Hans Pfitzner – Scherzo in C minor (1888) for orchestra
(b. Moscow, 5 May 1869 – d. Salzburg, 22 May 1949)
Hans Pfitzner’s ‘musical legend’ Palestrina (1912-15) is rightly considered to be a supreme masterpiece in Germany and Austria, yet it is rarely performed elsewhere. The opera’s three orchestral preludes have had a rather wider circulation in concerts and on recordings. Palestrina is an allegory of the position of the artist in society; Pfitzner draws telling connections between the 16th century Italian master and his own position at a time of particular political and cultural turbulence. Moving ahead chronologically, Pfitzner’s conflicted relationship with the oncoming Nazi régime presents us with a personality unable or unwilling to sift through the implications of his actions.
He was born in Moscow but moved with his German parents back to Germany when still a toddler. After completing his musical studies in Frankfurt, he went to Berlin where he taught at the Stern Conservatory and became Kapellmeister at the Theater des Westens. After several student works – of which the present Scherzo is one – Pfitzner began his compositional career proper with two operas: Der arme Heinrich (‘Poor Heinrich’, premiered in Mainz, 1895)) and Die Rose vom Liebesgarten (‘The rose from the garden of love’, Elberfeld, 1901), both works heavily indebted to Wagner. In the meantime, in 1899 he married Mimi Kwast , the daughter of one of his former Frankfurt professors, and the couple moved to Munich. It was not until he was close to the age of 40 that Pfitzner was offered a respectable position, that of opera director and head of the Strasbourg Conservatory in Alsace-Lorraine. Directing performances in this far western outpost of Germany, Pfitzner saw himself as a bulwark defending the German nation, values and culture against a ‘degenerate’ and ‘corrupt’ France: he wanted to establish his position in the musical chain that led back through Wagner, Schumann, Beethoven and Bach. Certainly the Nazis tried to exploit his conservative and nationalistic views, awarding him the title of Reich Senator for the Arts. However, his unwillingness to kowtow to the National Socialist party was more pronounced than were his capitulations to it. During his Strasbourg tenure his greatest composition, the opera Palestrina, was premiered under the baton of Bruno Walter in 1917; the eminent novelist Thomas Mann recognized a kindred spirit in this opera, one that reflected his own notion of humanity. …
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