Though most of his music is rarely heard today, Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949) once had a large and avid following. The opening works on tonight’s program, in fact, were first played during weeklong celebrations of Pfitzner’s music, and some of his supporters were among the most discriminating listeners of the day. Bruno Walter, who conducted the premiere of Palestrina in Munich on June 12, 1917, told Thomas Mann that its music was matched only by that of “the supreme composers of the past.”
Still performed in major opera houses, Palestrina—more than any other work by Pfitzner—gives a sense of why some of his contemporaries lionized him. As a person, Pfitzner could be difficult and even repellent, but in Palestrina (for which he wrote the libretto, after rejecting efforts by others), he showed his best side, despite obvious elements of wish fulfillment in the plot. In the opera, the sixteenth-century composer Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina, through divine inspiration, successfully saves the great tradition of Renaissance polyphony from dilettantes and power-wielding church officials. Pfitzner plainly identified with Palestrina, viewing himself as an inspired artist, a link in a great chain of musical creativity, one who guarded the romantic tradition against those he regarded as philistines and musical extremists.
Each act of the opera opens with an affecting instrumental piece. The Prelude to Act I sets the tone with its sublime polyphony, a modern orchestral response to Palestrina’s pellucid counterpoint; the plaintive strains at once evoke the creative mind in a state of inspiration and serve as a lament for Palestrina’s dead wife, whose image haunts the opening act. The mood shifts from melancholy contemplation to violent action in the second act, which depicts discord at the Council of Trent, the boisterous Prelude representing those earthly powers that are inimical to art. The world-weary Prelude to Act III is heavy with the knowledge of “the way things really are,” to use Machiavelli’s phrase—knowledge contemplated, however, from a lofty philosophical perch.
In line with his desire to remain true to the old while creating the new, Pfitzner wrote his Violin Concerto in B minor in a form both traditional and innovative. He conducted its premiere in Nuremberg on June 4, 1924, with the Australian violinist Alma Moodie (to whom the work is dedicated) as soloist. In the first of the three main sections—performed as a single movement—the agitated opening measures employ the familiar musical language of the Romantics, yet the structure of the first section has its surprises. Three distinct themes are presented at the outset, the third of which—anguished and chromatic—unpredictably gives rise to a set of seven variations. A cadenza for solo violin leads directly into the second large section, which proceeds along unexpected lines, not only because of the absence of the solo violin—the oboe sings the treble line at the beginning and end—but also because of the caustic harmonies heard midway through the section. The violin returns for the finale, which dances with a leisurely, courtly grace, despite occasional reminiscences of the fierce struggles encountered in the opening section.