, as an indication of the work's importance, Pfitzner was invited by Polydor to record the three preludes from the score (these recordings are of the greatest rarity today - the prelude to Act 2 can be played at the bottom of this page) and it was also soon heard in Berlin and other German cities, finally reaching the hallowed stage of the Vienna State Opera in May 1919 conducted by Pfitzner himself, alternating with Strauss's new opera  Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Pfitzner always maintained civil relations with Strauss, while privately disliking him. His attitude probably worsened during this period when Pfitzner felt his own opera was being somewhat overshadowed by the attention being paid to Strauss's Frau.  

The late Marcel Prawy once told me a funny story of Strauss and Pfitzner meeting backstage during rehearsals, and during the conversation (in which it became apparent that Pfitzner regarded himself as a much more profound composer than Strauss) he suddenly said, in a loud voice so that others might hear : "Do not forget my dear Strauss that I spent ten years alone writing my Palestrina!" and walked off with a satisfied smirk. Strauss turned to some people he knew standing nearby and said (with Pfitzner still within earshot): "Poor fellow - if he finds it so difficult to compose, why does he do it?"

While Palestrina enjoyed steady success in Germany and Austria, it did not travel abroad and had to wait 80 years before being staged professionally in London (at Covent Garden, January 1997) and in New York later that same year, at Lincoln Centre.

Pfitzner's own career became ever more controversial, particularly when he decided enthusiastically and openly to admire Adolf Hitler. The two actually met in 1923 but did not get on, and Hitler erroneously believed Pfitzner was Jewish, a mistaken belief that persisted, even when Hermann Goering later proved him wrong."I want nothing further to do with this little old Rabbi" he reportedly said to a friend, the poet Dieter Eckhart, who had introduced them.

Hitler was further encouraged in his belief by none other than Winifred Wagner, who was also convinced he was half Jewish. Consequently, Pfitzner never received any official post from the new government (though he was offered a minor, honorary title of Reichskultursenator which he gratefully accepted, a decision that caused him some difficulty after WW2). After 1936 he became increasingly marginalised.

But was Pfitzner actually a Nazi? Certainly, he was never a member of the Party. Moreover, many of his closest friends were Jews, including Bruno Walter, while  Palestrina  is actually dedicated to the prominent Jewish businessman Willy Levin (who, by the way, is also the dedicatee of Strauss's Elektra! In fact, the role of the Commerzienrat in Strauss's opera Intermezzo is based on him).

Pfitzner's close friendship with Bruno Walter, together with his refusal to write a new "Aryan" score to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream  (to replace that by Mendelssohn) on the grounds that he could not possibly write anything better than a work that was already perfect in every respect, probably ensured his name was soon on the Nazi blacklist. It was, perhaps, also noted that Pfitzner had often conducted Mendelssohn's music for the play earlier in his career, in celebrated productions staged by another friend, Max Reinhardt - who was another prominent Jew.

The Nazi Government acted swiftly after seizing power and Pfitzner was prematurely retired in 1934 from his professorship at the Munich Academy, on a very small pension of just a few hundred marks a month.

While he entertained hopes of a new position or even a commission to compose music (he lobbied hard to be asked to write a hymn for the 1934 Nuremberg rally but his plea was ignored), he was eventually ostracised by senior Nazis. Moreover, his persistent attempt to get his Jewish childhood friend, the noted journalist Paul Cossman released from incarceration in 1934  (he was re-arrested later and died in Theresienstadt in 1942)  cannot have helped matters and this advocacy probably led to him being investigated by the Gestapo.

In fact, Pfitzner's attitude to "the Jewish question" was somewhat peculiar, bordering on the schizophrenic. While, like many of his generation, he could make virulent anti-semitic statements when occasion demanded, he was also capable of illogical and contradictory remarks, chiefly because he regarded "Jewishness" more a cultural trait rather than a racial one. For example, in 1930, he stated in an article in the Suddeutsche Zeitung that "while Jewry might pose an acute danger to German spiritual life and its culture, many Jews have done a lot for Germany. Anti-Semitism per se is therefore something we should condemn."  This stance was unlikely to endear him to the Nazis.

Eventually becoming aware of the absurdity of the prevailing, growing, anti-Jewish position, as the 1930s drew to an end, he even joked to a friend (in 1938) that he was afraid to go and see a famous eye doctor in Munich because "his great grandmother had once observed a quarter-Jew crossing the street..."

In spite of his growing isolation, his music was still frequently performed during WW2, especially in Vienna, where Palestrina was given gala performances in 1939 and 1944 in celebration of his 70th and 75th birthdays respectively. He also continued to compose. A fifth opera Das Herz  appeared in 1930 and a Symphony, two Cello Concerti and a very fine Sextet for Clarinet, String Quartet and Piano were written during the war years.

As WW2 came to an end however, Pfitzner was almost destitute, and his home had been destroyed in an allied bombing raid on Munich. Even though he was (by then) very frail and afflicted with mental health issues, he nevertheless had to undergo a de-Nazification trial in 1948 at which Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Arnold Schoenberg and Alma Mahler all wrote testimonials in his defence: not a bad supporter's list for a supposed Nazi zealot. Schoenberg's support was particularly notable, as the two had never been friends and Pfitzner had frequently dismissed twelve-tone music in his many pompous articles in the press.

Yet it did not really matter in the end when the verdict came. He was classed as a mitlaüfer (a fellow traveller or supporter) and he died in an old-people's home in Salzburg the following year on the 22nd of May, confused and bitter, his reputation in ruins.

A few months before he died, Josef Krips managed to present one final gala performance of Palestrina  in celebration of Pfitzner's 80th birthday, with Hans Hotter as Borromeo and a young Julius Patzak in the title role. Perhaps fittingly, it was the last music Pfitzner was to hear before his death.

Since his death, his reappraisal and rehabilitation has been slow but gradual. Many recordings have appeared in recent years of  his orchestral music, chamber music and concerti. As for Palestrina, it remains the work by which he is chiefly remembered and its survival can perhaps be dated back to a celebrated production from the 1955 Salzburg Festival, under the inspired baton of Rudolf Kempe, with a starry cast led by Max Lorenz, Elisabeth Söderström, Walter Berry, Gottlob Frick and Paul Schoeffler.  It was broadcast and has been released on records many times, which in turn, has led to a number of other fine recordings in the years since.

On stage, it can still be encountered in Germany, but it has resolutely failed to secure a foothold in the mainstream, international repertory. Pfitzner's hope that his opera would one day stand as a beacon of German operatic tradition in the wider world has failed to materialise, but at least in Germany, it retains a place, his wartime notoriety notwithstanding.

Perhaps I should leave the last word to Bruno Walter, whose devotion to Pfitzner's music never wavered, in spite of many difficulties in their relationship over the years, particularly after 1933.  On February 16, 1962, the day before he died, the aged maestro wrote to Pfitzner's widow, in what was to be his last letter:-

"Despite all the dark experiences of today, I am still confident that Palestrina  will remain. The work has all the elements of immortality......"

Brendan G Carroll © 2017